The History of the Major Record Companies in the UK #4 Aeolian

This is the fourth and final extract from a wonderful book called “The Talking Machine Industry” written by Ogilvie Mitchell in 1924. This section covers the Aeolian Company of America, a frisky new arrival on the record scene in 1924 having started to make Vocalion phonographs and records in 1917.

Ogilvie, our scribe, seems to have drunk deep from the Aeolian PR cup and this extract feels at times more like a puff piece than his earlier pieces on Pathe Freres, The Gramophone Company and The Columbia Phonograph Company. He describes Aeolian as well financed, with a superior business model and delivering top notch products. He even concludes “we feel certain that, as time goes on, they will hold one of the most exalted positions in the talking machine world.” Aeolian would sell Vocalion with the year, so exiting the record business and the Aeolian business unwinding quickly thereafter…..

Two ladies playing on an Aeolian Player Piano in 1906

“The Aeolian Company of America first came into notice as the manufacturers of player-pianos and instruments of that genre. With untold capital behind them they forged ahead with remarkable vigour. A fine hall, with magnificent show-rooms and business premises, was erected on an advantageous site in New York, and as if by magic the great corporation bounded into the forefront of the musical manufacturing world. But this was not achieved without deep thought and careful planning. For a long time there had been active brains at work, considering, devising, scheming, and not until every action of the future had been thoroughly weighed and balanced was a move made. As soon as the company felt itself to be on a sound and solid basis it mentally bridged the Atlantic and set up an English house in Bond Street, London. The Aeolian Hall on this side, with its high-class concerts and musical entertainments, is now one of the most popular features of the West End, and the Aeolian Orchestra, a specially selected body of musicians, is second to none in thekingdom. The spirit of enterprise pervaded the minds of all those who were in any way connected with the firm, and it was this spirit that brought forth the Aeolian-Vocalion, the talking machine which is the company’s special product.

The Aeolian-Vocalion Talking Machine

We are told that, in the late summer of 1912, there arrived in London a Mr. F. J. Empson, a resident of Sydney, Australia. He brought with him a gramophone in which was embodied a wonderful patented device for controlling musical effects. This, in the opinion of its inventor, added so immeasurably to the musical value and charm of the instrument that he thought he had but to show it to manufacturers to secure its immediate adoption. As has been the fate of so many geniuses, mechanical and otherwise, since the world began, Mr. Empson found it impossible to gain a satisfactory audience with those whom he approached. Discouraged and depressed he purchased his passage home and was on the point of sailing, when he accidentally encountered a friend to whom he related his disappointing experiences. This friend was well acquainted with the officials of the Aeolian Company’s London house, and earnestly advised the poor, disheartened inventor to make one more attempt to have his contrivance exploited.

He told him of the company and directed him to their offices. With just one faint ray of hope illuminating the darkness of his mind, the inventor made his way to Bond Street. For the first time since his arrival in England the reception that he met with was satisfactory. The Aeolian officials were so impressed with the value of the new feature that they took an option on the patents, and instead of returning to Australia, he and his instrument were immediately shipped across to the head offices of the company in New York. There the directors and experts at once grasped the possibilities of the invention. Without delay they had the patents investigated, and on finding them sound and inclusive, closed with the inventor on a mutually satisfactory basis. Thus was the Aeolian-Vocalion, with its Graduola attachment, launched upon the world.

Apart from the advance made by the company in the style of their machines and the accuracy of reproduction of all records submitted to the test of the turntable, the Aeolian-Vocalion itself was voiceless, which means the firm manufactured no records of their own. That was to be a big consideration for the future. In the meantime the energies of the concern were concentrated upon the Graduola. This device obviated the use of different toned needles, the muting of horns, the opening and closing of shutters, and all the various methods which had been adopted of altering the tone of the gramophone to suit the ear of the listener. It gave into the hands of the operator a perfect means of controlling the reproduction of the record. Modulation of the voice of a singer could be governed at the will of the gramophone user, and in that way the listener could guide to his ear inflexions and variations which were more agreeable to him than the actual recording.

