Talking Machines

Latest Pix, Photo Challenges

Sound box from a 1940s era portable Birch windup gramophone

Know what this is? It’s called a reproducer or a sound box. Found at the end of the tone arm of a portable gramophone, it holds a steel needle at approximately 60 degrees to the shellac surface of a recorded disc. Once the main spring is wound-up, a turntable gently spins at 78 rotations per minute.   If you close your eyes, perhaps you can imagine how astonishing it was to hear the very popular Billy Murray sing “Pretty Baby”.

It’s 1916, and for the first time, Americans can take recorded music anywhere they want to go.  They’re called “Talking Machines.” State of the art technology, 100 years ago.

Today there are savvy youngsters who have never seen an 8-track tape player, boom box, Sony Walkman, Discman or Rio. Even the iPod is 16 years old.

Now we talk to a machine and it retrieves the music we want from a nebulous place called “the cloud.” I can’t begin to imagine where the next 100 years will take us.

Perhaps you’d like to slow down, step back and remember how it was. These vintage Talking Machines are still out there, ready to be recycled.  That makes this photo my take on the Tuesday fpj-photo-challenge: Recycle

Did you ever hear the story of how the first talking machines changed the way we listen to music?If you ask most Americans, they will credit Thomas Edison with the invention of the phonograph in 1878. He was the first to patent a device that recorded the human voice, but Edison himself initially failed to recognize it’s potential for entertainment.

According to Peter Tschmuck’s book Creativity and Innovation in the Music Industry Edison lists 10 areas of application for his invention. In addition to the possibilities of dictating letters in advance, developing phonographic books for the blind or storing phone calls, he also saw the potential for reproducing music. But he did not want his invention to become “toy” for playing recorded music.

The financiers of the Edison Speaking Phonograph Company –some of whom were closely connected with the newly created Bell Telephone Company–regarded it as an office machine, like a Dictaphone. By 1879, the company produced only about 600 machines and Edison turned his attention to experiments with electricity and electric light.

Meanwhile, Chichester Bell, cousin of another famous inventor, Alexander Graham Bell, and his lab partner Charles Sumner Tainter applied for a patent in 1886 for a machine they called a Graphophone—inverting Edison’s words and claiming they improved his invention.   The American Graphophone Company was born.

After a failed effort to combine the Bell lab’s Graphophone with an improved Edison phonograph, a third entity emerged in 1888. New York investor Jessie H. Lippincott purchased distribution rights for the machines and in 1890 formed the National Phonograph Association.   Lippincott imagined the potential for stenographic recordings for government agencies and courts of law. He miscalculated the market and his company was bankrupt in less than a year. Edison took over the shares and continued to try to push his invention toward business applications. Years later, Edison accepted the phonograph as an entertainment instrument.

In the meantime, some enterprising showman saw its potential as a way to bring music to the masses–and make money doing it. In 1889 Louis Glass of the Pacific Phonograph Company added a coin slot mechanism and four headphone pairs to the dictation machine, which featured prerecorded entertainment on the cylinder. Saloons, amusement parks and retail shops ordered this precursor to the jukebox. They were installed in waiting rooms of train and ferry stations.

Another pioneer, Columbia Phonograph Company, quickly realized the dictation business would not be profitable and put its energies into musical content. By 1891 Columbia already owned a 10-page catalog with recordings of waltzes, polkas, and marches–some recorded by the US Marine Band, conducted by bandleader John Philip Sousa. Columbia sought out musicians and produced recordings in the US and throughout Europe.

Although Columbia’s music could be played on the wax cylinders of the coin-in-the-slot players, they were not reaching wide distribution. The problem was the production of the cylinders.

Here’s how it worked: Each cylinder was produced as an original. When recording music, it was necessary to use ten recording devices simultaneously in order to produce ten copies. For 100 copies, a musician would have to perform at his best ten times in a row!

Enter German immigrant Emile Berliner who developed the phonogram– a new recording material that could be mass-produced. He is the first to call his instrument a “Gramophone”. The Berliner Gramophone Company was founded in Philadelphia in 1895. But in order for his invention to really take off, Berliner needed a machine that was easy to use, practical and economic to manufacture, and possessed satisfactory sound quality.

Meet Eldridge Johnson. Johnson invented a spring motor that was small, quiet and cheap to produce. Berliner contracted the Johnson Motor Company to furnish the motors for his gramophone. Combined with aggressive advertising designed by Frank Seaman, the sales of gramophones in 1898 reached $1 million in revenue.

In a twisted tale too long to tell here, Berliner and Johnson ultimately founded a new company in 1901 that incorporated patent rights, production capability, and distribution network for the machines and discs. Berliner concentrated on collecting music and making records, expanding to Europe and ultimately founding Deutche Grammophon in Berlin and British Gramophone in London. In America, they were called the Victor Talking Machine Company and the replay media “Victor Records.”

Somewhere along the line, you met Victor’s dog, Nipper.

The artist Francis Barraud created the original painting of the English born terrier listening to a wind-up cylinder phonograph. The illustration was ultimately named “His Master’s Voice.” Funny thing about that painting: the artist first attempted to sell the illustration to the director of the Edison-Bell Company, who dismissed the idea. “Dogs don’t listen to phonographs,” was the reason. But when he visited the London offices of the Berliner’s Gramophone Company, manager William Barry Owen suggested that if he were to replace the cylinder machine with a Berliner disc gramophone, the company would buy it. That’s how the modified version became the registered trademark of Victor Records, it’s London based partner, His Master’s Voice (HMV), and later (after its 1929 acquisition) Radio Corporation of America (RCA).

While effective on the logo, the manufacturers of talking machines recognized the big external horns were not practical. Between 1901 and 1920, record players became a part of most households. Some very expensive models were made of milled hardwood with gold or brass parts, many had the horn curled under the turntable, a design pioneered by Victor in their Victrola.

The desire to “take our music with us” was there nearly from the beginning. Around 1916 several firms produced portable “suitcase” models. Soldiers and sailors took them overseas. In the summer of 1922 portables were heavily advertised as ideal for picnics, camping or back porch listening.   Hundreds of off-brand portable models were available.  The one pictured here is a Birch, probably made in the 1940s.

1940s era Birch wind up portable gramophone. 78rpm "His Masters Voice" record

1940s era Birch wind-up portable gramophone. 78rpm “His Masters Voice” record features Enrico Caruso singing the aria “Recondita Armonia” from the opera “Tossca” by G. Puccini

Talking Machine World, a trade publication written for purveyors of phonographs and radios referred to the Talking Machines as “instruments.” Both gramophones and records were sold in piano and musical instrument stores and in furniture stores.

While there were still a number in production up until the 1950s, the heyday of the wind up gramophones was short lived. Over production, business failures, “electrified” homes and introduction of radio all contributed to their decline.

Collectors abound and associations like the Antique Phonograph Society provide extensive resources for people who have a passion for the preservation of antique phonographs and records. Keep in mind that they are not like today’s record players. First and foremost, steel needles are designed to be used once only – then thrown away. And the needles are meant only for 78 rpm shellac-based records (like Victor and Columbia). Fortunately, new needles and replacement parts are available.

Just talk to your machine to find out where.



5 thoughts on “Talking Machines

  1. Love the close-up at the top. The second one is cool because it shows how everything looks together. I’ve never seen an arm like that. Interesting post on gramophones. Didn’t realize they had made a portable player so early.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s