April 8th 1900: What Fred did next

If you can remember from our last visit to his diaries of exactly 110 years ago, roving proto-field recordist Fred Gaisberg and sidekick William Sinkler Darby were in pre-revolutionary Russia in 1900 buying bear skin coats to ward off the harsh St Petersburg weather. (If you can’t remember you can read about it here.)

On April 3rd 1900 Fred & William were invited to “exhibit a Gramo” to a Russian princess which would likely have involved spinning some tunes for her majesty and making a recording for her amusement. This would proably have been the first time the royal lady would have ever have heard a recorded voice. Looking back from our perspective it is easy to forget what a revolutionary pastime Fred was engaged in. He was spreading the experience of recorded music  into new pockets of the world as he toured them searching for musical talent. This was futuristic bleeding edge technology that Fred was working with and showing off!

Fred was no mug. It had been suggested to him by a Russian colleague called Raphoff that this exhibit may lead to an opportunity to record the Czar himself so Gaisberg was playing the angles hoping to engineer what would have been a significant early recording. Tune in to next week’s extract from Fred’s diaries to find out if he was successful pursuing this man.

Nicholas II Czar of Russia

The rest of Gaisberg’s week was spent watching a performance of Carmen (written only 35 years previously), following the Boer War in the old English newspapers in the lobby of a local hotel (Russians overwhelmingly supported the Boers, Fred overwhelmingly keen to point out to the he was American not English!) and recording and flirting with a beautiful young soprano called Radina.

On April 8th he wrote in his diary “We attended an afternoon performance of …Demon by Rubinstein. Radina was our prima donna ….Between the acts we would present ourselves at the dressing-room of our beautiful prima donna and congratulate her on her performance of the foregoing act…I told her I wished I was the Devil in the last act, when he was embracing her….” The rogue!

Glamorous gramophones and other early playback devices #2

This is a seriously cute piece; it’s another Phonograph called ” Le Mervilleux” (Meaning =  “Wonderful”) and was made by Henri Lioret around 1894.

Our friends at EMI Archive Trust, who own it, describe it thus:

“Henri Lioret was a respected clockmaker before turning his attention to phonographs. This unusual phonograph was made from around 1894, and based on the same mechanism that Lioret used in his Bebe Jumeau talking doll. The mechanism itself is mounted inside a pasteboard box and finished with a simulated leather covering. A side flap opens to allow access to the cylinders, and a top flap opens to reveal the integral-horn. This machine played only the smallest of Lioret cylinders, lasting a mere 30 seconds. Despite its simplicity and fragility, the Merveilleux plays extremely well for such an early phonograph. Their fragility too, makes them a relatively rare machine. It was also the first entirly Lioret machine to be sold, with a price tag of 16 francs.”

Lioret’s first commercial idea for playing back recordings was the talking and singing Bebe Jumeau doll mentioned above which had in effect a phonograph as innards. It looks like something from an episode of Doctor Who.

This strange looking toy, which was very successful in France, represented a step forward in recording technology as it was the first non-tin foil cylinder made in France. It contained improvements upon Edison’s original design including the fact that the cylinders were made out of celluloid and were the first unbreakable cylinders ever made. You can see more Lioret stuff, here.

So now you know!

Thank you to the EMI Archive Trust for allowing us to show these pictures. You can find out more about the EMI Archive Trust (and even arrange a time to go and visit their gramophone collection) here.

We’d love to make contact with people who have an interest in these kind of devices. Please get in touch via the comments section below.

Glamorous gramophones and other early playback devices #1

This is the first of a series of early playback devices that are owned by the EMI Archive Trust. Its actually not a gramophone; its a phonograph. An Excelsior Pearl phonograph which was made in Cologne, Germany, in 1904

This is how the Trust describes the piece “Excelsior phonographs were produced by the Excelsiorwerk of Cologne at the begining of the 20th Century.They were mainly of the Type Q Graphophone family with a cover-plate round the motor. Some however, like the Pearl, were made with a cast-iron bedplate and a motor concealed in a case below. Decoratively, the Pearl shares the common Excelsior finish of black with a red lining. This Pearl also carries its name and a landscape / floral motif on the oak case. Originally cost 32/6.”

You can see how it would have played back sound in this video of a reproduced phonograph:

Thank you to the EMI Archive Trust for allowing us to show these pictures. You can find out more about the EMI Archive Trust (and even arrange a time to go and visit their gramophone collection) here.

I’d love to make contact with people who have an interest in these kind of devices. Please get in touch via the comments section below.

Hi Fi Boom Box 1954

 

You have got to love Shorpy’s Vintage Photograph’s. Its a simple but effective formula for a website. They publish one interesting historical picture per day in high resolution with an explanation of the photo’s origin and if you like the photo you can buy a print of it. As they say on their banner, there is “always something interesting” to look at. This is a vision of the hifi future taken in 1954. You can read more about it here. Love that valve amp, daddio!