It may be said that this principle is altogether wrong, and that if you choose to vary the conception of the vocalist you do not get the true value of the voice. This is undoubtedly quite right, but it very often happens that the idea of the listener is at variance with the idea of the singer. We know many persons who have no liking for the forceful tones of Caruso, but by the use of the Graduola these may be so subdued that their beauty can be acknowledged and appreciated. The musical instinct of the listener imperceptibly directs him while he holds the little attachment in his hands.

The simple contrivance of Mr. Empson, like many other inventions, was merely the adaptation of a known fact to a new outlet. Everybody knows that air carries sound and that if the current be reversed the sound becomes fainter. Therein lies the secret of the Graduola. A slender, flexible tube connects the gramophone with the operator. At the end in the fingers of the manipulator is a valve which he pushes in or retracts according to his personal desire. Thus the sound given forth from the machine is regulated at the will of the performer. He, or she, can therefore listen to the record in the manner desired. It is as simple as A, B, C, but it had never been applied to the talking machine before the Aeolian-Vocalion made their arrangement with the inventor.

We have spoken of the Aeolian-Vocalion being voiceless, inasmuch as the company produced no records, but that deficiency has, happily for all gramophone enthusiasts, been adequately made good. After more than two years of unremitting experiment the company have placed upon the market records which will hold their own, if not surpass, any that have previously been brought before the public. To our knowledge they have scrapped thousands which they did not consider up to the mark, and from their well equipped factory at Hayes, nothing but the very best are issued.They have secured good artists, although the field has been somewhat restricted in consequence of other companies having enrolled the greatest of vocalists and instrumentalists, yet they have made a splendid start and we feel certain that, as time goes on, they will hold one of the most exalted positions in the talking machine world.”

Now that’s what I call a record company office. Delmark Records.

We came across this article about Legendary Jazz and Blues label Delmark Records. What we particularly loved was that the original founder Bob Koester, who set up Delmark Records in 1953, is still running the show and that he clearly has not bought into the concept of the paperless office.

There’s an Apple Mac under a pile of paper somewhere round here…

The label was formed in St Louis in 1953 and moved to Chicago in 1958 where it still resides. He recorded great records by Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, Bud Powell etc and is still putting out records and DVD’s today. He also continues to run Chicago’s Jazz Record Mart.

Great Logo

Bob at the controls in the studio

Bob, right, helping a customer at the Jazz Record Mart

Bob Koester, Sound Of The Hound salutes you for your contribution to the history of recorded music. Three woofs!!!

Ladies get the horn with nasty big gramophones & consign them to the closet! Victrola explained

By Carey Fleiner


The majority of record buyers at the turn of the twentieth century were women, and the record player, while an interesting, new technology, was also an invader into the tasteful sanctuary, that was, their home. Men’s literature, such as Scientific American or The Gramophone, touted the tech specs of talking machines – which needles to use, what was the latest in tone arm technology, and how, in terms of talking machine horns, size really does matter. But the open-horned, table-top gramophone was an awkward beast perched in a sitting room or parlour – they took up a lot of room, and the horns were vulgar dust-catchers.

Model from the Johnson Victrola Museum; volume control was literally shoving a sock down inside the horn (hence the expression, ‘Put a sock in it’) (author’s photo)

Thus the advent of disguising the gramophone as furniture. It was after all women who made the decisions about what furniture was or was not coming into their home at the turn of the century. The gramophone and its cultural advantages on the one hand and its awkward shape on the other posed a real dilemma for the modern woman: she had aspirations towards creating a charming parlour to serve as a sanctuary and private refuge for her family away from the outside world, but she also wanted to be a part of the new, progressive world.

