The Birth of the Recording Industry
(Adapted from "The Seventeen-Year Itch" - Delivered at the U.S. Patent Office Bi-Centennial in Washington, D.C. on May 9, 1990).
Copyright 1990 by Allen Koenigsberg. All rights reserved.


The U.S. Patent Office was linked in many ways with the history of the phonograph, but none more curious than an incident that occurred in 1890. In January of that year, the manager of the Ohio Phonograph Company in Cleveland visited one of the oldest residents of the state. The man's name was Horatio Perry and he had reached the remarkable age of one hundred years. Looking for ways to publicize a new commercial version of the talking machine, the manager convinced Mr. Perry to record a talk about his youth nearly a century before. The effort must have been exhausting as Mr. Perry died soon afterward, but the record contained the reminiscences of a man who was born in the second year of Washington’s first term. Although the wax cylinder was carefully placed in an office safe, it has since disappeared. But the story is a tantalizing reminder that few areas of inventive activity allow us to observe the lives of human beings with such immediacy, back nearly to the beginnings of American society.


There is no reason why the phonograph could not have been invented earlier - much earlier - than it was. The first successful model of 1877 contained no new or sophisticated materials, only parts well known to amateur scientists and mechanics: a rotating drum, a short screw-thread, a vibrating diaphragm, and a sharp stylus. However, no one found the combination obvious. The idea of a contraption that could talk could be found in fanciful literature for centuries, but any attempts to build such a machine became impossibly complex. As a result, the immediate need for music was satisfied by the marching band, the music hall and opera house, and especially the piano in the parlor. No one contemplated going into the record business, and the word phonograph referred only to a system of stenography invented by Isaac Pitman years before.

Still, even in the 19th century, the phonograph had its precursors, which pointed the way to a simpler method of capturing sound. As early as 1806, the English physician and naturalist Thomas Young, was able to register the minute vibrations of a tuning fork on a rotating drum covered with wax. But what did he intend to do with this clever device? Using an established frequency, he could easily measure exceedingly small units of time. There was no mention of making the sound come alive again. Then, in 1859, a French librarian and typesetter named Leon Scott improved the machine, which had since become known as the "vibrograph," so that it would record the human voice as well, and make vocal sounds visible to the eye. His laboratory models, which he called the phonautograph, sold in limited quantities for 500 francs, and one was purchased by Joseph Henry in 1866 for the Smithsonian Institution, and is still on display. According to unverified reports, Scott had visited Abraham Lincoln in the White House three years before and made a recording of his voice on a piece of paper covered with lampblack; if it existed today, it could be used to recreate Lincoln talking. But Scott himself never completed the conceptual leap that would have allowed him to reverse the process - although modern computers have recovered the voice of his daughter. Twenty years later, another Frenchman named Charles Cros, looked at Scott's apparatus and, based on his own knowledge of photography, theorized that the a man's voice could be engraved and made to yield the original sound. He filed a document embodying his idea - which he called a Paleophone - with the French Academy of Sciences, but was unable to build (or illustrate) a single one. He succumbed to absinthe in 1888.

A phonograph which could record and reproduce was finally invented in 1877 by someone who wasn't looking for it at all. Thomas Edison had already spent years keeping the Patent Office busy with a variety of new and improved telegraphs, and had recently financed an invention factory in Menlo Park, NJ. In the summer of 1877, not long after his thirtieth birthday, he was experimenting with a method of recording and repeating telegraph signals so that messages could be automatically relayed at a faster speed down the line. Because of an accident with a soon-to-be-patented telegraph repeater, and perhaps also because of his own defective hearing, he imagined that the paper indentations could store up and reproduce the human voice perfectly. Morse code would no longer be necessary.

But despite the centuries of anticipation, and the decades of attempts to actually build such a machine, nobody really knew what to do with it. Well, of course, it ought to be patented, and on the day before Christmas in 1877, Edison filed for an Improvement in Speaking Machines. Despite a flurry of success and grand plans for talking dolls, clocks, and widespread paid exhibitions, the phonograph soon lost its initial glow, although the patent was granted in less than two months. Because of his background in telegraphy, Edison had 'short-sightedly' used the term indenting to describe the vibrations in his rotating sheets of tin foil. The rival telephone, however, rapidly caught the public's imagination and pocketbook, and Edison briefly contemplated using the phonograph to record and relay telephone messages for customers who could not afford the annual $150 rental fee for Bell's invention. What was supposed to be a restful visit out West in the Summer of 1878 to view a solar eclipse led to Edison's new interest in the electric light; the sounds of the phonograph, and all its myriad schemes, were soon put aside and neglected by others as well.

