Peter Goldmark: CBS's In-House Genius
By Mike J. Brewster
Inside CBS headquarters at 485 Madison Ave. in New York City during the height of World War II, CBS Chairman Bill Paley desperately clung to the radio era. His famous correspondents in Europe, led by Edward R. Murrow, had given the network a leg up on David Sarnoff's NBC in terms of war coverage, and Paley didn't want to invest in a fad that would siphon away financial resources and talent from his battle with the rival network.
Yet, Paley was a smart businessman. So even as he fretted about the demise of radio and as Sarnoff readied the bigger and more highly regarded NBC for the Television Age, Paley hedged his bets and tolerated a group of eccentric inventors toiling away a far-flung corner of the CBS building. The most prominent of these was a Hungarian immigrant, Peter Goldmark, who had originally been hired CBS on Jan. 1, 1936, as its chief TV engineer. Goldmark and the team he built at the CBS Research Center, which Paley required to be self-funded by landing outside clients, eventually repaid Paley's shaky faith in them tenfold.
In his 11 years as chief TV engineer, Goldmark developed both the original technology for color TV and the concept of video recording, which led to development of the VCR. But he's even more well-known for a later achievement: creating the long-playing (LP) recording technique, which revolutionized the way people listened to music. As Renville McMann, who succeeded Goldmark as president of the CBS Research Center now says: "Paley was a very intimidating person. And he had this crazy Hungarian inventor somewhere in the building, and no one really kept track of what he was doing." Fortunately, as it turned out.
Goldmark was born in Hungary on Dec. 2, 1906, to a family steeped in music and art. A superior cellist as a child, Goldmark decided against a career in music and instead studied engineering. After receiving his doctorate from the University of Vienna in 1931, he went to work at a British radio company for two years before the growing Nazi shadow convinced Goldmark and several other family members to emmigrate to America.
After unsuccessfully trying to land a job at RCA upon his arrival in the U.S. in 1933, Goldmark was finally hired at CBS. Once there, he began to wonder why the infant medium of TV had to be limited to black and white. Inspired by the color-steeped scenery of the 1939 film Gone With the Wind, Goldmark decided to focus the Research Center on color TV, thinking that Paley might become more interested in the new technology if CBS created a unique color product. Goldmark and his team developed what became known as the "field sequential system," a method of sending a series of primary colors to the eye.
Backed by CBS, this system briefly became the standard in the U.S. in 1950 before it was realized that Goldmark was too ahead of his time: Few of the 15 million black-and-white TV owners back then wanted to buy new sets that could receive the color signal. Eventually, a system developed by RCA, more compatible with existing TVs, became the new standard.
In 1946, freed from his TV obligations, Goldmark turned to a new endeavor that interested him: trying to improve the poor quality of 10-inch, 78-rpm recording disks, which could play his beloved classical music only a few minutes at a time before having to be flipped over. An entire symphony might run five or six of these disks.
Despite his limited knowledge of the sound-recording process, Goldmark and a group of his engineers began attempting to develop a better record in 1945. Through testing of different materials at different speeds, Goldmark eventually found the right combination: a vinyl compound played at 33-1/3 rpm. By 1948, when the LP was introduced to the public, it could play over 40 minutes of music. Quickly adopted, the LP helped rock 'n' roll, which came along not long afterward, become a mass-market genre.
Breaking new ground in two entirely different areas of commercial entertainment came at a price for Goldmark and his employees. "He was incredibly driven, and anything he pursued was the only thing that mattered to him at that moment, at the exclusion of everything else," says McMann, who joined the center in 1955. "Many of the engineers and researchers had families, of course, and couldn't give that same level of commitment. He could be very difficult about that." Goldmark, in fact, was married three times and divorced twice, and had six children by his first two wives.
While the LP marked his career watershed, Goldmark and the Research Center continued to churn out new technology, mostly in an effort to keep the organization solvent. In partnership with Lockheed and Eastman Kodak, CBS helped develop a video-transmission system for the first satellite-reconnaissance program, a technology used mostly to beam pictures of the Soviet Union back from space. Paley, without security clearance, didn't even know about the project until it was already far along.
And Goldmark's field sequential color-TV system eventually saw its days of glory, as well. CBS and McMann proposed using Goldmark's technology for creating color video on the Apollo mission and was subsequently used on all of the Apollo flights.
When Goldmark died in car accident in Westchester County, N.Y., on Dec. 7, 1977, he was still working on new projects, including a two-way video-security system for the town of Stamford, Conn. "Goldmark did all sorts of things in the audio and visual fields that were way ahead of their time," says McMann. Just two weeks before his death, Goldmark was awarded the National Medal of Science by President Carter in a White House ceremony. "People just weren't ready for many of the advances and, eventually, we caught up with his technology."
As part of its 75th anniversary celebration, BusinessWeek is presenting a series of weekly profiles for the greatest innovators of the past 75 years, from science to government. BusinessWeek Online is joining in by adding more online-only profiles of The Great Innovators. In late September, 2004, BusinessWeek will publish a special commemorative issue on Innovation
Brewster is a New York-based writer