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.”

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13 thoughts on “The History of the Major Record Companies in the UK #4 Aeolian

  1. Although the Aeolian Vocalion did not flourish as Mr Mitchell predicted, it had one very important consequence for gramophone history. In 1922, Compton Mackenzie had ordered from the Aeolian company one of their player organs, only to discover that they had seriously shortened their catalogue of rolls for it, so he cancelled the order. The company persuaded him to buy one of their gramophones instead, and the programme of recording of chamber music they were undertaking was just up his street. It sparked an interest in gramophone recordings which led, in 1923, to the founding of The Gramophone magazine. This was the first objective journal in the subject and is still with us, now shorn of its definite article, in the modern fashion.

  2. Two observations. 1. The Aolian Hall was for a time in the 1960’s and maybe longer one of the BBC’s live broadcast studios, and for unknown reasons was affectionately known by DJ’s at “the Aolian dog”.

    The Vocalion name lived on an off for many years, for a time in the 1960’s the home for now highly collected American soul and r&b records.

    On a totally unconnected topic, I’m reading Lord Sugar’s autobiography, and he tells of a deal he did in the 60’s selling thousands of records on the Bluebeat label for pennies each. Wonder if he knows this is the singularly most collected label in the UK, with many singles and LP’s fetching hundreds of pounds each?!

    • ive got an aeolian vocalian B 12115 copyright 1916 the song is America Never Took Water by Irving Kaufman and the other side is A 12115 I Know What It Means To Be Lonesome by Irving Kaufman. just found this page as i was attempting to find a value or info about the album. Thank you so much for posting information here! a family was selling everything out of their moms house and the records were all for sale.. i only found this one and a few other names that i thought were interesting like a few Decca records by various artists. and a columbia disc record with a german solo on it. and one (Cook Test record for frequency) also interesting. This was the most unique one of the few i purchased. most were newer records.

  3. The conversation seems to be in an historical flow; however, please do forgive as I interrupt for just a few. My interruption bursts in with an explanation followed by a question. I recently purchased some old records at a church thrift shop. I didn’t realize what I had until I opened a record binder and found that I had quit a number of old records. Among them was an Aeolian record, I was entertaining the idea of cleaning it, so I went to a web-site and to my surprise I was met with too many different types of advice . One said clean with warm soapy water; another said use alcohol and distilled water, while another recommended glue; that’s when I decided to hold off, and wait until I could perhaps obtain some expert advice. Please can you share with me the proper technique of cleaning an Aeolian Record.
    Thank you for your time and help.
    msbrownpenny@yahoo.com

  4. The conversation seems to be in an historical flow; however, please do forgive as I interrupt for just a few. My interruption bursts in with an explanation followed by a question. I recently purchased some old records at a church thrift shop. I didn’t realize what I had until I opened a record binder and found that I had quit a number of old records. Among them was an Aeolian record, I was entertaining the idea of cleaning it, so I went to a web-site and to my surprise I was met with too many different types of advice . One said clean with warm soapy water; another said use alcohol and distilled water, while another recommended glue; that’s when I decided to hold off, and wait until I could perhaps obtain some expert advice. Please can you share with me the proper technique of cleaning an Aeolian Record.
    Thank you for your time and help.

  5. As with any question, there is a variety of answers, in this case from soap and lukewarm water to an expensive machine that does the job for you. For 78rpm records, I would suggest gently using lightly soaped water and a clean lint-free cloth, then clean with another dry lint-free cloth (a tea towel is great for this). This will remove dust and finger marks, though of course the scratches will still be there! Be careful not to leave water on the label for any length of time. That said, the playing quality of 78rpm discs will be much the same – they’ll just look nicer!

  6. Thank you for your reply. If that was your Aeolian record featured, then I will feel quite secure trying the soapy water suggestion. I have never seen one of these records before and I tend to think that it may be quite rare, so you probably can relate to my not wanting to mess things up. Also I would very much like to post it on Youtube. One again thanks you for your time and help.

  7. No, the Aeolian record wasn’t mine, and if you’re in any way concerned about my suggested cleaning method, please seek alternative advice. While they can obviously break, 78rpm discs are otherwise pretty hardy and a moist cloth won’t do any harm. Why not try it on a less valuable record in your collection?!

  8. Thank you for your suggestion about a less important disc. Hope I did not offend you. Next are my last two questions concerning the cleaning process, do you have any experience with the expensive cleaning machine? It seems that maybe quicker for a large quantity. Lastly do you know where I can buy one at a bargain, bargain, price? :O)
    Thank you for your time and patients.

  9. Reblogged this on every day is sunny when you smile and commented:
    ive got an aeolian vocalian B 12115 copyright 1916 the song is America Never Took Water by Irving Kaufman and the other side is A 12115 I Know What It Means To Be Lonesome by Irving Kaufman. just found this page as i was attempting to find a value or info about the album. Thank you so much for posting information here! a family was selling everything out of their moms house and the records were all for sale.. i only found this one and a few other names that i thought were interesting like a few Decca records by various artists. and a columbia disc record with a german solo on it. and one (Cook Test record for frequency) also interesting. This was the most unique one of the few i purchased. most were newer records.

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