The History of the Major Record Companies in the UK #4 Aeolian

This is the fourth and final extract from a wonderful book called “The Talking Machine Industry” written by Ogilvie Mitchell in 1924. This section covers the Aeolian Company of America, a frisky new arrival on the record scene in 1924 having started to make Vocalion phonographs and records in 1917.

Ogilvie, our scribe, seems to have drunk deep from the Aeolian PR cup and this extract feels at times more like a puff piece than his earlier pieces on Pathe Freres, The Gramophone Company and The Columbia Phonograph Company. He describes Aeolian as well financed, with a superior business model and delivering top notch products. He even concludes “we feel certain that, as time goes on, they will hold one of the most exalted positions in the talking machine world.” Aeolian would sell Vocalion with the year, so exiting the record business and the Aeolian business unwinding quickly thereafter…..

Two ladies playing on an Aeolian Player Piano in 1906

“The Aeolian Company of America first came into notice as the manufacturers of player-pianos and instruments of that genre. With untold capital behind them they forged ahead with remarkable vigour. A fine hall, with magnificent show-rooms and business premises, was erected on an advantageous site in New York, and as if by magic the great corporation bounded into the forefront of the musical manufacturing world. But this was not achieved without deep thought and careful planning. For a long time there had been active brains at work, considering, devising, scheming, and not until every action of the future had been thoroughly weighed and balanced was a move made. As soon as the company felt itself to be on a sound and solid basis it mentally bridged the Atlantic and set up an English house in Bond Street, London. The Aeolian Hall on this side, with its high-class concerts and musical entertainments, is now one of the most popular features of the West End, and the Aeolian Orchestra, a specially selected body of musicians, is second to none in thekingdom. The spirit of enterprise pervaded the minds of all those who were in any way connected with the firm, and it was this spirit that brought forth the Aeolian-Vocalion, the talking machine which is the company’s special product.

The Aeolian-Vocalion Talking Machine

We are told that, in the late summer of 1912, there arrived in London a Mr. F. J. Empson, a resident of Sydney, Australia. He brought with him a gramophone in which was embodied a wonderful patented device for controlling musical effects. This, in the opinion of its inventor, added so immeasurably to the musical value and charm of the instrument that he thought he had but to show it to manufacturers to secure its immediate adoption. As has been the fate of so many geniuses, mechanical and otherwise, since the world began, Mr. Empson found it impossible to gain a satisfactory audience with those whom he approached. Discouraged and depressed he purchased his passage home and was on the point of sailing, when he accidentally encountered a friend to whom he related his disappointing experiences. This friend was well acquainted with the officials of the Aeolian Company’s London house, and earnestly advised the poor, disheartened inventor to make one more attempt to have his contrivance exploited.

He told him of the company and directed him to their offices. With just one faint ray of hope illuminating the darkness of his mind, the inventor made his way to Bond Street. For the first time since his arrival in England the reception that he met with was satisfactory. The Aeolian officials were so impressed with the value of the new feature that they took an option on the patents, and instead of returning to Australia, he and his instrument were immediately shipped across to the head offices of the company in New York. There the directors and experts at once grasped the possibilities of the invention. Without delay they had the patents investigated, and on finding them sound and inclusive, closed with the inventor on a mutually satisfactory basis. Thus was the Aeolian-Vocalion, with its Graduola attachment, launched upon the world.

Apart from the advance made by the company in the style of their machines and the accuracy of reproduction of all records submitted to the test of the turntable, the Aeolian-Vocalion itself was voiceless, which means the firm manufactured no records of their own. That was to be a big consideration for the future. In the meantime the energies of the concern were concentrated upon the Graduola. This device obviated the use of different toned needles, the muting of horns, the opening and closing of shutters, and all the various methods which had been adopted of altering the tone of the gramophone to suit the ear of the listener. It gave into the hands of the operator a perfect means of controlling the reproduction of the record. Modulation of the voice of a singer could be governed at the will of the gramophone user, and in that way the listener could guide to his ear inflexions and variations which were more agreeable to him than the actual recording.

It may be said that this principle is altogether wrong, and that if you choose to vary the conception of the vocalist you do not get the true value of the voice. This is undoubtedly quite right, but it very often happens that the idea of the listener is at variance with the idea of the singer. We know many persons who have no liking for the forceful tones of Caruso, but by the use of the Graduola these may be so subdued that their beauty can be acknowledged and appreciated. The musical instinct of the listener imperceptibly directs him while he holds the little attachment in his hands.

