Victor Talking Machine Company, Eldridge Johnson and the Development of the Acoustic Recording Process

 


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Victor Talking Machine Company, Eldridge Johnson, and the Development of Acoustic Recording Technology

 

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                              Eldridge R. Johnson in 1900, aged 33

 

The Victor Talking Machine Company and Eldridge Johnson: Early Development

 

Thomas Edison developed the first recording instrument, which he called the "phonograph" during 1877 and on December 4, 1877, succeeded in recording and playing back his voice. 

 

         Matthew Brady studio famous 1878 photograph of Thomas Edison and his phonograph

 

This device, and subsequent improvements until 1925 were entirely mechanical, using the acoustic energy of what was being recorded to engrave an audio image on a surface, and then using the acoustic energy of a stylus playing the audio image to vibrate a diaphragm and reproduce the audio signal.  Only acoustic energy was used, and it was transferred mechanically; no electricity was used in such systems (except, perhaps an electric motor used to rotate certain devices).  For this reason, the early phonograph is said to be an "acoustic" or "mechanical" recording system.

 

Following Thomas Edison's development of the cylinder phonograph in 1877, there were extensive later efforts to develop a recording system which was easier to use, and in which mass production of recordings was feasible and economic.

 

Edison's original phonograph involved recording the sound image on a hollow cylinder, with a soft surface first on tin foil, later on wax), on which the recording stylus moved up and down with the audio signal, perpendicular to the cylinder surface.  This up and down stylus motion is often referred to as the "vertical" or "hill and dale" recording process.

 

Edison cylinders, and the Pathé disks in France continued to use the hill and dale cutting process, and there is some argument that distortion is reduced, and dynamic range increased with this technique.  Edison cylinders had the advantage of being easy to rotate with a light motor, with easy contact of the stylus with the record surface.  However, cylinders had the disadvantage of being difficult to reproduce in quantity and at a low cost.

Edison observing a piano recording in 1900

 

Emil Berliner developed a flat disk "gramophone", in which the cutting stylus moved laterally, or parallel to the disk surface. This is referred to as the "lateral" recording process.  Berliner's first patent of recording technology was granted in 1887, with a patent for his flat disk system granted in 1888.  Berliner referred to his system as the "Gramophone".  Berliner's used a wax covered zinc disk, with a stylus cutting away the wax to form a recorded groove.  Acid would then cut the recording grove in the zinc, with the wax protecting the zinc surface where no grove had been cut.  Berliner then placed the the zinc master with into an alkaline bath, which deposited copper onto the zinc master.  The zinc would be then be removed by sulphuric acid, leaving a copper negative image of the zinc master.  Sulphuric acid does not attack copper.  This copper negative could then be used to stamp many record disks. 

 

However, this process destroyed the zinc original master, so clearly only one copper stamper could be produced.  Therefore, the number of copies of the gramophone record were clearly limited.  This was a drawback of the Berliner process, which Eldridge Johnson and Victor later solved.

 

The resulting Berliner gramophone recording was louder and the disk more sturdy than Edison wax cylinders, but they were also noisy, and the sound somewhat distorted by the acid etching process.

     Emile Berliner circa 1900

 

Initially, the Gramophone was more a toy than an instrument, because of its cheap and crude, hand cranked construction.  Berliner's initial models were manufactured in Germany, including a mechanism for a talking doll.

 

In 1895, following the granting to Berliner of the key lateral stylus recording patent (534,543) the Berliner Gramophone Company was formed in Philadelphia.  Unfortunately for Berliner, his company had weak management, and he fell in with partners who would eventually destroy his business through dissention and litigation. 

 

As surprising amount of gramophone development occurred in the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania area.  This seems influenced by the decisions of Emile Berliner.  Berliner had the practice of demonstrating his technical advancements periodically at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, a scientific institute.  In 1897, Berliner sent Fred W. Gaisberg to set up a recording studio in Philadelphia, with Alfred Clark sent to open a retail shop in Philadelphia1.  Fred Gaisberg later became a legend in the early recordings of nearly all the famous, including Caruso.  Alfred Clark, who had also worked for Edison, had a remarkable career eventually becoming Chairman of the Gramophone Company in London, and later, Chairman of EMI, following the merger of the Gramophone Company with the (British) Columbia Graphophone company in 1931. 