Johnson spent the first few years of Victor drawing in women buyers with advertisements on the one hand, and the creation of the Victrola on the other – if women didn’t like the sight of the horn, no matter how beautiful or decorated they were

Loads of horns at the Johnson Victrola Museum, Dover, Delaware, USA (author’s photo)

(after all, this is the era where special covers were made to hide the naked legs of pianos), then the horn would have to be tucked away. It wasn’t an entirely new idea to camouflage the phonograph – there’d been, for example, a short-lived fad to disguise gramophones as table lamps!

A brief, interesting experiment in phonographic camouflage

And ladies were already accustomed to utilitarian machines doubling as furniture, especially considering the beauty of Singer Sewing Machine cabinets. Alexander Graham Bell, in fact, had devised a graphophone model that was married to the treadle of a sewing machine, albeit less for aesthetic purposes and more to find a solution to the problem of handcranking the record player.
One of Bell’s treadle-powered graphophones at the Johnson Victrola Museum, Dover, Delaware (author’s photo)

Hence the Victrola: beautiful cabinets which doubled as tasteful pieces of furniture. The model names – the Gothic, Louis XVI, Jacobean, Chinese Chippendale —  conjured up images of old world sophistication; they also hid the horns behind cabinet doors (which might also conceal convenient shelves for record album storage as well.) Victrola is wordplay on the part of Johnson, combing the words Victor and pianola, another middle-class source of entertainment popular at the time.

Victrola models at the Johnson Victrola Museum (author’s photo)

Johnson was no fool, and while any horizontal surface was fair game for the myriad knickknacks beloved by Edwardian women, one will notice that most Victrola cabinets have rounded tops – it’s impossible to pile on top of them the vases, lamps, and assorted essential tchotchkes that would have made accessing the machine an annoyance.

Notice one can still place stuff on the sideboards, but the critical lid to the gramophone is rounded; Johnson did this deliberately as he figured once women started piling stuff on top of the machines, it would be too much trouble to have to clear them to use (author’s photo)

So now the fine lady – or middle or working class lady with aspirations – now had the perfect hostess’ companion.

The Victrola was beautiful and unobtrusive – in some advertisements, it’s barely in the picture.


Notice the Victrola tucked off to onside, and the cosy scene around it

Johnson’s relentless advertising campaign of the new design meant that ‘Victrola’ became a generic term for any sort of wind-up talking machine.

So when is it a Victrola? When it is a Victor machine, of course, but when the horn is concealed in a cabinet.

The record business? Its always been about the technology.

Edison, Berliner, Johnson invented the record business. They brought into being the modern music industry. Capturing sounds from the air so that they could be played back in any place and at any time. Imagine the revolution in thinking that brought about. And what do the three fathers of the music business have in common? They were all techies, not “music guys”. In fact, the more we trawl back through the history of recorded music and the more we look around today’s Apple led world it becomes clearer that all the great surges in music consumption have been driven by technology not necessarily by the prevailing quality of music. Sure there have been exceptions – Sinatra, Presley, The Beatles, Michael Jackson who have shifted game changing volumes and were exceptional in many regards, but ultimately people bought 78’s, 45’s, LP’s and CD’s not Frankie, Elvis, Ringo or Jacko themselves. And what also drove that 50 year upward curve of music sales from 1950 to 2000 was that people sometimes bought the same recording on each of those new formats as they came out. Conversely if it was the quality of music that drove the sales increase for those 50 years, then that must mean in these days of declining sales that our music is of inferior quality?


So why the rant on this site dedicated to the history of recorded sound? Because at the weekend I took the plunge and bought a Spotify Premium package and finally joined the latest music revolution. I’ve been using Spotify for free for a year or so but much as I found it useful as search and listen engine I never enjoyed the experience of listening on the computer and I don’t have space for my computer on my hi-fi rack….so I played about on Spotify and then bought the occasional record I liked on CD to listen to properly.