The simple contrivance of Mr. Empson, like many other inventions, was merely the adaptation of a known fact to a new outlet. Everybody knows that air carries sound and that if the current be reversed the sound becomes fainter. Therein lies the secret of the Graduola. A slender, flexible tube connects the gramophone with the operator. At the end in the fingers of the manipulator is a valve which he pushes in or retracts according to his personal desire. Thus the sound given forth from the machine is regulated at the will of the performer. He, or she, can therefore listen to the record in the manner desired. It is as simple as A, B, C, but it had never been applied to the talking machine before the Aeolian-Vocalion made their arrangement with the inventor.

We have spoken of the Aeolian-Vocalion being voiceless, inasmuch as the company produced no records, but that deficiency has, happily for all gramophone enthusiasts, been adequately made good. After more than two years of unremitting experiment the company have placed upon the market records which will hold their own, if not surpass, any that have previously been brought before the public. To our knowledge they have scrapped thousands which they did not consider up to the mark, and from their well equipped factory at Hayes, nothing but the very best are issued.They have secured good artists, although the field has been somewhat restricted in consequence of other companies having enrolled the greatest of vocalists and instrumentalists, yet they have made a splendid start and we feel certain that, as time goes on, they will hold one of the most exalted positions in the talking machine world.”

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The History of the Major Record Companies in the UK #3 Pathe Freres

This is the third extract from a wonderful book called “The Talking Machine Industry” written by Ogilvie Mitchell in 1924 covering the Pathe Freres Company.

Charles Pathe

Emile Pathe

Charles and Emile Pathe originally ran a bistro in Paris. They moved into music retailing, first selling Edison products before beginning to record and sell their own records. They also moved into film making and distribution and expanded both sides of the entertainment business into wider Europe and the USA. In 1924, when this book was published, Pathe were hitting financial difficulties and, four years later, the French and British Pathé phonograph assets were sold to the British Columbia Graphophone Company which would in turn soon become part of EMI. In July 1929, the assets of the American Pathé record company were merged into the newly formed American Record Corporation.

This is what Ogilvie Mitchell had to say in 1924:

“Pathe Freres, who had been doing a very large continental trade, came into the English market in 1902. By the exercise of a little ingenuity, aided by Mr. J. E. Hough, they had previously circumvented the Edison embargo. No sooner, however, were they free to export their goods from France to England than they began to do an extensive trade with us. The Pathe discs are phono-cut, i.e. they are of the hill and dale variety invented by Edison, and therefore require to be played with a special needle. To this end the firm supplies asound box of its own with a permanent attachment of a ball-pointed sapphire. Quite recently it has brought out a reproducer which by a simple contrivance permits of a steel needle to be used for the lateral cut disc as well.

In the early days Pathe records were played from the centre outward to the periphery of the disc, but since the company erected a British factory on this side the Channel they have reversed their old system and the record is now played in the same manner as other discs. Those old discs were splendid fellows, nearly 14 ins. across and embodied the voices of many of the best continental artists. The firm actually prevailed upon Sara Bernhardt to record her incomparable tones, and in the years to come that disc ought to be worth much more than its weight in gold. The records are now somewhat reduced in size, conforming more to the width of ordinary makes, but the best of them at the present time are the most expensive on sale in England.

It is worthy of mention that Pathe Freres were the first to introduce the language-teaching record, and it is quite possible that they may revert to this very useful method of instruction now that there is a demand for easy systems of learning foreign tongues.

Besides building a factory here in England, Messrs. Pathe” have established a large business in America, which we understand is extremely prosperous. M. Jacques Pathe is at the head of affairs in London, and is a shrewd and competent director. He fought in the war for his country and received high commendation for his service. Although it has nothing to do with this little book it may not be out of place to state that Pathe Freres are a firm with very extensive interests in the kinematograph world. The House of Pathe, with its defiant chanticleer as a trade-mark has branches in every corner of the civilized globe, and its machines and discs are familiar to everyone who has the slightest knowledge of the reproduction of sound.”

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.

The Four Major record companies in the UK (in 1924). #1

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, starting now with The Gramophone Company – the predecessor company to the modern EMI.

