Recording Pioneers- Part 2

Alfred Clark 1873 – 1950


“The fine thread running through the very fabric of HMV history”

-Fred Gaisberg

Name:                  Alfred Clark

Born:                    19 December 1873

Resident:             Born in New York,  moved to France 1899 aged 26  then resident of the UK, 1909 -1950

Occupation:        Gramophone Company Managing Director, Chairman and EMI President

Loves:                  Classical music, sealing the deal, travelling the world

 

Alfred Clark Copyright courtesy of  EMI Group Archive Trust

Alfred Clark
Copyright courtesy of EMI Group Archive Trust

 

Clark was born into an affluent New York family. He began his career in the newly forming recording industry with North American Phonograph in 1889, at the age of just 16. Throughout the 1890’s he also worked for Thomas Edison’s Kinetoscope organisation, where he produced ‘Mary, Queen of Scots’ – Edison’s first scripted film.

“Clark had all the vision of youthful enthusiasm and it was not long before he had enticed to his recording studio the great stars of the Opera and concert halls…”

-Fred Gaisberg meeting Clark in Paris

 

He later went to join Emile Berliner as a sales manager at the Berliner Gramophone Company store in Philadelphia.  Around this time he also became involved in experimental work, redesigning and patenting a new design for the gramophone sound box with Eldridge Johnson.

Thomas Edison letter Alfred Clark Copyright courtesy of  EMI Group Archive Trust

Alfred Clark letter of introduction from Thomas Edison

In 1899 at the age of just 26 Clark immigrated to France as an agent for Thomas Edison and Emile Berliner.  He joined forces with the Gramophone Company to form ‘Compagnie Française du Gramophone.’  He remained here until 1908 and after one year’s short break he became the Managing Director of the Gramophone Company in 1909.  He stayed in this post for 21 years until 1930, when he became The Gramophone Company’s Chairman.

Alfred Clark Copyright courtesy of  EMI Group Archive Trust

Alfred Clark
Copyright courtesy of EMI Group Archive Trust

 

 

He played a central part in the negotiations that led to the formation of Electric and Musical Industries Ltd (EMI Ltd) of which he was the first chairman. In 1946 he became EMI President. He stayed in this post for only 6 months before deciding to leave the company. Despite his incredible success Clark took a humble view of his career.

 

“…it has been a drab, plugging career, nothing spectacular, a business of laying one brick upon another…”

-Alfred Clark

“Magic”Johnson’s Aladdin caves: where to find out more about the great music inventor

By Carey Fleiner

For a man who is not well-remembered outside of specialist circles, Eldridge Johnson has left behind a lot of physical material and resources. For example, if you’d like to read Johnson’s personal papers, you can visit the American Heritage Center in Laramie, Wyoming, USA; Johnson’s son donated 48 boxes of personal and business papers there in 1975. You can access copies of some of these papers, including Johnson’s diaries from 1901 to 1930 at the EMI Archive in Hayes, Middlesex, England.

One autumn day at the EMI Archive(author’s photo)

 The Victor factory became the RCA complex in Camden, New Jersey, until the 1990s, where it, along with the Campbell Soup Factory, was one of the principle employers in the area; the Camden Historical Society has a number of materials and artifacts related to Victor and RCA-Victor.

Edison has his own museum, of course, but so does Eldridge R. Johnson, the Johnson Victrola Museum in Dover, Delaware, a dedicated building housing lovely things related to the man and all things Victor. The Museum was founded by Johnson’s son in 1975; the mid-‘70s were a boom-time in the US for little Museums because of a huge interest in preserving American culture at the time of the Bicentennial.

Exterior of the Johnson Victrola Museum (author’s photo)

The Museum is a two-story building nestled in the center of historic Dover; the ground backs up to a small church whose cemetery contains the remains of the Fenimore family (Mrs Johnson was Elsie Fenimore, you see.) The Museum holds literally thousands of Victor 78s (the last count the archivist gave me was ‘somewhere between 50 and 80 thousand.’ Think of the weight alone!) There are over 100 Victor and Victrola models from an example of the  earliest improved gramophone model for Berliner to the huge orthophonic machines of the last years of Victor.

Display of Victrola models (author’s photo)

There is a reproduction set-up of a typical record shop of Victor products, and numerous Victor advertising, ephemera, and memorabilia.

Mock-up of a turn-of-the-century record shop at the Museum (author’s photo)

Johnson’s office has been reproduced with his desk and comfy chair and many of his personal possessions, including his posthumous Grammy. Upstairs are more machines and horns related to the whole history of recording, many of which donated by a private collector with an apparently very understanding wife – so you can see an Edison tinfoil machine and a couple of Bell’s graphophones; if you’re looking for anything to do with Zonophone, there is a photo of Mr and Mrs Frank Seaman in one of the cabinets. The other Victor celebrity roosting in the museum is Nipper in lots and lots of forms.

