This post was written by Sophia Natasha Sunseri, a CUNY graduate fellow at the New-York Historical Society who helped to process the James G. Harbord Papers.
Although James G. Harbord (1866-1947) is primarily remembered by historians as a Lieutenant General of the U.S. Army, his papers at the New-York Historical Society shed light on his role as Chairman of the Board at the Radio Corporation of America (RCA). Significantly, the correspondence that he exchanged during his time as Chairman reflects broader cultural and technological shifts taking place in the United States during the first half of the twentieth century.
The decades following 1900 witnessed more technological advances than the whole of previously recorded history, particularly in the field of communications. By the 1920s, radio was established as the first electronic mass medium. But it wasn’t until 1945 — two years before Harbord’s death — that television (or “radio with pictures,” as it was referred to in its infancy) began to rival the radio’s importance in modern life. Although RCA supported famed American inventors Philo Farnsworth and Vladimir Zworykin, who helped develop methods of image transmission, Harbord’s correspondence evinces an anxiety about television’s role as a universal means of communication, readily accessible to the masses. In a letter dated November 27, 1936, he writes
. . . television sets would be absolutely beyond the management of any one who was not able . . . to manage three or four adjustment knobs, etc. It would require some scientific knowledge. . . . I am sorry but it is not far enough along to be dependable or to be of any use or interest to anyone except a scientific person.
Despite Harbord’s reservations, RCA continued to invest heavily in the new technology. Over a ten-year period, it spent millions of dollars on research that culminated in the demonstration of RCA televisions at the 1939 World’s Fair in NYC. In the years that followed, Harbord’s initial hesitations were once again undermined by RCA’s success, as the equipment developed by Farnsworth and Zworykin received widespread acclaim. Even though television’s role as a medium of mass communication was a post-war phenomenon, by 1945 it had established a presence in numerous countries and was considered a potent means by which to disseminate news, propaganda, commercial advertisements, and entertainment.
Harbord’s correspondence ultimately reveals that his reach of influence extends beyond the realm of military history, firmly situating him within the broader cultural and technological landscape of the early twentieth century.