The Hound heartily thanks Mr Lester Smith for providing this little known image of Emile Berliner standing by his first machine.
In 1910 this beautiful HMV Gramophone was loaned by The Gramophone Company to Captain Scott to keep the sailors and expedition team entertained as they made their way to the South Pole.
Scott took with him two HMV “monarch” gramophones, donated by The Gramophone Company, which later became EMI, together with several hundred 78rpm discs, chosen to boost the team’s morale.
Scott’s Gramophone has now returned safely back to the EMI Archive Trust after another epic journey to Australia, New Zealand and back to the United Kingdom with the award winning the Natural History Museum’s” Scott’s Last expedition” exhibition, June 2011-June 2013.
The EMI Archive Trust worked closely with EMI to make a collection of recordings played, and recordings likely to have been played on Scott’s fateful last expedition to the South Pole.
‘Scott’s Music Box is available as download or double CD. (available here.)
We made mention of this fine new hardback book a few months back, but feel it deserves more attention, and so, with the kind permission of its creators Christopher Proudfoot and Brian Oakley, we’re starting a series of extracts to give/remind you of the first golden era of recorded music and the wonderfully crafted machines that allowed it to be heard.
First up is ‘The Improved Gramophone – Trade-mark, (Style No 5).
This was the machine that started the life of The Gramophone Company in Britain in 1897, the first to be sold here by Wilfred Barry Owen and his associates. While the very first machines imported from New York bore The National Gramophone Co name, subsequent imports carried the names of The Gramophone Company (until 1899), The Gramophone Company Ltd. (until the end of 1900), and The Gramophone and Typewriter Ltd (January 1901-March 1902) together with one of the first two addresses of the Company, 31 Maiden Lane or 21 City Road.
Initially retailing at £5.10s (£5.50), cheaper models were added, retailing at 2,3 or 4 guineas (£2.10, £3.15, £4.20)
With a plain oak case housing the motor and, together with the extension arm, mounted on a baseboard and the mainspring projecting in a nickel-plated cast iron casing, the Improved Gramophone set the standard of craftsmanship and quality that was to epitomise the Gramophone Company’s output for many years.
Other versions, like this one
were made from walnut with gilt fittings, and there were even ‘Extra Fine’ models made from mahogany – all at this stage imported from New York. The witch’s hat horns were either made from tinplate or zinc and painted black, as in the first photo, or single spun from brass. While the first shipment was largely the black version, the brass model, an experiment, proved the more popular and by 1902 nickel plated and even silver plated versions were available.
To complete the purchase, wealthy customers were invited to buy a carrying case. These came in several styles, made in black enamel, brown canvas and green crocodile or tan leather. Classy eh?
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 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.
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.
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.
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).
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.’
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.
Fred Gaisberg and side-kick William Sinkler Darby were sent from London to the Continent to make more recordings for the Gramophone Company in 1899. The new Gramophone technology was in great demand and the company was struggling to keep up with it. The company had established a new disc manufacturing plant in Hanover that was producing discs for the continent. What was needed was more recordings to go on the discs. Hence Fred & William found themselves in Leipzig in May 1899. Oh, and there was also a side deal with Alfred Clark’s phonograph company to supply them with recordings for use on their rival audio technology.
They hooked up with Thomas Birnbaum, the Manager in charge of the German office of The Gramophone Company and made their first recordings in Leipzig. On Tuesday 30th May 1899, they boarded a train at Leipzig station arriving in Budapest where they began recording on the following Saturday.
This picture shows Fred (left on the pianothat is raised up to the level of the recording horn), Sinkler Darby (on the right) and Thomas Birnbaum horsing around with Marcella Lindh, a talented soprano who was based in Budapest at the time. Marcella was not Hungarian; she was American born and had performed with the John Sousa Band. This is probably where Fred knew Marcella from as he had worked with Sousa on several occasions. Lindh was a successful singer in the States, having sung at the Metropolitan Opera in New York and various social events in New York area before heading to the continent and ultimately Budapest with her Hungarian husband becoming Marcella Lindh Jellinek in the process. After her husband died, Marcella returned to America, settling in Detroit where she lived until 30 July 1966.
Gaisberg recorded over 200 sessions in Budapest. There do not seem to have been any recordings of Marcella Lindh on this trip which suggests that her visit to the studio was a social one. Many of the sessions were of gypsy style music, including some of this guy, Török Istvan:
As a whole, however, the Budapest stopover did not lead to any landmark recordings. On 15th June the recording team boarded the 8am train to Vienna.
Vienna proved to be a more successful recording venue. Gaisberg recorded a variety of musicians including yodlers and folk musicians as well as the Viennese dance orchestra of Carl Ziehrer. Ziehrer was incredibly popular in waltz-crazy Vienna at the time having returned from touring Europe and America. “Younger audiences liked his brash, highly rhythmic take on the waltz and by the end of the decade he had overtaken his old adversary, [Edward Strauss,] in popularity.”
The biggest success of Vienna was the recordings that Gaisberg and Sinkler Darby made of the piano virtuoso Alfred Grunfeld. Grunfeld was one of the great pianists of the era and perhaps the most prominent artist yet recorded at that point in time. Grunfeld played a stand up piano as featured in the photo of Marcella Lindh, above, rather than the grand piano he had been used to. . You can learn more about Grunfeld here, and listen to one of Gaisberg’s recordings of him:
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.