 

Eldridge Johnson was located across the Delaware River in Camden, New Jersey.  Johnson was a machinist, inventor and model maker.  The Gramophone Company and its New York distributor asked Johnson to develop a reliable and inexpensive drive mechanism for the Gramophone.  Johnson worked during the period 1895 to 1896 on developing and improving such a mechanism.  Previous Gramophones used either a highly variable hand crank, or an expensive and noisy electric motor.  Johnson sought to develop a reliable and inexpensive spring motor.  Designing a spring motor to reliably and consistently play the disk was difficult, because drag caused by the playing stylus and sound box at the outside, or beginning of the disk was much higher than nearer the disk center.  This was a problem even though the disks of that period were only about 7 inches in diameter, the 10 inch disks only coming after 1900, and 12 inch disks after 1902.  Eldridge Johnson's first 10 inch disk was cut on January 3, 1901 2.

 

In March, 1898, Johnson was granted US Patent 601,198 "Gramophone and Actuating Device There for" employing a spring motor kept at a constant speed by a fly ball speed governor.  His machine's speed was adjustable, and speed was remarkably uniform from beginning to the end of the disk.

 

Johnson began to sell his own machines through his Consolidated Talking Machine Co.  The patent granted Johnson and his victories in a series of patent fights were contrasted by Emile Berliner's losses in the courts to his rivals; his former partners.  In 1900, after a rival successfully enjoined the sale of the Berliner Gramophone, Eldridge Johnson was able to purchase the US assets of the Berliner Gramophone Company.  He also survived other legal challenges to his patents over the next years, and eventually negotiated a settlement among the parties, including a patents cross license between Victor, Columbia, and Edison on December 8, 19033.

 

Eldridge Johnson develops electroplating of the wax master

 

Johnson also developed in the later 1890s a new and superior method of creating the disk master that was used to press the many copies of a gramophone disk.  He began using a wax disk, and designed a cutting tool similar to the cutting device on a lathe.  This cutting tool was attached at a ninety degree angle to the diaphragm of a sound box, thus making a lateral cutting motion.  He used a screw drive to propel the cutter across the surface of the wax, making the recording in the soft surface.  Johnson's problem was how to electroplate the wax disk, wax being non-conductive.  This was accomplished by brushing metal dust across the wax surface, and then electroplating this surface3.  Initially, this dust apparently was lead, and then copper4, and in later years, graphite was used on the surface for conductivity.  To read more about the process which developed from Eldridge Johnson's innovation in the use of electrolysis to create generations of copies from the master disk, click on the Creation of Metal Stampers from a Wax Master.

 

In 1900, Johnson also developed and patented a new method of applying a circular paper label to the center of the disk while the pressed disk was still hot19. This was not the first time paper labels had been fixed to a record, but it was a superior method used for many years.

 

Meanwhile, Johnson was developing superior performing playing machines, a key to his future success.  The first Victor labeled records were issued in early 1901, still labeled with Johnson's name and not "Victor Talking Machine Company" (which was not yet created) 5.

 

On October 3,1901, Johnson merged his Consolidated Talking Machine Co. with the Berliner Gramophone Company to create the Victor Talking Machine Company of Camden, New Jersey.  In that year, he introduced five new phonograph models, and during 1901, sold 7.570 machines to the public.

 

Unlike Berliner, Bell and Tainter, Eldridge Johnson had succeeded in creating a system or machine and disk that was relatively easy to use, practical and economic in manufacture, and with a satisfactory sound quality.  This, along with his ability in organization, business, and avoiding further litigation was the key to his and Victor's success.  From this point on Victor grew prodigiously, and in the United States, the trade names of "Berliner" and "Gramophone" were superseded by "Victor" and "Victrola".

 

Growth of The Victor Talking Machine Company Growth of The Victor Talking Machine Company

 

Following the creation of the Victor Talking Machine Company, and the introduction of new recordings and new machines, the company prospered.  

 

The famous "His Master's Voice" logo was introduced in 1902 on Victor labels6. Sales further expanded, and in 1902, Victor sold 1,696,000 records 7.

 

Victor continued to introduce innovative new machines, such as the Victrola Model XVI in 1906. 