One of many displays of Nipper toys and memorabilia at the Museum (author’s photo)

The pride and joy of the museum is one of the autograph Barraud paintings sent to Johnson from Barraud himself (and the third painting the artist made after the original ‘His Master’s Voice’ and a second one for the Gramophone Company).

Since Johnson secured use of Nipper ‘as he saw fit’ Nipper is more prevalent in the US, whereas in the UK, he is very strictly licensed by HMV. So keep in mind, these are Victor and RCA-Victor flavoured Nippers.

The museum is an Aladdin’s cave of wonderful machines and memorabilia – and while the Museum was closed down in 2009 due to budget cuts in response to the recession in 2008, the State of Delaware has re-opened the museum (as of May 2011) almost to its full schedule. The Museum’s holdings are also kept by the State Archives in Dover in a state-of-the-art facility – while you have to make a formal request to see things kept in the Archives, the Museum is free to the public.

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

Ladies get the horn with nasty big gramophones & consign them to the closet! Victrola explained

By Carey Fleiner


The majority of record buyers at the turn of the twentieth century were women, and the record player, while an interesting, new technology, was also an invader into the tasteful sanctuary, that was, their home. Men’s literature, such as Scientific American or The Gramophone, touted the tech specs of talking machines – which needles to use, what was the latest in tone arm technology, and how, in terms of talking machine horns, size really does matter. But the open-horned, table-top gramophone was an awkward beast perched in a sitting room or parlour – they took up a lot of room, and the horns were vulgar dust-catchers.

Model from the Johnson Victrola Museum; volume control was literally shoving a sock down inside the horn (hence the expression, ‘Put a sock in it’) (author’s photo)

Thus the advent of disguising the gramophone as furniture. It was after all women who made the decisions about what furniture was or was not coming into their home at the turn of the century. The gramophone and its cultural advantages on the one hand and its awkward shape on the other posed a real dilemma for the modern woman: she had aspirations towards creating a charming parlour to serve as a sanctuary and private refuge for her family away from the outside world, but she also wanted to be a part of the new, progressive world.

Johnson spent the first few years of Victor drawing in women buyers with advertisements on the one hand, and the creation of the Victrola on the other – if women didn’t like the sight of the horn, no matter how beautiful or decorated they were

Loads of horns at the Johnson Victrola Museum, Dover, Delaware, USA (author’s photo)

(after all, this is the era where special covers were made to hide the naked legs of pianos), then the horn would have to be tucked away. It wasn’t an entirely new idea to camouflage the phonograph – there’d been, for example, a short-lived fad to disguise gramophones as table lamps!

A brief, interesting experiment in phonographic camouflage

And ladies were already accustomed to utilitarian machines doubling as furniture, especially considering the beauty of Singer Sewing Machine cabinets. Alexander Graham Bell, in fact, had devised a graphophone model that was married to the treadle of a sewing machine, albeit less for aesthetic purposes and more to find a solution to the problem of handcranking the record player.
One of Bell’s treadle-powered graphophones at the Johnson Victrola Museum, Dover, Delaware (author’s photo)

Hence the Victrola: beautiful cabinets which doubled as tasteful pieces of furniture. The model names – the Gothic, Louis XVI, Jacobean, Chinese Chippendale —  conjured up images of old world sophistication; they also hid the horns behind cabinet doors (which might also conceal convenient shelves for record album storage as well.) Victrola is wordplay on the part of Johnson, combing the words Victor and pianola, another middle-class source of entertainment popular at the time.

Victrola models at the Johnson Victrola Museum (author’s photo)

Johnson was no fool, and while any horizontal surface was fair game for the myriad knickknacks beloved by Edwardian women, one will notice that most Victrola cabinets have rounded tops – it’s impossible to pile on top of them the vases, lamps, and assorted essential tchotchkes that would have made accessing the machine an annoyance.

Notice one can still place stuff on the sideboards, but the critical lid to the gramophone is rounded; Johnson did this deliberately as he figured once women started piling stuff on top of the machines, it would be too much trouble to have to clear them to use (author’s photo)

So now the fine lady – or middle or working class lady with aspirations – now had the perfect hostess’ companion.

The Victrola was beautiful and unobtrusive – in some advertisements, it’s barely in the picture.


Notice the Victrola tucked off to onside, and the cosy scene around it

Johnson’s relentless advertising campaign of the new design meant that ‘Victrola’ became a generic term for any sort of wind-up talking machine.