We were sent a link to a contemporary Scottish group called Found who worked with a local baker to create a record made of chocolate. It was for their single Anti-climb Paint and you can watch a video of their experiment here. It seemed like a novel idea.
But they were not the first…..this guy in the Germany did it back in the 1980’s and apparently applied for a patent to own the chocolate disc.
I think his disc sound better and looks even better to eat than the more recent Scottish effort but I suspect his patent was unsuccessful because even he was nowhere near the first to have this idea.
Our friends at the EMI Archive Trust have come up with an even earlier example dating back to the very beginning of the twentieth century.
The EMI Archive Trust has examples of the packaging and gramophones made to play chocolate records. These were manufactured by Stollwerck, a German confectionary firm, which produced small disc machines from 1902. These were simple machines, derived from the American toy Graphophone. The records themselves were vertically cut, and some were made of chocolate with a tin-foil covering. Two models of machines were made; one tin-plate circular affair finished in green and gold, and one rectangular wooden one.
As ever, please contact the EMI Archive Trust if you would like learn more about their collection.
We’ve seen that Alfred Clark left Berliner’s employ in favour of Edison and moved to Paris to set up a rival to the Gramophone Company in Europe. This put the two old friends, Alfred Clark and Fred Gaisberg, in direct competition for new recordings in 1899.
Clark, pictured above, proved to be a canny businessman. He contacted Trevor Williams, the Chairman of the Gramophone Company and persuaded him to pool resources rather than go head to head against each other.. The Gramophone Company would lead the recording programme. Clark would contribute towards the costs of the recording programme and in return would be able to use the recordings on the cylinders that he would sell for playing on Edison’s phonographs. The Gramophone company would be able to sell the same recordings on their own format. This co-operation seems extraordinary today but Clark was able to secure the deal and it had the consequence of putting more pressure on Fred Gaisberg to deliver more high quality recordings.
To this end, the Managing Director of the Gramophone Company, William Barry Owen, decided to step up the recording programme and send Gaisberg on what must be one of the first field recording trips – to the continent with special portable recording kit.
This is the final part of a five-day series of blog entries about Russell Hunting, a maverick who was involved at the start of the very start of the record business when its pioneers were searching to find the best business model to capitalise on the new sound-recording and playback technology. Hunting tried all sorts of ways to make money between 1894 and 1899 including comedy records, obscene records (for which he received a 3 month jail sentence), found himself being ripped off by a record company and made dramatic recordings to appeal to patriotism during the Boer Wars.
By 1904 Hunting had moved to London and had settled down a little. He was working for the newly formed Sterling Phonograph Company which was owned by Louis Sterling. A Russian-born American citizen now living in England, Sterling had been an early employee of The Gramophone Company before setting up on his own and would later go on to become the first Managing Director of the newly formed EMI in 1931, working with Fred Gaisberg’s old friend Alfred Clark (who became the first Chairman of EMI).
Hunting discovered a new Australian singer called Peter Dawson. Dawson was talented but poor and hungry for success, which meant that unlike the established singers of the day who were still loathe to record their voices Dawson “accepted all and sundry engagements – “smokers”, seaside concert parties, and phonograph recording” remembered Gaisberg later.
Dawson proved a remarkable and flexible talent who could sing beautifully in a range of styles. Gaisberg, Sterling and Hunting proved equally flexible and agreed a “secret understanding” to work together to their mutual benefit. In short they would record Dawson together and then Sterling would use the recordings for supplying phonograph owners with cylinders and Gaisberg would use the same recording for gramophone.
The flexibility of the singer and the three executives would be highlighted when one of Gaisberg’s star turns, Harry Lauder, proved reluctant to make the number of recordings desired by Gaisberg. Lauder was a big star at the time who specialised in Scottish balladry and presented himself as a comic Highlander.
His big songs included “I love a lassie” and “Stop yer tickling, Jock”
Peter Dawson was a fantastic mimic. He later recalled, “At The Gramophone Company one day I gave an imitation of Lauder singing “I love a lassie”. I was astonished at the reaction among the recording staff. Fred Gaisberg, the chief, came up to me excitedly and said:
“Peter, can you do any more like that. I mean, can you sing Scottish?” I was amused at the way the little American put it, and answered “Yes of course. I can sing all of his songs including “Stop Yer Tickling Jock”….”
A little while later he asked me what I thought of singing Lauder’s songs….under another name.” That other name was “Hector Grant”
Hunting, Sterling and Gaisberg leapt upon the imitation. The records became widely popular and they even persuaded Dawson to disguise himself and don a kilt to go on tour as “Hector Grant.”
Lauder was livid that he was being copied in this way. But after a while Grant’s records became less successful and the “Hector Grant” project was ended. Dawson and Gaisberg had a conversation with Lauder some years later after World War I, which Dawson recalled:
“Some time later I met Harry Lauder at the recording studio. I was making a Peter Dawson record…We chatted about old times, and he suddenly turned to Fred Gaisberg and myself:
“Did ye no ken a chap by the name of Hector Grant? He had a grrrand voice. He must have been killed in the war.”
Fred grinned and in his quiet American way asked, “Didn’t you know, Harry, that Hector Grant was Peter?”
But with obvious disbelief he replied. “Nah, nah, ye canna tell me that. I saw him in Glasgie. Yon was a much older man…”
In 1905 Sterling sold his Sterling Phonograph Company to Hunting who renamed it The Russell Hunting Record Company Ltd. Russell Hunting had begun to make some real money. He had become a player.
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.