The Victor Victrola Phonograph (1900’s)
Invention of the Gramophone
In 1880, Emile Berliner invented the flat phonograph record and recording/playback device called the Gramophone, the direct forerunner to Victor Talking Machine Company’s Victrola phonograph. Three years earlier, in 1877, Thomas Edison had invented the cylinder phonograph. Two problems kept the cylinder phonograph from succeeding though – the wax recording media wore out quickly and you could not mass produce the cylinders. Berliner’s Gramophone on the other hand, used a flat rubber and plastic disc design that allowed copies of the records to be manufactured via a printing press type machine.
Using Leon Scott’s phonautograph device as inspiration, Berliner created his gramophone in 1880. Years prior (1857), Leon Scott had created a device that recorded human voice. The speaking person projected his words through the large end of a megaphone that tapered off to a small end to which was affixed a thin diaphragm. A thin brush was attached to the diaphragm which “recorded” tiny tracks on blackened glass as the diaphragm vibrations replicated the sound vibrations of the human voice. It had not occurred to Scott that he could run a stylus through the recorded tracks, reverse the process, and listen to the recorded sounds through the large end of the megaphone (in 2008, scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, California invented a device to play back Scott’s original phonautograph recordings).
Emile Berliner copied the design of Scott’s device and was able to reproduce the sound vibrations on blackened glass just as Scott’s had done decades earlier with his phonautograph device. Realizing that blacked glass was not an optimal recording media for effective playback, Berliner next tried zinc coated media made from zinc and wax (with gasoline mixed in to stiffen the wax). Once the recording was engraved in the wax, Berliner could tarnish the wax disc and dip it in an acid bath which etched the fine lines into grooves in the zinc so that the recorded sound vibrations were fixed into the zinc record. The zinc record could then be placed on the Gramophone’s turntable and the sound reproduced through a steel stylus.
Making Gramophone Records Mass Producible
To exceed the promise of Edison’s phonograph, Berliner needed an easy process of duplicating or copying the zinc records. To accomplish this, Berliner electroplated the zinc disc which reversed the grooves into a “negative” representation of the recorded sound(with the grooves projected outward instead of inward). This electroplated disc could then be used to stamp out copies of the recording. The media to use for the copies still eluded Berliner. Celluloid, used for film recordings, was a new invention. Berliner tried the new celluloid substance but found it would not hold up under repeated playback. He then turned to another new compound – rubber. To copy the recording to a rubber disc, the hard rubber was first warmed to allow the stamping of the record onto it and then cooled to harden and finalize the disc copy. This process made the copying of recorded discs mass producible, the key to success in the new recordable media market.
Enter Eldridge Johnson. Berliner contracted Eldridge Johnson, owner of a machine shop in Camden, New Jersey, to design and manufacture the spring wound motor that would power the turntable on the Gramophone device. Johnson already held several patents related to recording devices. Working together, the new Gramophone Company was set to become a leader in the new field of music sound and distribution. Unfortunately, a series of lawsuits stopped Berliner dead in his tracks.
In the early 1880’s, many companies were working to improve Edison’s cylindrical phonograph design. During the process, many stumbled across similar ideas for how to make the sound device work. Others blatantly stole innovative ideas from their competitors. As a result, a series of patent infringement lawsuits were brought against several companies. Specifically related to the Gramophone, Zonophone, created by Frank Seaman (who was previously Berliner’s “sales manager”), and Columbia Records brought a lawsuit against Berliner’s Gramophone claiming that Berliners Gramophone records infringed on a patent that they had registered. In reality, Berliner created the disc record while Zonophone simply copied the idea. Zonophone and Columbia brought patent lawsuits against Berliner which resulted in an injunction that restricted Berliner from selling his products in the United States. The expensive legal battles that ensued drove Berliner out of business. As a result, Berliner passed his patent rights to Eldridge Johnson, the machine shop owner who worked with Berliner to create the Gramophone machine.
Victor Talking Machine Company is Born
Johnson formed Consolidated Talking Machine Company at the same address as Berliner’s Gramophone Company of Philadelphia. Shortly thereafter he changed the name to Manufactured by Eldridge R. Johnson and in 1901 when it became apparent that Berliner was going to prevail in the lawsuits brought against him, Johnson changed the name of the company to Victor Talking Machine Company.
Victor Talking Machine Company acquired the remaining assets of Berliner Gramophone and Johnson subsequently built a large manufacturing plant in his native Camden, New Jersey. Zonophone’s patent infringement lawsuit against Berliner was then filed against Johnson. Surprisingly, Johnson went on to defeat Zonophone in court and acquired their assets too. During the early days of the company, Victor was involved in many lawsuits and wont most of them, partly because of their experienced (and expensive) legal representation.
