A Quarter Century of Pre-History


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Most of us are reasonably familiar with the history of the phonograph record from Caruso onward; from the early nineteen-hundreds, when records still playable today on our machines were first sold to a mass market. We know of the great operatic period, the heyday of the acoustical record and the acoustical reproducer, the arch rival of radio in the nineteen-twenties, and the near-expiration of the phonograph (saved in extremes by the very device that had made modern radio possible, the vacuum tube, and the electrical amplification of sound). We are still in the era of the electrically made record and the electronic reproducer.

But most of us are decidedly hazy about the twenty-five years between 1877, when Edison's tiny tinfoil gadget first spoke a somewhat recognizable "Mary had a little lamb," and 1902, when the disk record became, through an unprecedented pooling of rival patents, virtually a world-wide standard, and so led to the well known and enormous development of competitive enterprise in the acoustical record business. So much that went on in that hectic quarter century bears on what we hear today on records that it seems well worth a look backwards for a few pages.

The history of recorded sound divides at that moment in 1877 when "Mary had a little lamb" was played back on Edison's first experimental talking machine. What next?

Strangely enough, this very first model was to be patented as the "Phonograph," though in succeeding years that term competed with numerous other names, not the least of which was the aptly descriptive "Talking Machine." The first Edison model with its hand crank was merely a means of repeating, once or twice, a few just spoken words. That was enough; it was an epic demonstration of the basic principle. But beyond that the machine was useless. The record could not be "played" again; there was not even a method of removing it and putting on another. Above all, and this remained a fundamental difficultly for a good many years - there was no way of duplicating the record. Each record was unique unto itself, like an original handwritten manuscript.

It is astonishing that, in spite of this major handicap, the "Talking Machine" did get into commerce before very long, with numerous companies formed to exploit it, selling individually recorded cylinders, no two alike. Duplication of a very limited sort was eventually achieved by setting up whole batteries of recording machines, each with its immense horn pointed toward the unfortunate artist (singer or monologuist), who sang or spoke simultaneously into as many as twenty horns at a time. The nearer horns, of course, produced the best records. Recording artists often had to do a single song or dramatic monologue sixty or seventy times a day to fill the demand, and the pay was not princely.

But this is a bit ahead of the story. The first commercial machine on the market was a significant offshoot of Mr. Edison's phonograph, called, in reverse, the "Graphophone." The original Edison recording point had embossed a groove in the tinfoil; Charles Sumner Tainter and Chichester Bell, relative of the great Alexander G. Bell, went to work in the famous Volta experimental laboratories to find out what could be done to make a commercial product of Edison's purely experimental machine. Their biggest advance, in the resulting graphophone, was the substitution of a point that engraved or cut out a groove in wax, in place of the original Edison needle which pressed or embossed on tinfoil. The graphophone cylinder, hard wax coated on paper, could be removed, and other pre-recorded cylinders could be played at will. These changes made possible the first steps in commercial development, which were out of the question in the original machine.

It was in 1887 that the graphophone appeared. It had taken nine long years even to reach this rudimentary stage of commercial exploitation. After another five or six years, things had progressed (and sales ideas burgeoned) to the point where the first approximation of a juke box was tried. By this time Edison, too, had worked forward with his machine, and both his phonograph and the graphophone, not essentially very different except in the vital difference of engraving versus pressing or embossing the groove, were soon in semi-competition through an increasingly complex structure of licensing. The Edison "Automatic Phonograph Parlors," the juke box prototypes, were tried out in public at the Chicago World's Fair, in 1893. For a coin, one could listen by means of long snaky ear tubes. But they couldn't stand up to such violent usage, and were retired to selected bars in Washington. The Columbia company, first formed to sell Edison's phonograph players by license in Washington and Maryland, went into the business of making cylinder records at this time - still, remember, without any good process for record duplication. And thus one of the two big record companies of today began work. Before long the phonograph-graphophone cylinder business grew into a flourishing small industry on its own, with artists slaving night and day to fill the growing demand for the one-at-a-time records. Manufacture of the records and the playing machines drew farther apart. Separate subdivisions for each operation were set up, and business expanded.

