Born in Russia, Sarnoff's early childhood was spent studying to be a rabbi. He emigrated to the US in 1900, and was forced to work to feed his parents and siblings. He was selling Yiddish-language newspapers in New York. He Joined the Marconi Wireless Company in 1906, and studied electrical engineering at the Pratt Institute.
When he was put in charge of radio broadcasting at RCA, he soon recognized the potential of television. He was determined to pioneer the medium, but could not find the appropriate technology. Then in 1929, Vladimir Zworykin invented the all-electric camera tube. Zworykin demonstrated both the iconoscope and kinescope to the Institute of Radio Engineers. In attendance was David Sarnoff. When the two met, Zworykin promised Sarnoff he could build viable television systems with a mere $100,000 grant in 2 years. He was off by several orders of magnitude and several years, but Sarnoff decided to invest (but that time he had already became president of RCA). He hired Zworykin to develop his television system for RCA. The final cost of the enterprise was closer to $50 million. On the way they had to battle a young genius inventor Philo T. Farnsworth who managed to secure patents for his solution to broadcasting moving pictures.
In 1929, Sarnoff engineered the purchase of The Victor Talking Machine Company, the nations largest manufacturer or records and phonogrphs, merging radio-phonogrph production at Victor's large manufacturing facility in Camden, NJ.
Initially, the Great Depression caused RCA to cut costs, but Zworykin project was protected. After nine years of hard work, Sarnoff's determination and Zworykin's genius, they had a commercial system ready to launch. F.D. Roosevelt was the first president to be shown on TV (New York World's Fair 1939). Meanwhile, an alternative system was adopted in Britain and used by the BBC in 1936. However, World War II put a halt to a dynamic growth of the early television.
After the war, RCA introduced monochrome television on a wide scale to the American population. In 1953, RCA's color-TV standard was adopted as the standard for American color TV.
In 1970, at 79, Sarnoff retired. The next year he died in his sleep of cardiac arrest. Without his leadership, RCA quickly faded during the 1970s, and today exists in name only as a subsidiary of General Electric.