Who can say why interest in the idea gradually revived over the next few years? When Alexander Graham Bell failed to gain monetary support for a futuristic idea of sending telephone messages by sunlight and selenium, he instead used an 1880 prize for his invention of the phone to finance independent research, on better ways to record and reproduce sound; like Edison, his intimacy with deafness served as a lasting source of interest. His work, and that of his associates, eventually led to the formation of the Columbia Phonograph Co. and managed to stir Edison's fancy once again. By the late 1880s, both companies (and soon-to-be bitter rivals) tried to introduce the phonograph and graphophone as dictation equipment, but when that plan failed, both sides jumped at the idea of building arcades of coin-operated machines which needed a steady supply of musical records and song-writing skills.

If one studies the frequency of phonograph-related patents during the Nineties, one can easily observe a wave of new ideas for coin-operated entertainment - they weren't called jukeboxes yet - although they could usually be found in saloons and ferry boats. Based on surviving arcade receipts, the average coin-slot phonograph of that time took in more cash in one year than the typical Patent Examiner was paid annually. The machines, with their incessant appetite for new titles, slowly began to challenge the sale of sheet music as a source of popular entertainment. Because each phonograph was also a recorder, a talented amateur could easily make records at home, and some of the first problems with censorship arose when enterprising showmen experimented with risque cylinders. The first advance labeling of records occurred when Columbia advertised a special group of records, entitled the Tough Series, but most companies settled for simple double-entendres.

Between 1888 and 1894, most of the phonograph patents were controlled by the North American Phonograph Company. Unfortunately, that same time period was marked by recession and economic panic, causing the "dictation" side of the business to fail. But the taste for musical entertainment on demand, once acquired, was too much to hold back for long. The prices of the phonographs and records began to drop in the mid-nineties as the anticipated market changed, and the spring motor was substituted for the earlier electric and treadle versions. Once the selling price dropped below $40 apiece, the phonograph was well on its way to becoming an instrument of mass popular culture.

While Edison and Columbia (and some smaller companies) competed with rival hit-lists of the latest cylinder records, a relatively unknown inventor, with some success in the infant telephone industry, began to develop a new form of record - the disc. Emile Berliner's first hand-driven models were put on sale in Washington, DC by 1893, utilizing 7" diameter, single-sided discs made of celluloid, but no other company took him seriously. The surface noise of the record and lack of a suitable motor and governor certainly kept sales down. But he filed for a series of patents in his adopted language, convincing the Patent Office to use a term he had invented as well - the gramophone. He organized several companies, but generally spent more money than he took in. Chance then intervened and in late 1896, he was introduced through a newspaper ad to an inventor of book-binding equipment in Camden, NJ. Eldridge Johnson was barely making ends meet in his machine shop when he was introduced to the machine that talks talk! Together 'with' Levi Montross, a metal-shingle builder and inventor, he constructed a cheap, reliable, spring-driven gramophone ($25) which was soon to cut into the sales of the dominant cylinder industry. For the new material of his records, Berliner used the same ingredient he knew from his years of working with telephone mouthpieces - a mixture of shellac and cotton flocking. By 1901, Johnson and Berliner had formed the Victor Talking Machine Co., and the rest, as they say, is history.

However, the dog so frequently portrayed in front of their machine was a repainted import; Nipper had originally appeared in England listening to His Master's Voice on an Edison-Bell cylinder phonograph and the original player was painted over by the artist who owned the dog. Berliner had the foresight to trademark this charming scene in 1900, and it soon became the world's most recognizable advertising symbol. Why a fox terrier would be considered a role model in determining musical taste remains a mystery.

In 1899, the US Patent Office received an application from an engineer with the Copenhagen Telephone Co. Valdemar Poulsen had a truly radical idea, to magnetize steel wire and then play back the original message without any physical change in the recording material. But the omens were not good. Unfortunately for him, the Patent Office felt that his invention was contrary to all known laws of magnetism. They wanted him to supply a working model (a requirement which had been abandoned in 1880) and to come over himself to demonstrate it. His lawyer argued that this would be prohibitively expensive and a compromise was reached whereby he would demonstrate it in Europe and officials there would testify to its success. This was done to everyone's satisfaction, and the patent office yielded and granted him a patent on his method. However, at first no one had noticed that Poulsen's American application was filed one week late - exceeding the seven-month limitation on non-U.S. citizens. The patent could not be rescinded, but it would have no legal value. Luckily, Poulsen was able to institute action in the US Congress, partly blaming a clerk in his lawyer's employ and an Examiner in the Patent Office, and a Bill for the Relief of Valdemar Poulsen was passed in 1903 - a rare event indeed. The irony of all this struggle to patent the Telegraphone was that, despite its initial success, few were built or sold. The company that was formed to exploit it took on as president the former head of the Hamilton Watch Co. who was later accused of industrial sabotage and even treason. Poulsen continued to work on his device for years, but even with the development of the vacuum tube, which made electrical amplification possible, the invention never produced a profit during its seventeen years of patent protection. He built machines using wire, cylinders, discs, and even tape, but as we know the tape-recorder only became successful as a consumer item after World War II. The history of the Telegraphone is again a reminder that a patent is not a guarantee that a wonderful idea will be quickly adopted.