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Mr. Berliner's Disk

But there were still a number of fundamental advances to be made before the phonograph could reach a mature form. Almost as soon as the Bell-Tainter graphophone and its cylinders reached the market, a German-American named Emile Berliner had what we in later years might call a triple brainstorm, a three-way idea for basic and radical improvements upon the whole Edison and Bell-Tainter system as so far developed. Though, as we have seen, these two types, phonograph and graphophone, differed in that one had embossed grooves, the other grooves cut in wax, both used the cylinder system as a matter of course, and both, moreover, made use of a vertical groove in which the sound vibrations were recorded up-and-down on the cylinder's surface, the groove varying in depth without wobbling at all. Berliner, perhaps harking back to the side-to-side smoke tracing of Leon Scott, thirty years before, conceived of a groove that would waver from side to side in its vibrating sound pattern, with an even depth, giving improved reproduction. Here was one of his ideas. A second was even more radical: he proposed to run his groove as a spiral on a flat disk instead of a screw-like pattern on a cylinder. His third and equally radical innovation, necessitated partly by patent restrictions already in effect, was a spectacular new method of creating the groove, not by embossing (Edison patent), not by cutting or gouging with a stylus (Bell-Tainter controlled), but by acid etching on a zinc disk "etching the human voice," as he dramatically described it.

The practical aspects of these three ideas kept Berliner busy for a long time. Problems that might now seem trivial were almost impossible to solve. Just what wax or fat or other combination, for instance, should be coated on the zinc, and how thickly in order to allow clear sharp grooves to be etched through where the recording needle left its trace, yet keep the acid entirely away from the rest of the zinc surface? With no precedent and no experience to go by, elementary matters like this meant endless experimenting-with various materials, with this thickness of coating and that, with one coat and two and three, and so on-before a practical formula was discovered. (The final formula here was one ounce of beeswax dissolved in a pint of gasoline-two coats flowed over the zinc and allowed to dry hard.)

But by 1887, the year of the graphophone, Berliner had managed to record and to reproduce sound on his new flat disk and was already winning converts to the system, which he officially demonstrated at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia on May 16, 1888 - a day almost as important for the phonograph as the day of the first recorded sound, eleven years before. The side-to-side groove offered from the beginning a better tonal quality than the "hill-and-dale" vertical groove used with the cylinders, even though the inside grooves were less satisfactory than those on the outside. A highly practical commercial advantage that Berliner could show was that the sound box of his player would follow the spiral grooves of its own accord (self-traveling), whereas the cylinder player had to be expensively screwed along sidewise to follow its groove. The "etching of the human voice" aspect was not so demonstrably good, for the acid left a grainy pattern that made for extremely harsh surface noise. But nothing could be done about that, since the tightly held patents of his rivals kept Berliner from using any other method. The Berliner system, nevertheless, was obviously good, and Berliner was soon doing a brisk hand-to-mouth business making both records and machines (which, incidentally, were still turned by hand crank, since one of the most obstinate problems in mechanics was that of a spring motor which would run at a steady speed in spite of the "running down" of the spring).

But Berliner's biggest triumph, coming after three or four years more of hard work, was the first practical method of duplicating the records themselves by electroplating and stamping, finally making mass production possible. Though it went through the usual agonizing multiplicity of experiments, the Berliner method in the end was essentially the duplicating process still used today. The original disk was plated with copper and nickel, which, when split off, made a negative or reverse record with its grooves projecting as ridges; this, suitably mounted and stiffened, was used to stamp out duplicate records on a heated material that would harden when cooled.

But what material? That was the baffling question. The idea was tantalizing in its simplicity, but for long nothing seemed to work out right. As always, there was little information to go on, no authority for guidance; this thing had never been done. Berliner tried hard rubber and even celluloid at first (the earliest man-made plastic), and for a while actually sold hard-rubber "ebonite" duplicate records. But they were hardly satisfactory. For one thing, bubbles of gas often formed in the hot pressing, leaving gaps in the recording; with less heat, no bubbles, but the rubber was not soft enough to press. Worse than this, the rubber record very slowly lost its impression and the recording faded out. The search for something better continued.

The answer came in the classic American manner, via a hunch and some keen observation. Berliner happened to remember that the telephone company had given up the same type of hard rubber for telephones in favor of some new imitation rubber, a plastic compound. Presumably the material was not available, but acting on a hunch that there might be something similar, Berliner found a manufacturer of buttons who used a plastic material, and persuaded him to press some experimental records on the button stuff from the Berliner matrices. The resulting records were sensationally good. The "Durinoid" material was essentially the shellac of all the billions of records in the many years to come. Thus a next-to-last link was reached in the developing chain of vital equipment that brought the phonograph to its maturity.

The last link, strangely enough, was the motor. As long as the hand crank remained, the new "Gramophone" (Berliner's tradename) was a toy; the speed of his records could not be standardized; music was virtually impossible to reproduce. Of what use mass duplication of records, with only a hand-cranked machine to play them? Again, the solution of the problem was semi-accidental, thanks to the improvisatory casting about for inspiration so typical of these early inventors.

