Abstract: Engaging Audiences beyond the Academy on the Business of Innovation

Alexander Magoun


In 2003, 27 percent of Americans aged 25 and older had a bachelor's degree; even fewer studied business history. The absence of scholarly books among business history bestsellers reinforces an impression of irrelevance. Yet the popularity of published business history indicates larger audiences that would appreciate scholarly contributions. How can we engage those publics in more thoughtful consideration of the history of business? This presentation offers one model of engagement. The David Sarnoff Library receives 600 inquiries a year from amateur and professional researchers, who usually have a superficial understanding of Sarnoff and the company he led, the Radio Corporation of America. As a patent monopoly, RCA became a target of antitrust opinion during Sarnoff's career, while the tragic lives of two inventors, Edwin Armstrong and Philo Farnsworth, fuel simplistic portraits of complex stories of idealism, invention, innovation, regulation, profit, and competition. I will explain how I have used grassroots techniques to propagate a more nuanced view of Sarnoff and RCA. It remains to be seen whether these will temper the reflexive appeal of lone inventors versus a corporate monopoly, but there is some evidence to indicate the emergence of new perspectives.