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

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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 .