By Michelle Owens
At the time of the record purchase, the Josefowitz family was offered a deal on a carload of vinyl resin. The decision to make that purchase launched the improbable career of Samuel Josefowitz ’42, an entrepreneur who used his engineering expertise, his remarkable business acumen, and his appreciation of the arts to achieve unusual professional and personal success.
What began as a hobby at the dawn of the record era blossomed into a culture-by-mail empire, the forerunner of businesses like iTunes and Amazon that fundamentally altered the way music and books are distributed, enriching many lives by making culture newly accessible to people around the world.
And all the while, with his distinctive eye for art, Josefowitz was creating one of the world’s great art collections and raising cultural awareness internationally.
This spring, Josefowitz returned to the Rensselaer campus for the first time in many decades. At the 2009 Commencement ceremony in May, the university recognized his considerable business, cultural, and philanthropic achievements by awarding him an honorary doctor of engineering degree.
The week after his purchase of the vinyl disk, Josefowitz, then 24 years old, was sitting with his father and older brother David at lunch. His father, a Jewish industrialist, had managed to keep his family several steps ahead of both the communists and the Nazis with a series of well-timed moves, from Ukraine to Lithuania to Germany to Switzerland and then to America where, in 1946, he owned a chemical factory and trading business on Long Island. He interrupted his lunch to take a call from a friend who owned a plastic molding factory.
The friend had just received an allocation of a 20-ton carload of vinyl resin that he did not need for his own production. He offered it to the elder Josefowitz at its factory price of 20 cents a pound. Vinyl was in short supply in the aftermath of World War II and, as Josefowitz recalls, worth over $2 a pound on the black market. Josefowitz’s father returned to lunch with a sigh. “Somebody will make a fortune on that carload,” he said. “But I am not a black marketer and am not about to become one.”
Samuel Josefowitz, who was still under the spell of his recent record purchase, had an inspiration: “Why don’t we use the vinyl to make records?” he said. It was a question that launched an innovative and far-reaching enterprise. Josefowitz got a kitchen scale and weighed his new vinyl record to find out that one pound of vinyl resin could actually make three records, worth $6 at retail.