Absolutely not the last about the King’s Speech….

I’ve been meaning to post a link to an interview with Abbey Road’s Peter Cobbin and Lester Smith on Absolute Radio. Pete recorded the soundtrack and used the EMI Archive Trust microphones to do so. Lester is guardian of the microphones at Abbey Road and looks after the Trust mics as well.

Here is what they had to say from the 45 minute mark on this podcast.

Gaisberg in Russia: April 1st 1900

One hundred and eleven years ago today Fred Gaisberg was in the middle of his third big recording expedition. He’d travelled to continental Europe over the summer of 1899 and the British Isles over the autumn of that year and had already made hundreds of the world’s first recordings.

In spring 1900 he and his colleague William Sinkler Darby travelled to Russia to make some more recordings of local artists.  You can see them posing in newly purchased fur coats which were necessary to ward off the effects of the savage cold weather they encountered. Gaisberg is on the left.

Getting into pre-revolutionary Russia had proved a task in itself.  Their equipment was packed in 7 huge cases and Russian customs extracted a then-hefty £7 charge as duty for it’s import into the country. The country was covered in thick snow and the trip to St Petersburg took 8 days by train but they passed the time giving gramophone concerts at the different stop offs. This would have been the first time the listening people would have heard recorded music. It must have seemed like magic to them. Gaisberg remembers the impact they had:

“We would give a gramophone concert at these stops and the amusement of the natives was great to see. I really think the train tarried an extra long time so we could finish our concert.”

Once they arrived in Russia their principal method of transport was a sleigh. Gaisberg got a real kick out of travelling around on the horse drawn sleighs and volunteered to do a lot of the leg work whilst in Russia because it gave him a chance for more sleigh-rides. It was all very Dr Zhivago. Gaisberg and Darby complained constantly about the cold (which they ward off with local vodka) until 110 years ago today when they bought the bear skin coats that you can see in the photo. Gaisberg’s diary recalls intriguingly:

“Sunday 1st April, 1900. We bought our huge bear-skins. After dinner we visited our friends on Milka Prospect where we met an English chap who was nearly crazy. We cut up high.”

It sounds like quite a party….

Fred Gaisberg. The World’s First A&R man.

Imagine a world where nothing yet has been recorded. 

Almost nobody on the planet has heard sound played back to them. Radio doesn’t exist. Music is played live and exists only for as long as the notes hang in the air.

And imagine then that somebody has developed a technology for recording sound and you have been given the task to go out and make recordings. To gather sounds from the air! Where do you start? What do you record? How do you make a living from it?

Fred Gaisberg is not so well remembered these days but he was the man whose task and privilege it was to be the first to go out and record the world. He was an early employee of Emile Berliner (as the German perfected the recording technology in America) and then he moved to England at the end of the 19th Century and came on board The Gramophone Company (precursor to EMI) as employee number four or five.

Fred was from a musical background and his strength was to spot talent and persuade the musicians to make recordings for his fledgeling company. He was the world’s first A&R man; in fact he invented the role. He set off on lengthy trips to the far corners of the earth to collect and bring back the treasures of the world’s music for all to hear.  

Gaisberg wrote a series of diaries that traced his adventures and we plan to use these writings as a way of highlighting some of the great early recordings that he made and the lengths to which Fred and his colleagues would have to go to obtain them from artists and people suspicious of the new technology.

Because Fred Gaisberg is such an important figure in the history of recorded sound, we have set up a separate page in his honour where we will collect information about the great man,

It’s called Fred Gaisberg’s Progress.

BBC Archive Hour – Walls Of Sound

I happened to put the radio on for five minutes yesterday afternoon and came across this extraordinary documentary on Radio 4. I would heavily recommend it to anybody interested in the history of recorded sound. Its still available on the BBC Iplayer here until part way through Saturday 2nd April.

This is how the BBC described the programme:

When Nelson Mandela was tried 1964 he famously said, “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunity. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and achieve, but, if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” Without the British Library’s sound conservation work we would never have heard this. The trial was recorded using a Dictabelt system. The recordings soon became unplayable. The Dictabelts were brought to the British Library where digital transfers were made, allowing us to hear what Mandela said, and how.

In 1924, in Paris, James Joyce was recorded reading from ‘Ulysses’ and the British Library’s disc is as highly prized as its Blake, Hardy and Lawrence manuscripts. Alas, we’ll never hear how they read their work.

These are just two of recordings of immense importance that without the work of the Sound Conservation Centre would be lost. And what a loss that would be. The British Library has invested millions in the Centre and appointed its first ever Curator of Radio. Audio is being accorded the conservation effort usually devoted manuscripts and old masters. All this, the radio historian Sean Street argues in this programme, reflects a fundamental change in attitude to sound itself.