One idea that did catch on fairly quickly was the attempt to attach a paper label to a disc record. The thought was not entirely new, as disc records of the early nineties were of such low clarity that labels were used to print out the lyrics - even for a spoken recording of The Lord's Prayer. But the shellac and celluloid used for early discs did not stick well to paper glue. Eldridge Johnson then patented a new method of applying a circular label in 1900 while the record was still hot and this technique was used for many years. As a matter of fact, the label soon became more important than the record when a gramophone dealer in Russia in 1901 tried to interest one of Berliner's European subsidiaries in paying an exorbitant artist's fee to four of the Czar's favorite singers. The dealer, who had outfitted a fancy shop on Nevsky Prospect in St. Petersburg, suggested a sure-fire way to make the money back. Charge five times as much for the record, but make the labels gloriously red - he claimed that the aristocracy would gladly pay extra for this prestige series. The idea was approved by the head of the Deutsche Gramophone Co. as well as the head office in England, and the first Red-Seal operatic records were born, and imported here in 1903. Trademark registration was secured in France as well as the U.S., but England refused to so register a color. These 10" and 12" records became a tremendous source of revenue for the Victor Talking Machine Co. and introduced a young Enrico Caruso to the world; over 131,000,000 red-label records of all singers were sold up through 1942, at retail prices from $1 to $7 each! The artists received correspondingly higher payments than popular singers, and also instituted the royalty system of payment which was not the initial pattern. As late as 1910, Sophie Tucker only received $100 a song, and no royalty at all.

All disc records were one-sided for many years before a man named Ademor Petit saw the wisdom of placing selections on both sides. The idea itself was not patent worthy, so in his application he was careful to describe how molten shellac would spread more evenly when encountering a double series of grooves. He received his patent in 1904, and sold half his interest to F. M. Prescott who introduced them first in Europe and then in the U.S., with a picture of an Indian smoking a peace pipe. War paint would have been more appropriate as Columbia tried to follow suit, but was threatened with legal action. However, the patent began to run into legal difficulties in Europe, first in Austria, but Victor nonetheless bought the U.S. rights. When Columbia tried once again to market two-sided discs in 1908, Victor sued them. However, the Columbia lawyer was not to be trifled with - he stood up in the court room, raised the disc in question, and dramatically asked: If we are to be restricted to one side of the record, which shall it be? The patent for the two-sided record was over-turned, and the concept went into the public domain; by 1923, all companies were using it.

The history of the phonograph and the struggles of its inventors make a marvelous record of inventive activity which extends to this very day. One is constantly surprised at how old many of our ideas about recording actually are. A stereo record player was patented in 1898, a method of sputtering metal on non-conductive surfaces was achieved in 1884 and now enjoys success in the modern Compact Disc, the microgroove, long-play record was already a reality by 1908, the first picture record was sent through the mail in 1905, and edible records made of chocolate were a culinary delight in 1903. All the basic ideas are here, in the files of the U.S. Patent Office, to study the history of recorded sound. The inventors themselves were an optimistic breed who inspired Eldridge Johnson to comment, after a Supreme Court victory in 1909:

The Victor Co. is still selling goods in the land of the men who think they are only waiting for our patents to be knocked out or to expire. The question of profits does not seem to be of importance, but like stock gamblers, they are happy to do business forever - or as long as they can - at a loss. Some mysterious fascination seizes those who are initiated into that fanatical circle of activity called the talking machine business.

Allen Koenigsberg is a long time collector of antique phonographs and the world's oldest sound recordings. For 20 years, he edited and published The Antique Phonograph Monthly (1973-1993), an informative guide to the first 50 years of recorded music. He has also written two useful books: Edison Cylinder Records, 1889-1912 which gives titles, artists, and dates for over 10,000 songs of the period, and The Patent History of the Phonograph, 1877-1912, covering over 2000 phonograph and record patents. His day job involves teaching Ancient History and Classics at Brooklyn College (CUNY) in NYC. You may reach Allen through his Recorded Sound History Webpage at: Antique Phonograph Information Central, or visit The New York Times article on antique phonographs.

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Last Updated: Oct 25, 2008
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