Setting up a record company #5: Perfecting the gramophone

This week we plan to tell the story of how Emile Berliner and Fred Gaisberg set up their record company in America. Seven blog entries on seven days. This is day #5. Its 1895. Whilst Berliner is perfecting the shellac disc and Fred Gaisberg is on the road raising money for the new gramophone business, Gaisberg can’t escape the fact that a major problem with the gramophone is that it remains 100% manually operated unlike the new cylinder playing phonograph (that Thomas Edison’s company had just released) which has a clockwork driven motor that makes the playback level consistent. Berliner’s gramophone discs may sound better than Edison’s cylinders but the gramophone itself still requires the steady hand of a decent operator to play properly.

Gaisberg later recalled, “My equipment was the simple hand-driven 7-inch turntable. As it was without a governor I had to rotate it with cool nerves and a steady notion, or the music would play out of tune.”

Whilst he was pitching the gramophone to the Philadelphian businessmen who would later fund the gramophone business, Gaisberg spotted an ad in a local paper that read “Why wear yourself out treading a sewing-machine? Fit one of our clockwork motors.” Fred saw that such a device might solve the problem with the gramophone. He began a search for somebody to build a clockwork motor that would take the gramophone to the next level. That search led him to the door of a young mechanic called Eldridge Johnson who worked in Camden, New Jersey who he introduced to Berliner.

Fred later recalled “I can see him now as he was when I went to that little shop across the river…tall, lanky, stooping and taciturn, deliberate in his movements and always assuming a low voice with a Down-East Yankee drawl…
His quick, inventive brain saw what [we were] trying to do. On his own account he built and submitted to our directors a clockwork gramophone motor which was simple, practical and cheap. It was the answer to our prayers and brought Johnson an order for two hundred motors.”

It would begin a long and prosperous relationship between Berliner and Johnson and they would go on to form the Victor Talking Machine Company, one of the recording giants of the first half of the twentieth century.

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One thought on “Setting up a record company #5: Perfecting the gramophone

  1. Fantastic blog — where would the entertainment world be without that historic meeting between Gaisberg, Berliner, and Johnson? Many thanks for including him here — the EMI archive has some useful resources on Johnson as well, copies of about 30 years’ worth of his diaries, and many of the contracts between him and the Gramophone and Typewriter Company. Fascinating stuff!

    Fans of Johnson who happen to be in Delaware, Johnson’s home state, might be interested to know that his eponymous museum is once again open and operating on its old schedule. It was shut down almost completely following state budget cuts a couple years back (opening times were restricted to one day a month and for pre-booked school trips), but it’s back in business, and completely free! Some amazing things to see there if you’re ever in Dover, Delaware.

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