One day Mr. Fred Gaisberg, then Berliner's shop assistant, saw an advertisement for a clockwork sewing-machine motor in the paper, and hurried off to its inventor to commission a clockwork gramophone motor. The forthcoming machine was utterly useless. But by one of those lucky strokes of fate, the mechanic in charge of the shop where the design had been executed took an interest in the problem, saw what was needed, and submitted his own idea for a practicable motor. It worked. The man was Eldridge Johnson, who, years later, sold out his renowned "Victor Talking Machine Company" for a fortune, and was long a phonograph millionaire.

With Johnson's motor the gramophone was at last a commercial proposition. Side-to-side spiral groove, flat disk, etched zinc, electroplated matrix, and shellac duplicate pressing - the system was complete. Eldridge Johnson stayed on with Berliner to take charge of the building of the gramophone players (with motor) in his plant in Camden, New Jersey; and a few years later he founded the "Victor Talking Machine Company", using the Berliner system. The gramophone, in America, became the "Victrola," a trade-mark that has joined the common language along with the original Edison term, phonograph. (In England and on the continent, strangely enough, Berliner's own trade-name, gramophone, became standard, and the advertising catchword "His Master's Voice" took the place of the Victor name on the disk records. The graphophone, first machine to be sold, was the first to lose its trade-mark identity, though for a good many years the Graphophone Company and its cylinders were nationally known, as was the Columbia Graphophone Company in this country, until Columbia gave in for the disk system. (The name "Columbia Graphophone Co." still exists in Britain).

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Patent Pool

It was in 1902 that the phonograph record reached maturity, with the great pooling of patents that combined the advantages of all the systems and allowed the entire industry to benefit equally. But even then the cylinder record was far from dead. During the period of Berliner's continued experimenting, the original two-cylinder systems had developed and multiplied commercially into a considerable business. New companies with impressive names were formed, merged, or were bought out, or died - names that to most of us today are entirely familiar. The "North American Phonograph Company" for a time combined sales of both the Edison phonograph and the Bell-Tainter graphophone, since the similarity of the two machines continued. In 1896 Edison, who was a businessman and financier when he had a mind to be, bought back the whole cylinder business for himself, forming the "National Phonograph Company" (corporation names then, as now, ran to impressive adjectives!), and began for the first time to take an interest in music for recording purposes, his earlier interest having been largely in speech, the dictating-machine aspect. (Berliner, however, had a good musical ear and had been inclined toward music from the very beginning of his experiments.)

Edison had solved the clockwork problem more easily than Berliner, for the mechanical problems were simpler with the cylinder type of movement. But one immense obstacle persisted for several years: duplication of cylinder records. The simple plating and stamping process used with the Berliner disks could not be adapted to the more complicated shape of the cylinder, though frantic experiments continued. while Berliner turned out duplicated quantities of his noisy zinc-etched records, the better-sounding wax-engraved cylinders were still being made and sold individually via the old sing-it-and-sing-it-again process, a handful at a time!

Intense efforts to do something about this disastrous situation led first to a makeshift pantograph system of copying, which allowed three or four cylinders to be engraved simultaneously. It figured in an amusing incident when an artist who was being paid to do his piece a dozen or so times over, making a single record each time, happened to notice a large tray filled with cylinders being carried away, all labeled with his own just-recorded selection. The economy-minded manufacturer had thought to use the new duplicator undetected, to multiply his too-meager profits to the artist's expense.

But this was a stopgap. Not until after the turn of the century did the cylinder makers finally surmount the technical difficulties of plating and pressing a cylinder record, thus making cylinder duplication possible - though too late - on a par with Berliner's disk duplication. But still the cylinder had flourished.

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New Century

The situation at the new century's beginning was critical. With most of the basic problems well solved and many companies in the field, the recorded sound industry was exploding with energy and more than ready for the tremendous expansion soon to come. But competition between the two mutually exclusive systems, disk and cylinder, and more particularly the jealously guarded ownership of basic patents, now left each major company without some vital element necessary to perfect its product. Berliner had exclusive rights to the increasingly effective disk record and the side-to-side groove, but he could not use the obviously superior wax recording medium, property of the Bell-Tainter graphophone interests. Columbia was in the graphophone camp and was issuing quantities of high-quality cylinder-recordings on wax, and the Columbia-held patent on the engraving by a stylus of a groove of even depth forced the Berliner group to continue the etching process. Berliner's groove had an even depth, but it was acid-etched, not engraved by a stylus, and so it was legally safe, though painfully obsolete.

