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

Setting up a new record company #7 Sell your product!

This week we aimed to tell the story of how Emile Berliner and Fred Gaisberg set up their record company in America in the late 19th Century. Seven blog entries on seven days. This is day #7. The final day; we made it! Its 1896. The new Philadelphian investors have decided that the United States Gramophone Company needs a permanent recording studio and a retail shop for gramophone players and discs and that it should be based in Philadelphia itself. Fred was selected to set up the recording studio which was above a shoe shop in Twelfth Street, Philadelphia. A new colleague Alfred Clark, then 22, was chosen to establish the gramophone shop. Clark and Gaisberg had similar backgrounds, both had also previously worked for Edison. Clark however was a much snappier dresser as Gaisberg later recalled.

“He was..a youth big and well proportioned, perfectly dressed in a tailor made suit which struck a note of distinction. Further his dark eyes and curly brown hair set off by a boyish blush whenever he spoke made him irresistible, quite apart from his wisdom and the fact that he had emerged from shadow of the great Edison.”

Gaisberg and Clark headed to the City of Brotherly Love to start this new record business, Gaisberg with his recording and Clark with his retail. A&R and distribution. Both would go on to play vital roles in the development of The Gramophone Company; Fred would make many of its recordings and Clark would eventually become Managing Director of the Gramophone Company and then the first Chairman of successor company EMI.

But back in 1896 all of this was ahead of them. Gaisberg fondly remembered the early days in Philadelphia.”Clark and I had living rooms adjoining the studio and so were frequently in each other’s company and exchanged views on the artist’s life, the gramophone industry and it’s future. That it had a future neither of us doubted. We were both in on the ground floor and had all the enthusiasm of youth.

There were evenings when we stopped at home and enjoyed the leather perfumed atmosphere of the studio over the shoe-shop. There was a piano, as usual mounted on a two foot high platform, and the recording machine invited exciting experiments in sound recording. Clark had a violin he was very fond of and occassionally tucked under his chin….

We..often found ourselves as guests in the homes of our (investor) directors..and in the more modest homes of Eldridge R Johnson and B.G. Royal then the small mechanics who ran the small tool shop across the river in Camden. At that time they were making the first two hundred spring-motor gramophones for the company. Their little shop was destined to expand into the great Victor Talking Machine before the decade was over.”

So as we look back on the 7 blog entries of this week that tell the story of how Fred Gaisberg and Emile Berliner set up the United States Gramophone Company we can see the years 1893-1896 were key to the development of the gramophone business. Berliner had, with the help of Eldridge Johnson, perfected his disruptive gramophone technology and the discs that it played. He had raised money to develop the business and had brought on board three key members of staff – Gaisberg as a PAID employee, Clark and Sinkler Darby. Technology + Capital + People = Business. Oh, and they found an artist or two.

What next? Well…1897 would see the push to internationalise the business. Next stop: World domination.

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.

“No place for a woman in a recording studio”. Delia Derbyshire denied by Decca invents (soundtrack to) time travel.

There are not that many prominent women in the history of recorded sound. Indeed there are not that many women working in recording studios even today. Boffins and creatives have tended to have the odd Y chromosone or two. The recording studio can be like a gang hut. A step from Lord of the Flies in one direction and a hop and a skip from a soldering iron in the other. Not a place for a lady then….at least that was what the head of Decca Recording Studios in London thought in the late 1950′s. When recording enthusiast Delia Derbyshire applied for a job, she was told unequivocably that Decca did not employ women in their recording studios. (An executive from Decca Records would also famously turn down The Beatles a couple of years later as they thought guitar bands were on the way out…..)

Like The Beatles, Delia was not one to be put off easily. She landed herself a job at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop in 1962 and went on to create some of the most experimental music of the 1960′s and in doing so turned the recording studio itself into a star. The workshop is best known for having created the most famous theme music on British TV, Doctor Who. But there was way more to its story and that of Delia Derbyshire, one of its central characters.

In 1966, she founded a music entity/pop group called Unit Delta Plus with fellow Radiophonic Workshop member Brian Hodgson and EMS founder Peter Zinovieff. This organisation pre-dated the British Electrical Foundation by 15 years and Kraftwerk by 4 years and was a vehicle to create and promote electronic music. They played at The Million Volt Light and Sound Rave at which The Beatles’ “Carnival of Light” had its only public performance in 1967. Delia also helped set up the Kaleidophon studio in Camden Town with Hodson and fellow electronic musician David Vorhaus. The studio produced electronic music for various London theatres and, in 1968, the three founders made an album as the band White Noise.

Here is part one of an excellent radio documentary about Delia with appropriate images (you can find the other parts on youtube)

And here is a fascinating snippet of Delia playing the tape machines:

And finally here is Electric Storm by White Noise.