The saviour of the 1890’s record business – and possibly where Jonathan Ives got his inspiration for the ipod white bud earphones?

We’ve posted this picture before but hadn’t realised its significance.

Digging a bit further into the life of Fred Gaisberg (who was the Zelig of the early recording business), the relevance of the photo becomes clear.

Thomas Edison invented the phonograph system of recording and playing back sound that preceded the gramophone and used cylinders rather than discs. He set the invention aside for several years as he wasn’t sure what it’s commercial application would be. (Edison was very interested in the commercial application of inventions…)

Edison initially thought that the phonograph would be used to record business dictation that could then be written up at a later date. This would reduce the number of stenographers that a business would require. He targeted Washington as a likely market because of all the Government business being done there. In 1889, he set up a company called The Columbia Phonograph Company (as in Washington, District of Columbia) to market the device and in doing so created the longest running record label of them all; it would evolve into Columbia Records. Columbia’s initial business model was to rent their machines to the Government offices. It proved successful and a profit was quickly turned. The success was shortlived, however, as furious stenographers, who were threatened with redundancy at the hands of the new device, took the Luddite step of breaking the machines to safeguard their jobs.

Columbia was forced to take back a raft of damaged machines and the cost of doing so nearly sank the company. Edison looked around for alternative ways of making money from phonographs but the venture looked doomed to failure. The cost of manufacture at that early point made the new technology too expensive as a home entertainment device. According to Fred Gaisberg the company “seemed headed for liquidation” And how did the world’s first A&R man know about this………? Gaisberg had been employed by Edison in the first few months of The Columbia Phonograph Company in 1889. His first job out of school was for Thomas Edison!

Salvation came from an unexpected source. As Fred records: the company “was saved by a new field of activity which was created…without their knowledge, by showmen at fairs and resorts demanding records of songs….Phonographs, each equipped with ten sets of ear tubes through which the sound passed, had been rented to these exhibitors. It was ludicrous in the extreme to see ten people grouped around a phonograph, each with a listening tube leading from his ears, grinning and laughing at what he heard. Five cents was collected from each listener so the showman could afford to pay two or three dollars for a cyliner to exhibit”

So that is what the people in the picture are doing in around 1891. Saving the proto recording industry one cylinder at a time.

Plus ca change.....