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Erik Barnouw

Erik Barnouw

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Erik Barnouw was a U.S.
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

 historian of radio and television broadcasting.

According to the Scribner Encyclopia of American Lives, Erik Barnouw was born in Den Haag in the Netherlands
The Netherlands is a constituent country of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, located mainly in North-West Europe and with several islands in the Caribbean. Mainland Netherlands borders the North Sea to the north and west, Belgium to the south, and Germany to the east, and shares maritime borders...

, the son of Adriaan (a history teacher), and Ann Eliza Barnouw (who tutored English). The Barnouws came to America in 1919, after the end of World War I when his father became one of the editors of the Weekly Review and later was the Queen Wilhelmina Professor at Columbia University. Erik attended Horace Mann School
Horace Mann School
Horace Mann School is an independent college preparatory school in New York City, New York, United States founded in 1887 known for its rigorous course of studies. Horace Mann is a member of the Ivy Preparatory School League, educating students from all across the New York tri-state area from...

 in New York City.

Barnouw, thereafter, went to Princeton University
Princeton University
Princeton University is a private research university located in Princeton, New Jersey, United States. The school is one of the eight universities of the Ivy League, and is one of the nine Colonial Colleges founded before the American Revolution....

 where he was an editor of the Nassau Literary Magazine and collaborated with Joshua Logan
Joshua Logan
Joshua Lockwood Logan III was an American stage and film director and writer.-Early years:Logan was born in Texarkana, Texas, the son of Susan and Joshua Lockwood Logan. When he was three years old his father committed suicide...

 on the Princeton Triangle Club
Princeton Triangle Club
The Princeton Triangle Club is a theater troupe at Princeton University. Founded in 1891, it is the oldest touring collegiate musical-comedy troupe in the United States, and the only co-ed collegiate troupe that takes an original student-written musical on a national tour every year...

's musical play Zuider Zee , after the success of his play Open Collars , which he wrote for Princeton's Theatre Intime and which spoofed undergraduate life at the University. In the spring of his junior year, he and fellow Princetonian Bretaigne Windust
Bretaigne Windust
Bretaigne Windust was a French-born theatre, film, and television director.-Early life:He was born Ernest Bretaigne Windust in Paris, France, the son of English violin virtuoso Ernest Joseph Windust and singer Elizabeth Amory Day from New York City...

, together with Harvard juniors Charles Crane Leatherbee and Kingsley Perry, contributed $100 each towards founding the University Players
University Players
The University Players was primarily a summer stock theater company located in West Falmouth, Cape Cod, Massachusetts, from 1928 to 1932. It was formed in 1928 by eighteen college undergraduates...

, a summer stock company in West Falmouth on Cape Code, Massachusetts. Over the course of 5 summers on Cape Cod and two winter seasons in Baltimore, Maryland, this company gave the professional start to the acting careers of such future stars as Margaret Sullavan
Margaret Sullavan
Margaret Brooke Sullavan was an American stage and film actress. Sullavan started her career on the stage in 1929. In 1933 she caught the attention of movie director John M. Stahl and had her debut on the screen that same year in Only Yesterday...

, Henry Fonda
Henry Fonda
Henry Jaynes Fonda was an American film and stage actor.Fonda made his mark early as a Broadway actor. He also appeared in 1938 in plays performed in White Plains, New York, with Joan Tompkins...

, Joshua Logan
Joshua Logan
Joshua Lockwood Logan III was an American stage and film director and writer.-Early years:Logan was born in Texarkana, Texas, the son of Susan and Joshua Lockwood Logan. When he was three years old his father committed suicide...

, Myron McCormick
Myron McCormick
Myron McCormick was an American actor of stage, radio and film.McCormick was born as Walter Myron McCormick in Albany, Indiana....

, Kent Smith
Kent Smith
Kent Smith was an American actor who had a lengthy career in film, theater, and television.Born Frank Kent Smith in New York, New York, Smith made his acting debut on Broadway in 1932 in and, after spending a few years there, moved to Hollywood, California, where he made his film debut in The...

, James Stewart
James Stewart (actor)
James Maitland Stewart was an American film and stage actor, known for his distinctive voice and his everyman persona. Over the course of his career, he starred in many films widely considered classics and was nominated for five Academy Awards, winning one in competition and receiving one Lifetime...

, and Mildred Natwick
Mildred Natwick
Mildred Natwick was an American stage and film actress.- Early life :A native of Baltimore, Maryland, she was born to Joseph and Mildred Marion Dawes Natwick. She graduated from the Bryn Mawr School in Baltimore...

 among others.