No longer. With the Spotify Premium account I can still search and listen but now I transfer what I like the sound of to my phone and can listen on headphones as I commute and can easily plug into the high fi and the docking station. So now I have pretty much all the music I could possibly want in the world at my fingertips. To be played anywhere, anytime. Its Edison to the power of Elvis x The Beatles + Berliner. Quite, quite fantastic.

This morning I threw on three new albums, Gruff Rhys, Sbtrkt and Little Dragon. Never heard of them? Neither had I really. I chose them because of reviews I’d seen. Pre-Spotify I would never have explored further as they were not on my top list to check. Boy, they are now. All three albums contain superb work and I’d recommend all of you to try them. Get Spotify. Treat yourself to the Premium model. And start trying the new music once again. Its the greatest music discovery engine ever and so easy to use. Edison, Berliner and Johneson would approve.

Whatever happened to Decca Studios?

When The Beatles couldn’t agree to visit Everest for a photo shoot for their final album which they intended to name after the mountain and instead named it after the studio in which they had recorded much of their wonderful music, they bequeathed upon Abbey Road the greatest marketing gift of all time. Abbey Road Studios is still going strong and approaching its 80th bithday in rude health.

But there was another recording monster on the block in London in the 1960’s. Decca Studios at Broadhurst Gardens was the home of many great recordings and had the equipment and a team of engineers to rival The Beatles Studio. Take a look at this picture of Decca Studio 3 which was forwarded by a former Decca engineer “to prove Abbey Road No.1 (its rival for recording orchestra’s) was nothing special”

But whilst there is much information about Abbey Road, there is little on the web about Decca Studios, other than that it was the venue for The Beatles audition with Decca in 1962 – which they failed. Its Wikipedia entry doesn’t even list opening and closing dates for the studio (the building is now rehearsal space for ENO). I believe Decca owned the studios from 1920 until 1980 which means it predates Abbey Road by 11 years. Can that be right? Does anybody out there have more information, pictures, videos of the great Decca Studios?

I did find this picture of Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli recording in Decca Studio 2 in 1938:

Roger Chaput, Naguine, Django, Eugène Vées, Stéphane Grappelli, Louis Vola

Please get in touch with your memories of Decca Studios. And see here for an obituary for former Decca staffer, Kevin Daly.

The Eldridge Johnson Story: Bringing Music To The People!

By Carey Fleiner

In 1984, Eldridge Reeves Johnson received a Grammy Award.This posthumous Grammy, The Trustee Award, was presented to Johnson in recognition of his services to the industry; the inscription reads, ‘Eldridge R Johnson: Industry pioneer whose inventions revealed the true potential of the early Victrola as a home entertainer rather than a scientific toy.’ While in this entry, I’d like to focus on the significance of the inscription, here’s first two bits of trivia: one, the machine that has sat on top of every Grammy since their inception in 1959 is in fact modeled after Johnson’s original improved gramophone. Two, the little machine is not a Victrola, which was a very specific type of Victor machine – but the use of the word shows Johnson’s success as an advertising man.

ERJ’s Grammy award, housed at the Johnson Victrola Museum, Dover, Delaware, USA (author’s photo)

Berliner in the States and the Gramophone Company in the UK saw the potential of the gramophone as a source of entertainment, and Johnson refined this concept. His mission was to promote Victor and its products towards home entertainment, bringing culture and enlightenment to the masses. In the early days of recorded sound, inventors such as Eduard de Martinville, the Bells, and Edison were more interested in the scientific principles behind or business uses of the machines. Outside of toys and the jukeboxes in workmen’s clubs, entertaining the proles was very low on Edison’s, and other inventors,’ list of priorities, and subsequently not taken seriously.

Edison’s list of the possible uses for talking machines

Many advertisements, especially those aimed at a male audience, touted the technological achievement and capabilities (or sometimes, rather exaggerated capabilities) of the machines.