 

Unlike previous playing machines, with external horns, the Victrola Model XVI had its reproducing horn incorporated into the cabinet work of the machine, transforming it into a piece of household furniture.

 

Victor was also assiduously developing its catalog of recordings.  Johnson, who was strategically far-sighted made Victor's objective to contract, on an exclusive basis if possible, the leading musicians and singers of the era. 

 

Fred Gaisberg early contributed to this by his famous 1902 Milan recordings of Caruso for the princely sum of £500 for the Gramophone Company.  Through their agreements with the UK company, Victor also had access to the Caruso recordings.  Beginning in 1904, after Caruso relocated to New York City, to the Metropolitan Opera, Caruso became an exclusive recording artist for Victor, a relationship lasting until the tenor's withdrawal from performing in 1920.  This became lucrative not only for Victor, but a source of wealth for Caruso.  For example, in 1910 alone, Caruso received more than $70,000 in royalties 8 from Victor, worth more than $1.5 million in current purchasing value.

 

As well as Caruso, Giuseppe De Luca, Geraldine Farrar, Amelita Galli-Curci, Giovanni Martinelli, Alma Gluck, John McCormack, Maud Powell, Ernestine Schumann-Heink, Antonio Scotti, Luisa Tetrazzini, Jascha Heifetz, Fritz Kreisler, Victor Herbert, and Serge Rachmaninoff all recorded for Victor, sometimes in combinations, during the acoustic era.

 

Victor recordings of stars were issued on a special red label, becoming the famous Victor Red Seal recordings.   Initially, the Victor Red Label was a bright red indicating "Victor Record", with the His Master's Voice logo.  The so-called "Grand Prize" labels featured that wording around the center hole, as shown below.  These were produced from 1905 to 1909 9.

 

Between 1908 and 1913, the "Patent Label" was used, with various lists of patent numbers. This was followed by the famous "Bat Wing" labels, of a darker maroon color with a gold circular decoration which suggested bat wings to some, and with the name of "Victor" on some and eventually "Victrola" on all 9.

 

John R. Bolig in his masterful source book "The Victor Red Seal Discography Volume 1: Single-Sided Series (1903-1925)" 9 states that the first 25 Victor Red Seal disks were all from their British associated company, the Gramophone & Typewriter Company.  The Victor Talking Machine Company had signed agreements with G&T to import the matrices for nine of Caruso's recordings, as well as some of the other successful recordings of the G&T catalog.  So, the first twenty-five Red Seal records sold in the United States. from G&T origin, were offered to the public on March 28, 1903." 10

 

Importance of Eldridge Johnson to the development of the phonographic industry

 

Eldridge Johnson developed and patented many key technological aspects of his eventually successful phonograph recording and playing system.  However, it is not primarily in the invention of these innovations which were his major contribution, as was the case of Edison or Berliner.  Neither Edison nor Berliner were gifted developers of a business based on phonographic technology.  Eldridge Johnson was a gifted builder of business, who was able to bring together disparate technologies, manufacturing innovations, people, organization, and financing that lead to the amazing success of the Victor Talking Machine Company.  This resulted in the phonograph, and very often a Victrola, becoming a feature of every middle and upper class household in the US and western Europe, and the creation of a major new industry.

 

The several areas of his contribution were each an ingredient of the eventual success of Victor:

 

1.  Patents:

 

The patent litigation of 1898 to the end of 1903 regarding phonograph patents was one of the most expensive, turbulent, and also confusing legal battles regarding technology.  Its cost in millions of dollars in legal fees, plus the millions of lost profits of the participants surely matches in today's money any such technology battles of the last fifty years.  Johnson's acuity was to effectively patent his own technology, and to purchase or license other patents he judged he would need.  This was particularly difficult, since a number of key patents had never been tested in court, so the weight of their claims were uncertain.

Eldridge Johnson Patent 601.198 of 1898

 

Finally, he was instrumental in the industry reaching the cross-licensing agreements of December, 1903 which ended most of the ongoing patent litigation among the key companies.  Thereafter, they would "fight it out in the marketplace", where Victor proved to be successful, due to its other strengths.  These 1903 patent settlements were primarily due to the vision and intervention of Johnson.

