Recording pioneers- Part 8, William Conrad Gaisberg

 

“We realised how many different degrees of smells there are in the world”

-William Gaisberg’s observation of Hyderabad, India

Name:              William Conrad Gaisberg

Born:               26th June 1877

Resident:        Born in Washington DC, USA

Occupation:   Recording engineer, managing director & head of London Recording Department

Loves:            Travelling, opera, pushing the boundaries of music and his brother (Fred)

William Gaisberg

In 1894, Fred Gaisberg came to work at Emile Berliner’s laboratory in Washington D.C. Shortly afterwards he was joined by his school friend William Sinkler Darby and also by his younger brother William [Gaisberg], who had previously worked for a period of time as a recording engineer with the Berliner Gram-O-Phone Company in Canada. It was during this period in America where Berliner imparted his knowledge of the secrets of disc record-making to these young men.  Within a few years the three of them moved to Europe, where, as recording engineers, they became the most important figures in The Gramophone Company’s staff.

William Gaisberg vatican

    -Recording in the Vatican, Recording in the Vatican, April 1902. Left to right: William Michaelis, the castrato Alessandro Moreschi and William Gaisberg

William Gaisberg’s enthusiasm and enterprising nature led him to take over many of his brother’s duties, which included managing and leading the third recording tour of India. The third tour began at Calcutta in 1906, and then proceeded onto Lucknow, Delhi, Lahore, Hyderabad and Madras.

Despite the Gramophone Company’s dominant position and success in the talking machine and disc record trade in Asia, It could not rest on its laurels of achievement, as American recording companies such as The Columbia Phonograph Company began making great advances. This motivated William to record artists of a higher repute and achieve a product of a much higher quality.

Gaisberg sought to record vocalists associated within the theatrical circuit, which resulted in him making the first recordings of Miss Janki Bai of Allahabad. He also placed emphasis on recordings of Gauhar Jaan, whose status had grown significantly, earning the reputation as a ‘Gramophone celebrity’.

In 1910 at the age of 33, William became manager of the Recording department, where he provided a vital link between the head office and its overseas territories.

In October 1918, a month before the Armistice was signed, The Gramophone Company became involved in a project to record the sound of the war. The reasoning behind the venture was that if there were to be no more war, then for the benefit of posterity, it was important to record and document the sounds of battle.

The Company elected to send William to the Western Front. It was in the French city of Lille that he recorded The Royal Garrison Artillery firing off a gas barrage. By the time the recording was completed, the war was over. Gaisberg had been slightly gassed during the expedition, and fell victim to the flu pandemic and tragically died a month later in November 1918.

Trouble in St Louis. How the Victor Company got its name.

This is the third in a series of articles about the great Eldridge Johnson and his Victor companies.

By Carey Fleiner

Ever tried to think up a name for a fledgeling company? It’s more difficult than you think. You can go literal BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) or abstract such as Google or Yahoo. Why did Johnson choose the name Victor for his company? He never explained it himself, but there are a number of theories ranging from logical to silly.

Johnson had great confidence in his company and its product; this can be seen in Victor’s earliest advertising campaigns. For the first few years the company existed, profits were poured back into advertising – much of which was written by Johnson himself. As we’ve seen these advertisements touted the results of the new technology – the cultural, intellectual advantages and rewards of the use and ownership of a Victrola. The advertising art for Victor products – machines, records, and music – is elegant, beautiful, and sophisticated. It also falls into what is described as ‘feminine advertising’ – that is, an emphasis on the aesthetic, domestic, and educational aspects of the product.

Johnson wasn’t all about pleasing the ladies, however; he was in competition with other companies, and this era (late 19th, early 20th centuries) is sometimes called the time of the ‘War of the Patents’ as people rushed to patent new inventions and lay exclusive claim to them and their rights. One needed to pull out the stops to set oneself apart from competitors (and imitators). Victor did this in numerous ways, from lauding the superiority of its wares to the cultural benefits of its records. Another important venue for demonstrating one’s wares was at trade shows and expositions.  In 1904, Victor machines were among those demonstrated in the Palace of Manufacture at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, better known by its unofficial name, St Louis World’s Fair;

shortly thereafter, Johnson took out a number of adverts lauding his company’s superiority over his competitors at the show —

Medals and advertising showing Johnson’s win at St Louis (author’s photos)

even though the actual winner was apparently Berliner’s Columbia Records. Berliner surely wasn’t too pleased with this outcome, and Columbia launched an advertising campaign to set the record straight.

Berliner’s counter advertisement

So much for vying for the ladies and competing with the gentlemen in the cutthroat world of the early recording industry – why is Johnson’scompany called Victor? There are several different explanations; Johnson was as enigmatic on the matter as Don McClean is over the meaning of ‘American Pie’ or Carly Simon about ‘You’re So Vain.’ In fact, no one really thought to investigate the origins of the name until American comedian Steve Allen got tired of lying awake at night wondering, and in 1966 wrote a short article for Cavalier Magazine in which he tried to solve the mystery called ‘Schnock Schnock: The Great RCA-Victor Mystery.’