The earliest advertisement for a tin foil machine

Not only were recording machines regarded as toys, their poor playback capabilities ensured that their novelty value wore out fast – and because the early recording machines were so primitive, ‘serious musicians’ would not make recordings as they felt the limitations of the machines and records were an affront to their art. The spring-loaded motor Johnson added to the gramophone changed all of this

The patent diagram for Johnson’s spring-loaded clockwork motor built for Berliner

It was the first of a number of inventions by Johnson to improve the recording and playback capabilities of his machines culminating with the orthophonic Victor models in the late 1920s.

The orthophonic machines were quite loud and frequently used in dancehalls

These machines were still hand-cranked, but the records themselves were recorded on electrically-driven machines, vastly improving the playback sound.

Unlike his peers, Johnson did not regard home entertainment as vulgar; in fact, he saw it as an extension of his own desire to become cultured and self-educated.

Victor machines were deliberately priced across a wide range so that they were just as affordable as they were beautiful. They ranged in price from $25 to thousands of dollars; in 1901, the average weekly take home pay in a working-class family was $2.50 per week (based on data from the 1900 US census); nevertheless, Victor was in the black from the beginning – even the cheapest machines were within reach, because Victor was one of the first companies in the United States to allow purchase on credit. Johnson figured every household could spare a few pennies every week towards a player, and of course, every week when they went to the furniture store or record shop to pay towards their machine, they might also be tempted to buy a new Although Victor had started out simply making machines, they got into the recording business pretty early, and these records were promoted to bring art, culture, and entertainment into anyone’s home. Victor advertising, especially in women’s magazines, emphasised this. Johnson also had a good ear for potential artists in Victor’s stable – not only adding popular artists of the day such as Billy Murray:

and Ada Jones:

They also frequently sang duets together for Victor:
Victor concentrated especially upon recording classical singers and musicians. Fred Gaisberg had already enticed Enrico Caruso to sing for the Gramophone Company in England – this was a huge coup for the nascent recording industry, as opera singers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were the celebrity royalty of the day, traveling in upper class circles and living literally in palaces along the Riviera.

Caruso’s first recording session as sketched by the man himself

Victor and the Gramophone were fiercely in competition with one another, and once Caruso began to record both popular and classical music for Gaisberg and then Victor many others followed suit.

These included Nellie Melba:

and Luisa Tetrazzini

All of the big names were on Victor, and Victor cleaned up by signing these stars to exclusive contracts.

An advertisement showing Victor’s stable of stars

To emphasize the distinction of Victor’s classical line, they introduced a red label for their opera and classical music stars
– except for Dame Melba, who demanded, and received, an exclusive mauve label.
Melba Mauve — one of Dame Nellie’s pink records

Art you can dance to. How the record sleeve was turned into something beautiful.

It seems quite remarkable that it took until 1939 for the music industry to take advantage of the natural advertising real estate of the record sleeve. Until that point record sleeves were plain and drab. In 1939, Columbia Records in New York hired a young 23-year-old to become art director of the company. His name was Alex Steinweiss and he was given the job of creating ad’s for Columbia’s latest recordings.

Never mind the adverts, Steinweiss thought the products themselves needed improving. “The way records were sold was ridiculous,” he said in a later interview. “The covers were brown, tan or green paper. They were not attractive, and lacked sales appeal.” He persuaded the suits to let him loose to design something more attractive. This was his first attempt, not bad, huh!

Steinweiss went on to design over 2,500 record sleeves in his career which extended into the 1970’s, including these ones:

Perhaps a hint of Dark Side Of The Moon?

He set in motion the notion the record sleeves were the perfect home for 12″ x 12″ pieces of art and design. All those wonderful images of swimming Nirvana Babies, Sgt Peppers, Yellow bananas, bulging trouser zips and  light diffracting through a prism started from here, with this man’s great idea.