 

2.  Quality:

 

The previous efforts of technology developers to perfect a phonograph system that would gain wide public acceptance and creation of a new market were unsuccessful.  This was primarily due to the lack of quality of their systems.  Neither the Bell -Tainter, the Berliner, nor even the Edison system had been commercially successful.  They were simply too low in volume, high in noise, variable in pitch, and generally primitive in sound to satisfy the public.  By many smaller and larger improvements, Johnson and his co-workers were able to improve each of these characteristics: increased volume, reduced noise, steady pitch, and general quality of reproduction.  This essentially transformed a toy or novelty device into an entertainment medium.  No developer prior to Eldridge Johnson had succeeded in achieving this.

 

3.  Manufacturing Process and Cost:

 

Practical and economic mass production of recordings prior to Eldridge Johnson's innovations was not feasible.  For example, a practical method to manufacture copies of cylinder recordings was not developed until 1902.  Mass duplication of cylinders, whether by Edison or by Bell - Tainter was done by recording cylinders on as many as fifteen recording horns, simultaneously for a band11, or perhaps four or five horns simultaneously for a singer.  Repeating these multiple recording again and again must have been exhausting, and even so, would not produce a large number of cylinders to sell.

Edison Band recording session using thirteen phonograph machines to simultaneously record cylinders 12

 

Berliner's acid etching of a zinc master disk made reproduction of multiple copies of a single recording much more practical, but for technical reasons not described here, mass production of good quality copies was also restricted, and the pressing of disks initially on celluloid and then on hard rubber was not particularly reliable.  Berliner adopted a shellac disk in 1896 13

 

Also the recording, cleaning, acid etching, removal of wax, and the problem of acid etching surfaces other than the recording groves, resulted in a difficult process, and a relatively high surface noise of the resulting recording.  Based on manufacturing cost and manufacturing reliability, none of these systems prior to Johnson's innovations were the basis for a major new industry.

 

Johnson's wax disk master, electroplating method, the making multiple mother pressing disks, and the mass production of reliable shellac disk pressings changed all this.  Victor recording had good volume and relatively quiet surfaces and provided the public with the product they could welcome.  All this was done at a controlled and economic manufacturing cost, with a robust process.

 

To read more of Johnson's innovation, click on Creation of Metal Stampers from a Wax Master.

 

4.   Management:

 

Eldridge Johnson was in the category of a number of manufacturing pioneers, such as Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone, and other innovators in his ability to build an effective business organization.  This was an ability missing from Bell and Tainter, from Berliner, and even from Edison.  Eldridge Johnson also had a strong strategic vision, which caused him to invest in continued technology development, and in people, leading to a strong management team.  He was an early advocate of spreading company stock ownership not only to managers, but widely within Victor Talking Machine Company.  Many became millionaires. He also practiced what is now referred to as "management by walking about" wherein he would circulate around the company shops and buildings, speaking with employees and finding out what was going on. 

 Eldridge Johnson in 1903

 

Johnson and one of his earliest hires, an business friends was Leon F. Douglass, who was first Vice President and General Manager of the Victor Talking Machine Company, and later Chairman of the Board from 1906 to 1918 build the company in the early years.   Douglass, who was also a phonograph pioneer entrepreneur is quoted from his unpublished autobiographical notes "...Johnson left everything pertaining to sales, advertising, and recording to me."14  Douglass promoted Victor products to the extent that the Victor Talking Machine Company was one of the largest mass media advertisers in the first decade after incorporation. Douglass later withdrew for health reasons, but continued to aid Victor.

 

5.   Alliance with Great Britain's Gramophone Company:

 

From the beginning, Johnson and the Victor Talking Machine Company had a key alliance with the Gramophone Company Limited (renamed "Gramophone & Typewriter Company" between December, 1900 and November, 1907), which had also had connections with Berliner and with Johnson.

 

The two companies divided the world markets primarily according to their copyright (including the Nipper logo and "His Master's Voice") and patent rights:  the Gramophone Company would sell to the British Empire and Europe, while Victor would sell to the United States, Latin America, the Middle East and Africa, and Asia/Pacific 15.

 

This alliance benefited both firms, and brought to Victor in the early years many European artists, including Caruso, the first artist to sell one million records.