In a massive undertaking our sound archives are being saved, restored, digitised, catalogued and opened to all. Street observes all this and talks to curators, technicians and users. Throughout we hear amazing recordings from the libraries walls of sound that, until this change in thinking about sound, few knew about, and fewer could listen to. We listen as these recordings find their rightful place in the documentary heritage of the nation.

Gathering sounds out of the air. Charles Cros dawdles. Edison dawdles less.

Paris was clearly the centre of the world in the early days of sound recording. It was there that Leon Scott de Martinville invented his  Phonautograph to capture sound onto paper in 1857 and 20 years later Charles Cros took the process forward by working out how to record sound onto a cylinder by tracing oscillations using a screw. In April 1877 he wrote a paper describing his thesis and submitted it in a sealed envelope to the Academy of Science in Paris. Before he got a chance to build a prototype, a hard working inventor by the name of Thomas Edison living thousands of miles away in the USA beat him to it. Edison had been independently considering the same problem and in late 1877 he built a machine that recorded and played back sound which he called a Phonograph. Edison became world famous whilst Charles Cros is largely forgotten. Cros died 11 years later at the age of 46.

Portrait of Charles Cros

Bizarrely this was the second time that Cros had failed to gain recognition for a significant invention by being slow on the draw. In 1869 he had invented a way of taking colour photographs for the first time but took several months to submit his ideas to Société française de photographie. When he did get around to it, he discovered that a rival called Ducos de Hauron who had been developing his own method of taking colour photographs had submitted his own ideas that very day. And although De Hauron had discovered his method several months after Cros, the rival had built a device that could take colour snaps and  produced examples whereas Cros’s ideas remained only theory. And like Edison in sound, De Hauron is now widely remembered as the inventor of colour photography….

 Perhaps Cros was an ideas man who was less gifted at executing them or perhaps the reason that Cros never got round to building his imagined recording machine (which when he eventually did he would call the Paleophone) until some time later was that he was living a pretty full on rock and roll lifestyle.  Paris was the cultural capital of the world in the 1860’s and 1870’s and Cros was a significant player in artistic circles. He was a poet who wrote strange and proto-surrealistic poems (his best known is The Kippered Herring), ran around town with Verlaine and Manet and even shared an apartment with Rimbaud for a while. Cros was fond of a good drink and Absinthe was his tipple of preference; a choice that may have contributed to his early death.  He was a member of a group of artists who called themselves the Hydropathes and published a newspaper of that name. They were precursors to the Surrealists. The newspaper featured an illustration of Cros on one of their covers in which (looking spookily like Bob Dylan) he rides a fish (presumably a herring) carrying a bag of inventions over his shoulder as he hunts ideas with a butterfly. Seems to sum the man up! 

Cros also had some crazy ideas about interplanetary communication which you can read about in this interesting blog article .

Apple sues Amazon over App stores. History goes round and round..like a record.

Apple, who for years was in dispute with The Beatles’ Apple Corps over name and logo usage, is now taking the lead and suing Amazon for use of the term ‘App Store’ according to the Daily Telegraph.  It’s a problem that over the years has upset the likes of Hoover, Biro and………….The Gramophone Company.

Thomas Edison’s original phonograph was a 3″ diameter cylinder designed to enable businessmen to dictate letters which their secretaries would then transfer to paper using the also newly invented typewriter. Emile Berliner, a German who emigrated to America in 1870 and whose technological genius turned Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone from a concept into commercial reality, saw the potential in Edison’s machine, but realised that a cylinder was useless for duplication and sound quality. So he took the idea, replaced the cylinder with a flat disc and called it the Gramophone.

Berliner, in inventing the word ‘gramophone’ to describe his new machine, provided his company with a unique trademark and company name. “The Gramophone Company” was until 1910, exclusive user of the word ‘gramophone’ to describe its machine and records. It vigorously protected its patent of the word in the British courts, as the wonderfully titled ‘Talking Machine News’ noted

“Gramophone is not a generic term. Gramophone & Typewriter Ltd intend for the protection of the public to institute proceedings against any person applying the word ‘gramophone’ to any Talking Machine, Talking Machine Record or Talking Machine needle sold or offered for sale, not the manufacture of the Company.”

And so they did, until in July 1910, the Company’s latest attempt to continue registration of the word failed. In a long statement Justice Parker ends:

”Popularly, gramophone was coming to denote a disc machine, and phonograph a cylinder machine. The word ‘graphophone’ was never widely used….(There is) no reason for allowing one trader to register and secure a monopoly in what already is the name of the article…..I have come to the conclusion therefore that the application to register the word ‘gramophone’ ought not to be allowed to proceed.”

The same issue of ‘Talking Machine News’ immediately featured advertisements from rival companies and retailers using the word “gramophone” to describe any flat disc or flat disc machine.

However, chance was to play its hand once again. The Gramophone Company regsitered the His Masters Voice name and logo in response to losing control of “gramaphone” and so by losing rights to one word, they gained rights to a dog!