Sadly Alex Steinweiss died at the weekend, aged 94. He left behind a collection of wonderful images both on record sleeves and beyond. You can learn more about him in this wonderful little video:

The Paris Match: Gaisberg and Clarke make discs and cylinders side by side in 1899

Gaisberg’s first continental recording trip with William Sinkler Darby had begun in Leipzig in May 1899, where Thomas Birnbaum the Managing Director of the German Gramophone Company, joined them to travel to Budapest, Vienna and ultimately the dazzling musical city of Milan. The trip had been a mixed bag; lots of fun, some successses but Gaisberg ultimately left Italy a mite down-hearted at his failure to record any significant artists during their stay in Milan.

Gaisberg (right) and Sinkler Darby (with pipe) share a bottle of wine and write letters home from their hotel room in Vienna that doubled as their studio

Their next stop was Paris. This was where the thrusting Alfred Clark was building a highly successful recording operation. He leveraged his growing local power to deliver a series of great artists to Gaisberg’s recording sessions. Fred later recalled: “Alfred Clarke had all the vision of youthful enthusiasm, and it was not long before he had enticed to his recording studio the great stars of opera and concert halls”

It was also here that Gaisberg remembered making records with Clarke’s assistant so that they would fit both Edison’s cylinder and Berliner’s rival disc: “I recorded the first discs in Paris in 1899 under Alfred Clark’s direction. Cleve Walcott, his assistant, would record simultaneously the same artists on cylinders, as he [Clark] was then building up both a cylinder and disc catalogue….” This explains how Clark managed to reconcile the recording format wars and service both the cylinder and disc part of his Paris based business.

The History of the Major Record Companies in the UK #3 Pathe Freres

This is the third extract from a wonderful book called “The Talking Machine Industry” written by Ogilvie Mitchell in 1924 covering the Pathe Freres Company.

Charles Pathe

Emile Pathe

Charles and Emile Pathe originally ran a bistro in Paris. They moved into music retailing, first selling Edison products before beginning to record and sell their own records. They also moved into film making and distribution and expanded both sides of the entertainment business into wider Europe and the USA. In 1924, when this book was published, Pathe were hitting financial difficulties and, four years later, the French and British Pathé phonograph assets were sold to the British Columbia Graphophone Company which would in turn soon become part of EMI. In July 1929, the assets of the American Pathé record company were merged into the newly formed American Record Corporation.

This is what Ogilvie Mitchell had to say in 1924:

“Pathe Freres, who had been doing a very large continental trade, came into the English market in 1902. By the exercise of a little ingenuity, aided by Mr. J. E. Hough, they had previously circumvented the Edison embargo. No sooner, however, were they free to export their goods from France to England than they began to do an extensive trade with us. The Pathe discs are phono-cut, i.e. they are of the hill and dale variety invented by Edison, and therefore require to be played with a special needle. To this end the firm supplies asound box of its own with a permanent attachment of a ball-pointed sapphire. Quite recently it has brought out a reproducer which by a simple contrivance permits of a steel needle to be used for the lateral cut disc as well.

In the early days Pathe records were played from the centre outward to the periphery of the disc, but since the company erected a British factory on this side the Channel they have reversed their old system and the record is now played in the same manner as other discs. Those old discs were splendid fellows, nearly 14 ins. across and embodied the voices of many of the best continental artists. The firm actually prevailed upon Sara Bernhardt to record her incomparable tones, and in the years to come that disc ought to be worth much more than its weight in gold. The records are now somewhat reduced in size, conforming more to the width of ordinary makes, but the best of them at the present time are the most expensive on sale in England.

It is worthy of mention that Pathe Freres were the first to introduce the language-teaching record, and it is quite possible that they may revert to this very useful method of instruction now that there is a demand for easy systems of learning foreign tongues.