 

6.   Building a brand image through exclusive recording contracts with the great artists of the world:

 

Eldridge Johnson worked relentlessly to erase the previous public image of the phonograph as a toy of inferior quality.  His investment in advertising was unprecedented, reaching more than $1.5 million annually by 1912.  Johnson himself said "advertising increases the turnover at less cost than by any other method"16. Benjamin Aldridge wrote " ... The company's advertising policy-at least after 1903-was a heavy-handed one. The mediums used, in the main, were magazines and newspapers. There was no effort to get maximum results at minimum cost, but rather to use every publication for which there was any justification. There were times when the money came hard, but it came. The advertisements were everywhere you looked ... !" 17

 

Previously listed are some of the many names that Victor Talking Machine Company signed to exclusive recording contracts.  Eldridge Johnson saw this as a means to establish and emphasize the leadership and quality of Victor in providing the best recordings of the best artists.  The Gramophone Company and Columbia did not generally enter into exclusive recording contracts with the great artists.  Columbia in 1903 recorded a series of great artists, including Edouard de Reszke, Ernestine Schumann-Heink and Marcella Sembrich, but did not continue in later years.  Also, unlike Victor, Columbia did not differentiate its artists quality by distinctive colored labels or by catalog number18 until Louis Sterling took Columbia over in 1925.  Edison, who had no particular interest in music recorded mainly novelty acts and lesser artists.

 

The first full two page advertising spread that Victor was able to afford, in 1904 in the then famous Saturday Evening Post set the standard by featuring a roster of its artists.   This, along with the theme of the Victrola as a prestige feature of every home, became Victor's usual advertising theme.

 

The combination of these abilities and innovations contributed by Eldridge Johnson was the key to the success of the Victor Talking Machine Company and the creation and growth of this major new industry.  The development of this new recording medium and the growth and creativity it released has parallels in the growth of the digital computer industry in the 1950s and 1960s, and in internet-based business more recently.


 

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1   Moore, Jerrold Northrop.   Sound Revolutions, A Biography of Fred Gaisberg, Founding Father of Commercial Sound Recordings. Sanctuary Publishing Ltd.  London. 1999.  ISBN 1-86074-235-1
2   Fagan, Ted and Moran, William R. The Encyclopedic Discography of Victor Recordings Matrix Series 1 through 4999.  Greenwood Press.  Westport Connecticut 1986 ISBN 0-313-25320-X
3  Page 72.  Johnson, E. R. Fenimore.   His Master's Voice Was Eldridge R. Johnson,  A Biography  State Media, Inc.  Milford, Delaware 1974.
4  Page 83 Johnson op. cit.
5, 6  see Howard Friedman's excellent internet site on Victor labels at "Victor's Use of Matrix Numbers By Howard S. Friedman" at http://www.cris.com/~oakapple/gasdisc/matrix3.htm
7  Johnson op. cit. data
8  The New York Times: August 28, 1910
9   page xvi.  Bolig, John R. > The Victor Red Seal Discography Volume 1: Single-Sided Series (1903-1925)
10  page x.  Bolig, John R. The Victor Red Seal Discography Volume 1: Single-Sided Series (1903-1925)
11, 12   page 77.  Talking Machine News, September 1903, as found by Glenn Sage, Portland, Oregon and shown in his web site http://www.tinfoil.com
13   Steven Schoenherr.  Recording Technology History. The Early Gramophone  2004.   http://history.sandiego.edu/GEN/recording/berliner.html
14  Douglass,  Leon F. (Gracyk, Tim. editor).  Leon F. Douglass: Inventor and Victor's First Vice-President   an unpublished autobiography at Tim Gracyk's excellent old phonograph website http://www.gracyk.com/leon.shtml
15   page 45 Aldridge, Benjamin. L. The Victor Talking Machine Company  (edited by Frederic Bayh) RCA Sales Corporation. 1964
16  Gelatt, Roland The Fabulous Phonograph Cassell & Company, 1954 rev. 1977 ISBN 0-304-29904-9
17  page 49 Aldridge, Benjamin L. op. cit.
18    Moses, Julian Morton. Collectors' Guide to American Recordings 1895 - 1925. American Record Collectors' Exchange. New York. 1949.
19   Koenigsberg, Allen. The Patent History of the Phonograph 1877-1912. APM Press.  Brooklyn, NY 1990

 
Note: Also consult the Berliner Registry Project  http://www.berliner.netfirms.com/


 

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