The origin of the Victor name is not clear. Some believe that Johnson considered his improvements to the Gramophone to be a scientific and business victory while others fell that Johnson’s emerging as the “victor” in his and Berliner’s lengthy patent litigations to be the spark that created the Victor company name.
The classic and well known Victor logo that depicts a dog listening to a phonograph, originated from a Francis Barraud painting created in 1893. Barraud had inherited his brother’s dog, Nipper, and his brother’s Edison-Bell cylinder phonograph. Both acquisitions sparked the visual that became the popular Victor logo. The picture of Nipper staring at the horn of an Edison-Bell phonograph while sitting in a polished surface became a cultural icon that remained popular for many decades.
After creating a recording studio in Camden, New Jersey, Johnson began adding several innovative improvements to the Gramophone. Johnson tapered the tonearm, improved the soundbox, and created a quieter spring motor mechanism. Johnson also added a lid which the operator opened in order to reach the turntable to change the record or stylus needle. Since the large town arm required a lot of vertical space above it, early models required the operator reach down into the machine to change the record. The addition of a domed lid allowed for a shallower box to contain the turntable and tonearm making changing records or needles much easier.
Johnson also made the sound horn, which many people felt was undesirable to living room décor, fold down into the base for storage and playback. With an “in the cabinet” design, the doors could be opened or closed to adjust the volume. An open door allowed louder sound projection while closed doors muffled the sound and dampened the volume. This placement of the speaker horn in the base was patented and the copyrighted name “Victrola” was given to this new improvement.
Pooley Furniture Company of Philadelphia was contracted to make the cabinets for the Victrola phonograph. Later Johnson expanded his cabinet manufacturing operations and Victor began building the Victrola cabinets themselves allow a reduction in manufacturing costs. With the additional production control, Johnson wisely added cabinet finish choices including oak, walnut, and custom paint. The once gangly Victrola now looked as good as any other piece of furniture in the room The Victrola machine was initially marketed to wealthy customers for $200 (the normal external horn model costs $100). Regardless of the steep price, sales of the Victrola were very strong.
In a market that was exploding with competitors, Johnson further strengthened his Victor brand by hiring prestigious singers and musicians, some snatched away from contracts with Edison’s cylinder phonograph company and placing them under exclusive recording contracts. Johnson launched a well funded marketing campaign with opera stars and famous musicians endorsing his Victrola product and Victor brand. Soon, the Victor logo was the most recognizable company brand identity in the United States.
A Victrola Phonograph in Every Home
By 1909, Johnson had sold 15,000 Victrolas. He continued innovations while at the same time striving to drive down the price. A smaller, portable Victrola XII was introduced for $125 but the compact Victrola XII simply could not produce enough sound to fill a room. The Electrola was introduced which used an electric motor instead of a hand crank. Newer full-size models were introduced for prices between $75 and $100 but still, despite the innovative additions, the cost was still too expensive for most Americans.
In 1911, Johnson finally broke through the prohibitive pricing model. The Models VV-IV, VV-VI, VV-VIII, and VV-IX were introduced with prices of $15 to $50. Sales rose from 7,000 per year in 1906 to 250,000 per year by 1913. By 1917, Victor was making over a half million Victrolas per year with the VV-XI floor model being the most popular and selling over 850,000 units from 1910 through 1921. By the 1920’s, most homes in the United States and Europe had a Victrola music player sitting in its living room.
Naturally, Victor Talking Machine Company’s success attracted competitors eager to make a buck. Competitors entered the market with lower priced models but not as good a quality as the Victrola. In addition, Radio was introduced which offered more variety, better sound, and did not require the purchase of records. In response, Victor added models with spaces in the cabinet for a radio to be mounted that could utilize the same Victrola horn speaker. Regardless, in 1924 the bottom fell out of the phonograph business. Hundreds of thousands of units sat unsold in warehouses and huge half-price sales were held during the summer of 1925. If you hadn’t bought a Victrola by 1925, you’d certainly have grabbed one up now. The market was now fully saturated with Victrola phonograph products.
The Victrola made a brief comeback in the late 1920’s. Improvements were made to the sound boxes and horns. Signal transmissions theory that was developed during World War II allowed for further improvements in the sound technology and by 1926, the Victrola sound was rich and superior to most radios. With prices as low as $50 (but some as high as $1,000), sales picked back up.
By the late 1920’s, radio technologies were fully incorporated into the phonograph record players. Radio amplifiers were used instead of sound boxes and paper cone speakers were used instead of the metal horn speaker. Victor entered into an agreement with Radio Corporation of America (RCA) for use of RCA’s electronics in Victor’s products. In 1929, just before the Great Depression killed sales of most non-essential items, Johnson sold the Victor business to RCA and retired a millionaire. The new company became RCA Victor keeping the familiar Nippy dog and Gramophone logo as their own. RCA marketed phonographs with the Victrola name until the early 1970’s.