Besides building a factory here in England, Messrs. Pathe” have established a large business in America, which we understand is extremely prosperous. M. Jacques Pathe is at the head of affairs in London, and is a shrewd and competent director. He fought in the war for his country and received high commendation for his service. Although it has nothing to do with this little book it may not be out of place to state that Pathe Freres are a firm with very extensive interests in the kinematograph world. The House of Pathe, with its defiant chanticleer as a trade-mark has branches in every corner of the civilized globe, and its machines and discs are familiar to everyone who has the slightest knowledge of the reproduction of sound.”

Victor Ludorum. The Forgotten Man of Music History: Eldridge R.Johnson

By Carey Fleiner

Quick – show of hands – tell me everything you know about Eldridge R. Johnson….well, if you’re poking around this website, you probably have heard of him, but many people have not. If you’re one of the ‘nots’ — perhaps you’ve heard of his company The Victor Talking Machine Company which he founded 1901 (or at least its later incarnation as RCA-Victor). Perhaps you’ve heard of the Victrola, and in fact you might refer to every type of old-fashioned, wind-up record player as a Victrola. And surely you’ve seen Nipper the Dog, one of the first and most successful trademarks in business and advertising history. But this guy with the funny name and that – what’s he got to do with talking machines, fox terriers, and, for that matter, EMI?

Eldridge R Johnson around age 35

Eldridge Reeves Johnson (1867-1945) is an obscure figure in music history, and his name is certainly not as recognisable as Thomas Edison or Alexander Graham Bell. It’s a bit of his own fault, really, as Johnson, while promoting his company and its products vigorously, himself stayed in the background – unlike his contemporary Edison, or modern moguls such as Bill Gates or Richard Branston, whose names are as well-known as their products. Nevertheless, Johnson founded one of the ‘Big Three’ early record companies – The Victor Talking Machine Company (1901-1927) held its own against Edison Records (1888-1929) and Columbia Records (1888-present). The Victor Company was a sister-company with the Gramophone Company (independent from 1897-1931) in the UK; the Gramophone Company merged with the Columbia Graphophone Company in 1931 to become EMI, so Johnson and the Victor Talking Machine Company are part of EMI’s pedigree.

Over ten instalments, we shall present 10 Interesting Facts about Eldridge R. Johnson, one of the founders of the modern recording industry. Before Johnson Fact #1, however, here’s a little background on the man himself.

Johnson was born in 1867 in Wilmington, Delaware, USA, and grew up about 60 miles further south in Dover, Delaware, then a rural community. He went to high school at the Dover Academy in Dover, Delaware, now part of the grounds of Wesley College [http://www.wesley.edu/], and he hoped to go to university. It’s unknown which school or course of study he had in mind; when Johnson, then aged 15, approached his high school principal about going on to higher education, he was told he was ‘too stupid’ to attend university, and should go to trade school instead.

ERJ in the 1890s

Johnson was gutted, and this comment stuck with and influenced him the rest of his personal and professional life. He was put on a train and sent north to be apprenticed to a machine shop in Philadelphia, and, according to the biography written by his son, ERJ cried all the way to his destination.

Was Johnson ‘too stupid’? As a boy, he asked a lot of questions – at home and at school. Nowadays this is regarded as the sign of an inquisitive mind, praised, and encouraged, but in those days, asking so many questions was interpreted as being daft.

Nevertheless, despite the low pay and long hours initially, Johnson applied himself to the work and his apprentice job, and to his displeasure (initially) he turned out to be quite mechanically apt. He worked in Philadelphia, then became attached to the Standard Machine Shop in Camden, New Jersey (where he filed his first patent to improve a bookbinding machine at the shop – Johnson seems to have been that guy who shows up in a place and quickly fixes all of the mechanical problems plaguing the company). At one point he went West to seek his fortune as the owner of this new shop planned to leave the business to his own son, but after a few adventures, Johnson realised there was more opportunity for work back on the East Coast. He returned to the little shop in Camden and inherited it after all, as the son had died suddenly and the owner was in financial peril. So Johnson took over the little shop and began to build a reputation for himself in the area as a mechanical engineer. Although he devoted himself to his work, he was also driven to educate himself in the classics and refined arts, and his diaries reveal later trips to the opera, visits to museums, and lists of literary texts to read. He never stopped asking questions, and turned his inquisitiveness into a business success – whether he was asking his workers about their lives and working conditions, or his customers about suggestions they had about or wanted from his products.