“In England at the present time there are four companies manufacturing the higher priced records. Of these The Gramophone Company, Ltd., undoubtedly holds the field. The history of this extensive concern has already been referred to cursorily in a previous chapter, but we would like to lay before the reader a more comprehensive chronicle of its origin and rise. Like most of the other large firms engaged in the industry The Gramophone Company began its career in America. As previously stated, Berliner was the man who gave the term “gramophone” to his invention of a disc machine, though he never claimed an exclusive right thereto. In 1896 or 1897 Berliner sold his English patent rights, including, it is said, his rights in respect of certain patented improvements, to a private firm calling itself The Gramophone Company, taking its name from the instrument. In 1899 this concern transferred its business to a company incorporated under the style of The Gramophone Company, Limited, the object of which, as defined by its Memorandum of Association, embraced, inter alia, the manufacture and sale of gramophones and phonographs and gramophone discs and phonograph cylinders. The last mentioned firm continued to sell machines and discs made under Berliner’s patent until the following year, when it parted with its business to a company with a larger capital. This new concern had about the same time acquired an interest in typewriters, and was incorporated as The Gramophone and Typewriter Company, Limited. The same year the Tainter-Bell patent expired, and the engraving method being considered superior to etching, the company abandoned the latter process and adopted the former, continuing, however, to use the name of gramophone. There was nothing wrong in that, for the essence of the Berliner system was the sinuous line of even depth and the word “gramophone“ had come to denote a disc talking machine, as opposed to the phonograph and graphophone which were at that time operated by cylinders.

The Gramophone and Typewriter Company established a branch in England almost as soon as it was inaugurated, with Mr. Barry Owen as its representative, and some time afterwards dropped the typewriter section of the business, reverting to the old title of The Gramophone Company, Ltd. They had their offices in Maiden Lane, Covent Garden, and so rapid was the growth of this British branch that a company was formed with a share capital of £600,000, the ordinary shares in the first instance being offered to the trade. Thereupon they removed to the City Road where they remained in full swing until the extensive works at Hayes, Middlesex, which were opened in 1907, were ready to receive the army of workers of every description attached to the firm. This enormous factory has been enlarged and developed since that date until it now covers twenty-three acres of ground.

Ever since the expiry of Berliner’s 1887 patent The Gramophone Company had arrogated to itself the sole right to the term “gramophone.” In its dealings with the trade it had consistently claimed monopoly rights in the word as denoting goods of its own manufacture only, and by warning circulars, legal proceedings and threats of legal proceedings, had done its best to support its exclusive claims. Other manufacturers refrained from describing their instruments as gramophones from the dread of infringing the alleged rights of the company. The gigantic bubble, however, was destined to be pricked.

In the year 1910 the company applied for power to register the term “gramophone” as applicable solely to the wares manufactured and dealt in by them. The most memorable case ever heard of in the talking machine world of this country ensued. It came before Mr. Justice Parker and lasted four days. Experts, legal and otherwise, were called, examined and cross-examined. The court was crammed with all the leading lights of the trade, who were there either as witnesses or as spectators. At length judgment was pronounced Power was refused, and the word “gramophone” became the property of anyone who had a disc machine to sell. A verbatim note of the whole proceedings was taken at the time by the Talking Machine News, and was published the morning after judgment was delivered. It was the only paper that printed the case in extenso.

In legal matters The Gramophone Company have been rather unfortunate, for previous to the case we have spoken of they lost one over the Gibson tapering tone arm in 1906. This was an invention for which they claimed sole rights. These were disputed and the action went against them. Nevertheless, if they have been unlucky in the courts it cannot be denied they have been marvellously successful in business. Before the war there were subsidiary companies in various capitals of Europe, and they were connected with the great Victor Company of America, which has now a large controlling interest in the concern. The Zonophone Company, too, has been absorbed by this firm.

During the war a portion of the huge factory at Hayes, the foundation-stone of which, by the way, was laid by Madame Tetrazzini, was given over to the manufacture of munitions. It is believed that The Gramophone Company was the first industrial concern, not normally engaged on Government contracts, to convert their plant. Within ten days of the declaration of war, the output of certain essential fuse parts was commenced. These required extraordinary accuracy and the mechanism at command of the company enabled them to make a beginning almost at once.

Of the artists exclusively engaged to make the famous “His Master’s Voice” records for the company we shall speak later, and in the chapter devoted to the “Talking Machine as a Teacher ” we shall have something to say of the firm’s efforts in that direction.”

We’ve been trying to find more information about the author but little is available. He appears to have written several pulp novels around the turn of the twentieth century and at least one song called Heroes. (Not the same song as was later recorded by David Bowie!)