The whole thing came to a head in 1901. The tension over patents finally reached the injunction stage, and the entire industry was shut down; all recording ceased. The new business seemed in for a killing war. The parallel between the 1901 situation and that of 1949 - two rival systems, each with a series of associated or satellite companies - is striking, but not so close as it may seem. In 1949 there was Little question of patents. Indeed, each of our major companies insisted that his respective new record system (33 1/3 and 45rpm) was freely available to all manufacturers who might be interested. Today there has been no such fortunate situation as that which in 1901 found each major interest with something to give and something needed.

The epoch-making patent pool that was arranged between major interests in 1902, after the impasse had become unendurable, immediately into the greatest expansion the phonograph business has ever seen. The disk record was so obviously suited in its simplicity to mass production, on the one hand, and the wax engraving method of the cylinder companies so clearly superior on the other hand, that a bargain was inevitable. The pool agreement was farsighted. In effect, it lumped most of the basic patents together for the use of all. Immediately Berliner abandoned his longtime zinc process and began recording on wax, while the other companies jumped at once into his disk field. Within months the first great Caruso disk records were "waxed" in Europe through the Berliner-Victor group's new continental affiliations; other opera stars, persuaded at last that the phonograph or gramophone, unrivaled now except for Edison's continuing cylinders, was a serious musical instrument and no toy, began recording their precious voices for posterity. Within a few years millions of the new patent pool shellac disks were being sold, and until after World War I the continued history of the talking machine was the well-known one of fabulous expansion physically and artistically, the recording of the great singing voices of the day, of the actors and actresses, and even of some instrumentalists (Paderewski, Kreisler, Kubelik), though the acoustical process would not allow for more than a beginning in this field.

So ended the growing up of recorded sound. From 1877 to 1889: a decade of infanthood, of epochal laboratory demonstrations and laboratory development; from 1887, when the first graphophone brought recorded sound to the market, until 1901, the graphophone, gramophone, and phonograph developed abreast as, one by one, the great hurdles toward mass production were passed - with the newest and youngest of the three, Berliner's flat-disk gramophone, slowly gaining the lead over its cylinder-type rivals. The time from the patent pool of 1902 until the advent of the arch-enemy, radio, was the golden age of acoustical recording, and it is well to remember that the millions of records sold in those years easily equal the millions of vastly improved electrical disks that have been sold since the twenties.

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Epilogue - The Cylinder

Still, the cylinder record was not dead, though the patent pool left it greatly weakened. Thomas Edison's interest in his original phonograph seemed to increase with the years as its significance became increasingly obvious to the world in general; it is not surprising that we find him turning back every so often, as the successive advances of the disk record were made, for more work to improve his own system and keep it abreast of competition, notably in the increasingly important musical recording. A kind obstinacy, if you wish, for inventors are loath to admit even a technical defeat. Edison was not the man to admit that Berliner's flat disk was necessarily better in any way than his own cylinder. Edison's "National Phonograph Company" eventually was succeeded by Thomas A. Edison, Inc., and when duplicate cylinders at last could be made, the original (and properly the only "true") phonograph moved smartly ahead - cylinders, vertical groove and all - in a determined effort to overtake the disk. Edison's inventive ingenuity was great enough to push the cylinder for a time into genuine importance again. His new interest in recorded music added a far greater perspective to the original narrow Edison conception of recorded speech.

For a time, shortly before World War I, Edison readied a notable peak of prestige with a then quite remarkable system of recording and reproducing, making use of every improvement that the ingenious Edison mind could work out, which, from the viewpoint of that day, really seemed to have turned the tables. The majestic and high-class Edison phonographs for the home and the records that they alone could play offered a kind of top-quality super-record that for a time put the "ordinary" disk records in the shade. The Edison was, in its field, as a Pierce-Arrow or Locomobile or Packard in the quality motorcar business. The addition of the Edison flat disk (flat, but cut with the traditional vertical "hill-and-dale" groove of all Edison recordings), with its elaborate sound box and floating diamond point (I can remember hearing my grandmother's diamond-point Edison with great awe), seemed to offer the last word in advanced phonography. But the lateral-groove disk was inherently the medium better adapted for mass production; in time, the cylinder and the vertical groove retired from the home for good - the cylinder to an expanding usefulness in the field of office dictating equipment, the vertical cut eventually to a specialized and quite spectacular development in the field of radio transcription. To this day, both have survived lustily.

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Excerps from the Saturday Review Home Book of Recorded Music and Sound Reproduction, by Edward Tatnall Canby

1952 - Prentice - Hall, Inc. New York

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