This same, small machine should would eventually be surrounded by the Victor Talking Machine factory complex.

Johnson’s shop in Camden in the 1890s

In 1896, a representative from Emile Berliner’s Gramophone Company brought to Johnson’s shop one of Berliner’s ‘egg-beater’ or hand-driven gramophones.

Berliner’s original eggbeater gramophone

Berliner had patented his gramophone in 1887, but he himself was no mechanic – he wanted a spring-loaded motor for the machine to make it fully automatic, more than just a toy, as this would give him the edge in the extremely competitive world of sound-recording. Learning of Johnson’s mechanical skills, he sent the machine to the workshop in Camden. Johnson gave the little gramophone a look over, and took on the job – adding a spring-loaded motor (of his own design) would be quite easy.

Berliner gramophone with Johnson’s spring-motor

Here are two clips of Berliner’s original gramophone in action: the egg-beater in action and Johnson’s added motor:


…and another short clip (in French) showing the eggbeater, then the improved gramophone, with a shot of Johnson’s clockwork motor with the cover off:

This invention alone would have sufficed to ensure Johnson’s role in the history of the recording industry: not only did this motor free the user from having to hand-crank the machine, but it also standardised the recording speed at about 78 rpm – instead of a toy, the gramophone could be regarded as a proper tool for recording and promoting both popular and classical music and artists.

Of course that was to come – Johnson’s initial impression of that first gramophone was less than enthusiastic; he famously said that the sounded like “a partially educated parrot with a sore throat and a cold in the head.”’ Nevertheless, Johnson was intrigued and went into a subcontractor partnership with Berliner, building gramophones and gramophone parts. He also improved the quality of the recording process on the gramophone by experimenting with electroplating wax disks to make more precise and sturdier master matrices – the wax of which, by the way, came from melted down wax cylinders made by rival Edison.

This partnership also meant that he also entered into association and later partnership with Berliner’s UK component, The Gramophone Company (headed at that time by William Owen).

William Owen, head of the Gramophone Company around 1900

Almost at once he was embroiled in the Byzantine politics of betrayal, backstabbing, and litigation involving Berliner’s company and a breakaway company called Zonophone (who were, in effect, attempting to pass a law forbidding Berliner to sell his own products.)

Long story short – Johnson won a successful lawsuit against Zonophone, saving Berliner, The Gramophone Company, and Johnson himself from financial ruin. Johnson’s original company, The Consolidated Talking Machine Company, became in 1901 The Victor Talking Machine Company, in cooperation and with the blessing of the Gramophone Company in England.

Between 1901 and 1927, Victor was one of the most successful businesses in the world. Johnson’s motto for the company was its ‘secret process,’ that is, ‘We seek to improve everything we do every day.’

Johnson’s motto serves as the mission statement at the Johnson Victrola Museum, Dover, Delaware, USA (author’s photo)

This motto reveals much about his own personality, drive for success, and care for his employees and customers. And because the company was his top priority, this motto provides a clue why we don’t associate Johnson with Victor as we might associate Nipper, the great singer Enrico Caruso, or the Victrola itself.

Johnson was a multi-millionaire very quickly with his company; when he finally sold Victor in 1927, he was worth close to $29 million. Problems with melancholia and depression had affected his relationship with his business over the years, and concerns that Victor was falling behind the competition with radio led him to sell his company 1927 (Victor was purchased by RCA in 1929), and he lived the rest of his life as a generous philanthropist while happily indulging his passion for his yacht and sailing. He died in 1945.

ERJ in his later years enjoying time on his yacht Caroline