2019 CT Hall of Fame: Owen Young

The Consumer Technology Hall of Fame honors visionaries who have made a significant impact on the consumer technology industry. These leaders and entrepreneurs have laid the foundation for the technologies, products, services and apps that are improving lives around the world.

Owen Young will be inducted along with five other industry leaders at an awards dinner on Wednesday evening, November 6, at SIR Stage37 in New York City. In addition, for the first time, CTA will also honor its Innovation Entrepreneur Award winners at the dinner. i3 magazine highlights this prestigious class. Please join us for the awards dinner as we celebrate this extraordinary group of honorees

Owen D. Young, Founder, RCA

If one person can be credited as “the father” of the consumer technology industry, it’s Owen D. Young. Over the summer of 1919, Young shepherded the nation’s leading radio patent holders into organizing the U.S.’s first radio company, RCA, which made the commercialization of radio and the creation of the consumer technology business possible.

Young was born on October 27, 1874, the only child of Smith and Ida Young, on the family dairy farm in the upstate town of Van Hornesville, NY. He started his schooling at the local little red schoolhouse, then the academy in East Springfield, then, at age 16, he enrolled at St. Lawrence. He earned his B.A. in 1894, then earned his law degree from Boston University two years later and joined the law practice of Charles Tyler in Boston.

Young became Tyler’s partner in 1907. Work with a prominent electrical company brought him to the attention of Charles Coffin, the co-founder and first president of GE. Coffin convinced Young to join GE as general counsel and VP in 1913.

In 1915, Young started negotiating the multi-million-dollar sale of the company’s Alexanderson Alternator, the world’s most powerful radio transmitter, to British Marconi, but World War I put the sale on hold. Once the war ended, negotiations resumed. But the U.S. Navy, citing national security, implored Young to not sell the powerful alternators to a foreign power.

Lacking another customer, Young set about organizing an American radio company at a time when “radio” was primarily a point-to-point Morse Code transmission technology, and the primary “wireless” patents were held by a number of companies, which kept any of them from further consumer product commercialization.

So, during the summer of 1919, Young herded, negotiated with, cajoled, and strong armed the largest commercial radio patent owners of the time – the U.S. Navy, AT&T, Westinghouse, American Marconi and United Fruit – into investing in an American radio company with GE. On October 17, 1919, the Radio Corporation of America – RCA – was incorporated, with Young serving as the company’s first CEO and president.

With radio patents now consolidated and readily available, and with AM technology enabling one-to-many broadcasting of voice and music, a thriving amateur radio market quickly emerged. On November 20, 1920, Westinghouse produced the RA-DA, the first factory mass produced radio and, therefore, the first consumer electronics product. Over the next few years, dozens of entrepreneurial radio manufacturing and broadcast companies were founded, creating a brand-new industry and a communications revolution.

Even with this onslaught of competition, Young led RCA to become both the world’s leading consumer technology and broadcast company. RCA established control of virtually all radio traffic in the western hemisphere, became the leading seller of radios and phonograph players, established the nation’s leading radio network (NBC) and the world’s best-selling record company, and engineered global agreements to divide the world into radio zones.

Young simultaneously maintained his position at GE, becoming that company’s board chair in 1922, and leading its move into the new consumer appliance business.

While running the two largest technology companies in the world, Young also conducted international diplomacy and advised Presidents Wilson, Harding, Hoover, Roosevelt and Truman on economic issues. In 1929, Young was named Time Magazine’s Man of the Year, the first and only consumer technology executive to be so honored.

In 1933, a federal court ordered Young to give up the chairmanship of RCA, leadership of which then passed to David Sarnoff. In 1939, Young retired from GE, but returned as board chair temporarily from 1942-44, before permanently retiring to the family farm in Van Hornseville, where the local high school he founded is now named for him.

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