So when is it a Victrola? When it is a Victor machine, of course, but when the horn is concealed in a cabinet.

The record business? Its always been about the technology.

Edison, Berliner, Johnson invented the record business. They brought into being the modern music industry. Capturing sounds from the air so that they could be played back in any place and at any time. Imagine the revolution in thinking that brought about. And what do the three fathers of the music business have in common? They were all techies, not “music guys”. In fact, the more we trawl back through the history of recorded music and the more we look around today’s Apple led world it becomes clearer that all the great surges in music consumption have been driven by technology not necessarily by the prevailing quality of music. Sure there have been exceptions – Sinatra, Presley, The Beatles, Michael Jackson who have shifted game changing volumes and were exceptional in many regards, but ultimately people bought 78’s, 45’s, LP’s and CD’s not Frankie, Elvis, Ringo or Jacko themselves. And what also drove that 50 year upward curve of music sales from 1950 to 2000 was that people sometimes bought the same recording on each of those new formats as they came out. Conversely if it was the quality of music that drove the sales increase for those 50 years, then that must mean in these days of declining sales that our music is of inferior quality?


So why the rant on this site dedicated to the history of recorded sound? Because at the weekend I took the plunge and bought a Spotify Premium package and finally joined the latest music revolution. I’ve been using Spotify for free for a year or so but much as I found it useful as search and listen engine I never enjoyed the experience of listening on the computer and I don’t have space for my computer on my hi-fi rack….so I played about on Spotify and then bought the occasional record I liked on CD to listen to properly.


No longer. With the Spotify Premium account I can still search and listen but now I transfer what I like the sound of to my phone and can listen on headphones as I commute and can easily plug into the high fi and the docking station. So now I have pretty much all the music I could possibly want in the world at my fingertips. To be played anywhere, anytime. Its Edison to the power of Elvis x The Beatles + Berliner. Quite, quite fantastic.

This morning I threw on three new albums, Gruff Rhys, Sbtrkt and Little Dragon. Never heard of them? Neither had I really. I chose them because of reviews I’d seen. Pre-Spotify I would never have explored further as they were not on my top list to check. Boy, they are now. All three albums contain superb work and I’d recommend all of you to try them. Get Spotify. Treat yourself to the Premium model. And start trying the new music once again. Its the greatest music discovery engine ever and so easy to use. Edison, Berliner and Johneson would approve.

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

Recorded music sales are growing exponentially. Supply can’t keep up with demand….

….in 1898!

We followed how the Gramophone Company and its German sister company had some significant teething problems with the production of discs during the first year of business in 1898.

Whilst the English company was dependent upon its discs coming from Germany it had also agreed to source its gramophones from the American manufacturing plant run by Eldridge Johnson. The American company would send over gramophone parts and the UK company would assemble the gramophones in the Maiden Lane offices before despatching to their 600 retailers.

The huge demand for gramophones stretched this supply chain to the limit during the first year of trading in 1898 particularly as the busy Christmas season approached.

Fred Gaisberg recalled: “We looked upon that first Christmas as our last opportunity to turn a debit balance into credit but our stock of machines was cleared out early in December. Shipments of parts from America were held up, and the dealers were “sitting on our doorsteps” demanding goods. When eventually the cases did arrive, a few days before Christmas, everybody from the manager down to the office boy worked into the early hours assembling the parts. With faces and hands smeared with black lead from the spring-cages, we must have been a comical sight.

Nevertheless, early on Christmas Eve our stock rooms in Maiden Lane were cleared of machines and records, so we “trooped” into Rule’s to celebrate our achievement with drinks all round.”

You can almost hear the excitement of working in a start up business…Fabulous stuff.

Memoirs of a Musical Dog – Edison to The Beatles

As part of their Omnibus series, The BBC made a documentary about the history of recording in the late 1980’s which was called Memoirs of a Musical Dog. It aired on Friday May 27, 1988. It’s very good and thanks to the power of youtube, you can see it here:

Part One Early years of Edison and Berliner and Johnson including the origin of Nipper and His Masters Voice:

Part Two Fred Gaisberg recording Caruso recalled by his later assistant David Bicknell and Len Petts demonstrating a recording horn:

Part Three Electrical recording, Abbey Road, Menuhin remembering Elgar:

Part Four Gramophone accessories, Gracie Fields at the Hayes record factory, 1930’s picture discs, making 78 discs, recording messages home from the war:

Part Five The LP record, the 45 single, jukeboxes, The Beatles:

You would never guess this logo was designed in the 1980's

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.