Prior to becoming a professor at Columbia University in 1946, Barnouw spent the mid-1930s writing, producing, and directing a number of radio shows for the CBS
CBS Broadcasting Inc. is a major US commercial broadcasting television network, which started as a radio network. The name is derived from the initials of the network's former name, Columbia Broadcasting System. The network is sometimes referred to as the "Eye Network" in reference to the shape of...

 and NBC
The National Broadcasting Company is an American commercial broadcasting television network and former radio network headquartered in the GE Building in New York City's Rockefeller Center with additional major offices near Los Angeles and in Chicago...

 radio networks. He also taught Writing for Radio at Columbia on a part-time basis. During World War II he oversaw the Armed Forces Radio Service's education division, based in Washington, D.C. He won a Peabody Award
Peabody Award
The George Foster Peabody Awards recognize distinguished and meritorious public service by radio and television stations, networks, producing organizations and individuals. In 1939, the National Association of Broadcasters formed a committee to recognize outstanding achievement in radio broadcasting...

 in 1944, for a documentary series, "Words at War." http://www.columbia.edu/cu/news/01/07/erikBarnouw.html

Barnouw was elected chairman of the Writers Guild Of America
Writers Guild of America
The Writers Guild of America is a generic term referring to the joint efforts of two different US labor unions:* The Writers Guild of America, East , representing TV and film writers East of the Mississippi....

 in 1957 and also served on the Board of Governors of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.

In 1978 he became chief of the Library of Congress
Library of Congress
The Library of Congress is the research library of the United States Congress, de facto national library of the United States, and the oldest federal cultural institution in the United States. Located in three buildings in Washington, D.C., it is the largest library in the world by shelf space and...

's newly created Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division.

He is best known for his history of U.S. radio and television, a three volume series first published in 1966. Volume 1, "A Tower in Babel," covered radio until 1933; the second volume, "'The Golden Web," covered broadcasting until the 1950s; the final volume, "The Image Empire," discussed the rise and growth of television. The New York Times Book Reviews (28 November 1971, p. BR 59) praised Barnouw's work as "continually readable and sharply observant." Barnouw is also known for his history of documentary films, and for his film about Hiroshima and Nagasaki
Atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki
During the final stages of World War II in 1945, the United States conducted two atomic bombings against the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan, the first on August 6, 1945, and the second on August 9, 1945. These two events are the only use of nuclear weapons in war to date.For six months...

, which the L.A. Times said shook the industry.

In 1971 Barnouw received a George Polk Award.

Barnouw died in Fair Haven, Vermont. The New York Times quoted his former editor Sheldon Mayer
Sheldon Mayer
Sheldon Mayer was an American comic book writer, artist and editor. One of the earliest employees of Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson's National Allied Publications, Mayer produced almost all of his comics work for the company that would become known as DC Comics.He is credited with rescuing the...

, "...Barnouw had an eye for the scoundrels, and the fakes, and the dangerous people. His genius reached generations of Americans across the radio airwaves, on the television screen and in the classroom."

Since 1983, the Organization of American Historians
Organization of American Historians
The Organization of American Historians , formerly known as the Mississippi Valley Historical Association, is the largest professional society dedicated to the teaching and study of American history. OAH's members in the U.S...

 has awarded the Erik Barnouw Award
Erik Barnouw Award
The Erik Barnouw Award—also known as the OAH Erik Barnouw Award—is named after the late Erik Barnouw, a Columbia University historian and professor who was a specialist in mass media...

 for films about American history.

Selected writings

  • A Tower in Babel: A History of Broadcasting in the United States To 1933 , Oxford University Press, 1966.
  • The Golden Web: A History of Broadcasting in the United States 1933-1953, Oxford University Press, 1968.
  • The Image Empire: A History of Broadcasting in the United States from 1953, Oxford University Press, 1970.
  • Tube of Plenty: The Evolution of American Television, Oxford University Press, 1976 (second updated edition, 1992).
  • The Sponsor: Notes on a Modern Potentate, Oxford University Press, 1978 (new edition, 2005).
  • Indian Film, Oxford University Press, 1980 (with S. Krishnaswamy
    S. Krishnaswamy
    S. Krishnaswamy is an Indian documentary film-maker and writer who won the Padmashri award in 2009. His recent works include three documentaries on the Indian influence in Southeast Asia: Indian Imprints, A Different Pilgrimage, and Tracking Indian Footmarks...

  • The Magician and the Cinema, Oxford University Press, 1981.
  • International Encyclopedia of Communications, Oxford University Press, 1989. (editor)
  • Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film, Oxford University Press, 1993.
  • Media Marathon, Duke University Press, 1996 (an autobiography).
  • Media Lost and Found, Fordham University Press, 2001.


  • Hiroshima Nagasaki August, 1945, 1970
    • this film compiles footage shot shortly after the bombing by both Japanese and American cameramen.
    • the original footage was classified as "Secret" for decades and was only released to U.S. National Archives in 1967.

External links