So Victor is Victor because (in order of likeliness)

1. Johnson’s legal victory over nasty copyright lawsuit and success over his competitors in the patent wars: this is the most likely given that he changed the name of his original company (Consolidated Talking Machine Company, 1900) to the Victor Talking Machine Company in 1901 after this perilous lawsuit. (Johnson’s family, who still live in the Dover area, however, dislike this explanation as the entire incident was stressful and unpleasant, and they argue that Johnson was not that sort of a vindictive man.)

2. ‘Victor’ was simply ‘one of those words’ that one used in business and advertising at the turn of the century, like ‘Acme’ (from Mr Allen’s discussion with ERJ’s son William Johnson…plausible, too, although ERJ didn’t have a son called William…)

3. Johnson’s ‘victory’ over Columbia et al at St Louis: this doesn’t really make much sense, as the St Louis Exposition was in 1904 by which time the company was already three years old.

4. Victor was called after one Alexander Victor, a mysterious man Steve Allen went to some great lengths to track down – among the many claims of Alexander, he was the one who gave Johnson the idea for creating a lighter-weight tone arm for the improved Berliner gramophone, because he just happened to be working in Johnson’s Camden shop as Johnson and Berliner himself sweat over the project…except, as Mr Allen points out, this development occurred some three years before the company was formed. Was ERJ really that grateful? Of course, Alexander Johnson (no relation) also told Mr Allen that he was Nipper’s owner, and also the Victrola was named after him…

5. The company was called after Mrs Leon Douglas, as this good lady, called Victoria, was married to the Victor Company’s first manager. This is also from Mr Allen’s article, but he states the person who told him this also claimed not only to be Nipper’s original owner, but gave the famous painting its name…

6. Because Johnson’s favorite horse was called Victor…er, perhaps quite likely as any, as a lot of these explanations seem to be a case of closing the barn door after the horse escaped…what do you think?

Johnson astride his horse Victor

The History of the Major Record Companies in the UK #2 Columbia

We’ve stumbled across a wonderful book called “The Talking Machine Industry” written by Ogilvie Mitchell in 1924. It is a bit of a hack job to be frank. Mr Mitchell’s style is frothy and he gallops across a range of subjects to do with the history of recorded music at that point (i.e. less than 50 years after Edison invents the phonograph). The book is one of a series of books about Common Commodities and Industries and appears to have been partly financed by adverts from the industry in question (and in return features some product placement). Long since out of print, it’s a fascinating read. We particularly enjoyed the review of the four big UK companies of the day and will reproduce a section about each of the big four over the next few days. This is the second instalment covering the Columbia Phongraph Company.

“In 1899 The Columbia Phonograph Company was established in Washington, U.S.A., thus it may be said to be among the very earliest of the concerns to enter the industry, and it has been one of the most successful. As early as 1887, however, the parent company of the Columbia, and literally the pioneers in the industry, had put machines and cylinders on the market under licence from Bell and Tainter. Being unable to carry out some of their contracts, the American Company made arrangements with several others in the various States to act as sales-agents, while the original company limited their efforts to the manufacturing side.The Columbia Company secured one of these sales-agencies, and were restricted by agreement to the three States of Columbia, Delaware and Maryland. This restriction did not last long, however, for the prosperity of the Columbia was such that presently it ousted all the other agencies, extending its business throughout the whole of the United States. Not content with that, it opened branches all over the world and subsequently swallowed up the American Graphophone Company itself.

Here it may be noted that, as we fancy we have mentioned before, it was T. H. Macdonald, of the Graphophone Company, who perfected the spring motor. Up till then electricity had been used for the driving power, but with the clockwork mechanism methods were simplified and the cost of machines considerably cheapened.

When the Columbia Company removed their chief offices from Washington to New York, Mr. Frank Dorian was placed in charge as general manager. This move occasioned a vast expansion of trade and Mr. Dorian was sent to Paris to superintend the establishment of the European connection . His energy proved invaluable. Rapid strides were made in Paris and a branch was soon opened in Berlin. The following year the London business was reorganized and its headquarters formed in a five storey building in Oxford Street This was made the controlling centre for Europe, and Columbia was flourishing like the green bay tree, Later their swiftly developing progress warranted a removal to larger premises in Great Eastern Street, closer to the seat of the British trade which lies in that neighbourhood. At that time, of course, their records were all cylinders, but they were doing admirable work.

It was about this time that they contrived to obtain a record of the voice of Pope Leo XIII, a circumstance which we have already noted. It was issued almost on the very day of the venerable Pontiff’s death, and so made a great sensation in Catholic circles. They also secured some valuable cylinders of famous singers of the time, and set a fashion later developed by the discs of the Gramophone Company.

Finding that, in England, the disc was superseding the cylinder, the Columbia built a factory at Wandsworth and started manufacturing lateral cut records. It was an excellent step on their part, for they got hold of some of the best voices and instrumentalists in the kingdom and their productions had a great vogue. This company has played a conspicuous part in the fortunes of the industry here, doing excellent pioneer work in various directions, and aiming to elevate the public taste in gramophone music.

With the advent of Mr. Louis Sterling (above) as European manager of the company fresh life was imparted into the business, and their instruments, the celebrated Grafonolas, have a great sale, while the records find purchasers by the million. The Regal, a cheaper record, is also issued by them and is much appreciated by gramophone users whose purses are not so well filled as those of the purchasers of the higher grade Columbia.