Editorial: Seduced by a “First”

In the dark, desperate hours of some April night, I experienced a lapse of historical judgment. When my students commit the same error, I greet their pleas for mercy with gentle but certain scolding. My error? Happy to have found a cover picture for Antenna with relevance to one of the announcements inside, I fell for the accompanying product of a well-tooled public relations campaign to claim a “first.” Then, losing my head altogether, I failed to check either with any one of the Mercurians who knows better or with a recent scholarly reference, before blithely repeating what Chris Sterling called an “old wives’ tale long ago disproved.” Although I was in good company, including Daniel Boorstin and Eric Barnouw, I erred.

As many Antenna readers know, and several of you gently but certainly scolded, David Sarnoff was in New York City working for the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company of America when the Titanic sank. He was not on Nantucket, alone, receiving the first messages about the disaster. According to one version (Carl Dreher, Sarnoff: An American Success [1977]) he only hurried to his post atop the Wanamaker department store after learning elsewhere about the disaster. According to another (Kenneth Bilby, The General: David Sarnoff and the Rise of the Communications Industry [1986]) Sarnoff worked with two others. That said, Sarnoff apparently did spend hours helping to relay survivors’ names. (Thanks to Don Christiansen, Chris Sterling, and others for setting me straight. See the David Sarnoff Library website <http://www.davidsarnoff.org/> for a helpful summary of events based on scholarly evidence, augmented by an extensive bibliography on broadcast history.)

I guess that now I will have to be kinder to students who succumb to the temptation to apply superlatives like “first,” “biggest,” and so on. But the question remains, what is so compelling about being first? Why did David Sarnoff and his minions propagate the myth at such effort? Were not his accomplishments adequate as an innovator in both telecommunications technologies and business? While the merits of Sarnoff’s documented achievements (and their costs to others) remain subject to considerable debate, the magnitude of them is unquestionable. So why fabricate the tale of heroic telegraphy?

The pages of Antenna have carried numerous debates about “firsts” of various sorts, and with luck we will carry more. As one Mercurian offered, “people want some certainty: why else would they fund all this astrophysical research on the beginnings of the universe or watch all those documentaries on the origins of humanity? And everyone loves an argument over facts rather than theory.”

Yes, no question about it. But there is more to it, as well. Any reflections? Let’s explore this with more examples and even a theory or two, if you have one under your cap.

And again, my editorial apologies.

Pam Laird

Ocean Liner
Ocean Liner
%d bloggers like this: