Berliner, Johnson, Victor Talking Machine & RCA: phonograph history from the 1910-29 NY Times  

The New York Times, October 24, 1890, p. 6:



From the Washington Post, Oct. 21.
    Mr. Emile Berliner of this city has perfected his invention, the gramophone, and claims that it is the greatest sound reproducing machine in existence. Mr. Berliner is the inventor of the transmitter used on the telephones of the Bell Company, and is still retained by the company as one of its electricians.
    He first exhibited the gramophone, not then brought to perfection, in Philadelphia, May 16, 1888, before the Franklin Institute. A short time afterward he exhibited it before the Technical Society, at G. A. R. Hall, in this city. Since then he has spent a year at laboratories in Europe, where he put the finishing touches on his invention.

    Mr. Berliner has been back from Europe only a few weeks. He has one of his machines at his laboratory, on the corner of Ninth and L Streets, and its reproduction of the human voice is remarkable for its clearness in pronounciation, intonation, and emphasis.

    The process of reproduction is short. A disk of polished zinc is covered with a fatty film for an etching ground. It is placed on a turntable, and as one talks in a tube the disk is revolved, and the vibrations caused by the sound are traced in the film by a small pen.
    The etched plate is put in chromic acid, and in fifteen minutes is ready for use. It is put on another turntable and revolved by the turning of a crank. A stiff pen traces the etched lines and reproduces the vibrations on a rubber or vulcanite diaphragm, by which the original sound is carried into the tube.
    The pitch of the recording can be made high or low, according as the crank is turned rapidly or slowly.

    There is practically no limit, Mr. Berliner says, to the number of reproductions that can be made from one plate, and any number of plates can be made from one original. Moreover, the plate can be printed from a photo-engraving made from the print, and the sounds reproduced from this plate with one of the machines.

The New York Times, August 28, 1910, p. SM9:


A Little One Room Shop Earning
Ten Dollars a Week Becomes Fifteen Acres
of Industry Earning $30,000,000 a Year.

    From a little shop seventeen feet square to an establishment covering fifteen acres of floor space; from an income of $10 a week--when there happened to be $10 in the firm--to the control of a company that does a business of $30,000,000 a year, that is something of a record for twelve years' work. The man who made it is Eldridge Reeves Johnson, inventor and largely owner of the Victor Talking Machine.

    Twelve or fifteen years ago the talking machine was a joke--interesting but ludicrous. To-day the greatest singers of the world draw a large part of their income from these same machines. This year Caruso will get royalties amounting to about $70,000 from the Victor Company. All languages and dialects are recorded, every country's music is represented, and at the great works in Camden they can send out a machine a minute...

    Eldridge Johnson is a Delaware man. Like most Delaware men born forty-three years ago, he found the times hard. His father could do nothing for him in the way of a college education, and the young man, having a gift for mechanics, went to Camden, N. J., put on coveralls, and went to work at a bench.

    Fate took him to a phonograph shop. The invention was new then, and it was the joy of tourists at Coney Island and similar resorts to listen to the thing squeaking out the Star-Spangled Banner" or "A Hot Time in the Old Town To-night..." It was wonderful to find the music even imperfectly reproduced, and it was funny to hear the wheezing and scratching that accompanied it. Everybody said it was an amusing and astonishing toy.
    To young Johnson, however, it was not a toy. He made motors for his employer in the phonograph shop, and he improved on them. The firm said casually that his invention was good, and they would have taken it up had they not come to an untimely end just then...
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    Penniless... he called on a friend... "What do you say to going into partnership, Johnson? Neither of us has any money, so it seems just the thing..."
    They began to do business--any sort of business connected with machines. Johnson was the acknowledged expert, his friend, the financier. The expert got $10 a week--if possible--and the financier took what was left--if anything... Johnson invented a wheat-cleaning machine, and his partner sold them... they wandered from wheat-cleaners to oil burners, and came very near making a fortune... All this while the talking-machine idea was simmering back in Johnson's head... The inventor worked day and night... Then one day he seized his partner as he came in from selling the firm's wares.
    "I've got it this time," he said...
    Johnson put on a record and lo, from the thing came clear and almost squeakless I guess I'll go and telegraph my baby...

    Away to London went partner, while Johnson stayed and worked day and night to get further perfection.
    The gramophone people in London listened to the ditty that he played, and then they said, briefly:
    "We'll pay Mr. Johnson what he likes for the European rights of his invention..."
    Since then the Victor people and the Gramophone Company have controlled Mr. Johnson's inventions...

    That, briefly, is the story of how a man created an industry that sends its products all over the globe, that has recorded all the great voices of the day, and the songs and folk tales of fifty-nine different languages and dialects...
    To-day the leading grand opera singers draw royalties from the Victor people of from $5,000 to $25,000 a year. Caruso draws more. For the last six years he has averaged $50,000 annually from the talking machine company, and this year it looks as if he would get in the neighborhood of $70,000.
    But twelve years ago things were otherwise. Not a singer of any reputation would touch the talking-machine business...

    One thing has of course boomed the Victor machine tremendously. That is the trade mark, the little dog with his head on one side listening to "his master's voice" and wondering why the beloved presence delays to come out of the horn...

    The business has jumped this way: in 1901 the sales were $3,000,000. In 1903 they had doubled. In 1905 they were again double, that is, $12,000,000. In 1907 they were $27,000,000. During the panic times they dropped 25 per cent., but in 1909 were back at $27,000,000. This year they will far surpass that mark. The factory, they say, has a capacity of a machine a minute, and it is working full blast every day.

    The Victor company does everything in its own shops, except make the horns for their machines. At present some cabinet work is done outside, pending the completion of the large shop. Apart from this, every screw is made under the eyes of the management at Camden. Such a forest of workshops takes three hours to see in even the most casual fashion.

    When the writer was taken through the shop, chance brought about a quaint little incident. First there was the room where the shellac mixture, which is to be the disk, is made. The Victor company is the largest buyer of shellac in the world--which is easily believed when one sees the yards and yards of doughy stuff being kneaded in the cauldrons. It is pliant and thick, and is passed over the rollers just exactly as if it were a particularly black sort of dough.

    When it has been kneaded enough, it is put through a machine which flattens it out and cuts it into squares just large enough to make a record disk. It lies, smoking and cooling, on a big rolling board for all the world like a singularly uninviting kind of cake. In a couple of minutes it has cooled enough to be touched and taken up to the room above.

    There stand men before a heated copper table. The black cake is put on the table for a few seconds to get warm and pliant again (it is hard as a rock when cold), then it is folded into a mold and put in a hydraulic press, with a pressure of 3,000 pounds to the square inch. In half a minute it is taken out, all ready except for a little trimming of the edges.

    We took the little square we had followed, slipped it into a talking machine, and the ugly black thing that five minutes before had been smoking in a cauldron had become "The Spring Song." It takes about five minutes, not more, to work this modern miracle.

    To prepare for it, however, takes the skill of some two thousand men.
    In the machine shops queer little engines that one cannot call "almost human," because they are considerably more than human in their accuracy and swiftness, turn out bushels and bushels of screws--screws enough for the whole world, it would seem.
    There is an electrotyping plant that has to turn out work 100 per cent. finer than the finest the Government in Washington can do. There is a cabinet factory where a combination of machinery and skilled hand work puts together and smooths and carves rows of cabinets a mile long, more or less. There are engines and machines to run the other engines and machines. There are the testing rooms, where every record and every part of the machinery has to be tested before it is sent out. There are acres of offices where the accounting is done. And then there is the heart of it all, the centre of interest and mystery--the recording laboratory.

    The exact process by which the effects of the talking machine are obtained are not for the public, though even if the public saw it probably would not understand... This is how it looks:

    At the end of the room there is a cabinet, and through the black draped little windows horns stick out, ugly waterspout things, not at all suggestive of what is in process. The cabinet contains the secret that makes the millions pour into Camden. It connects at the back with a room that is marked, and is, "strictly private."

    The horns are the most commonplace things, but he cabinet atones. It is mysteriously suggestive. It looks exactly like the boxes out of which the mediums evoke spirits. If savages who sing for Victor in foreign parts decide that it conceals a devil, they are quite justified in their belief.

    The orchestra of sixteen pieces works all the year round for the talking machine, and is made up of first-class musicians, receiving higher salaries than obtain in most of the great philharmonic orchestras... They are perched on stools of varying height, some quite near to the ground and others stuck aloft on little platforms. This is because the carrying power of the instruments differs, and has to be arranged for, so that the receiving horn will not get too much of any one thing.
    The singer stands at a horn of his own singing directly into it, so close that the voice sounds faint to those who sit at the back of the room. Sounds carry so well to the machine that everybody is warned not to whisper during the recording...

    The music records itself on a disk, like the disk from which it is afterward played, but of some soft mysterious substance which catches every tiny sound vibration. What the substance is is the secret of a few men. Then this disk is carried to the electrotyping department and has various hidden things done to it. A matrix is made from it, and from this again another is made which is sent over to have the black, muddy shellac stuff poured over it, as they did in the case of "The Spring Song."
    The original matrix is not used for printing the disks, but is stored away in a fireproof vault where, in all human probability, it will be just as good as ever centuries from now. There are 18,000 such records in the Camden vault...

    So much for the record part of the factory. The making of the motor and other parts of the machine is more complicated, though they are marvelously simple, considering the strange work they have to do.
    This simplicity, which has been perfected through years of experiment, is not, in all communities, an asset for the seller's argument. In China, they much preferred at first a German machine with works as large and complicated as those of a chiming clock. It must be better, said the Chinese, because there is so much more of it.

    Inside the talking machine there is a small motor, the task of which is to revolve the disk in perfect time. This sounds rather easy, but it is not...
    If the disk revolves a fraction of a second faster at one moment than at another, the entire pitch is changed, and the singer is made apparently to sing false. The motor must work more evenly than is required of any motor serving any other purpose. After the motors are made, they are tried, each and every one, to see if the pitch varies in the slightest degree...

    What really does the trick is a small disk of mica about two inches in diameter. Ninety-three per cent. of the world's output of mica is examined for use in the talking machines, and only 3 or 4 per cent. is found to be sufficiently perfect... It costs $7 or $8 a pound, so this is an expensive business, but it must be done if the mica is to give out the proper sounds.
    Then the little disk is fastened in the sound box, to which the needle is attached (the needles have to be tested, too,) the whole is fastened to the horn, and, presto! you have music. It is the mica that gives out the sounds. Every vibration marked by the voice on the disk is conveyed by the needle to the mica, and this in turn produces sound waves exactly like those that made the marks on the disk. The mica does the singing...
    The horn, of course, increases the volume, but even without the horn the sound is clear...

    The whole business is in a peculiar way Johnson's. Not a mechanic works in the factory who does not know that his chief understands the work on which he is engaged better than he does himself. There is not a part of the machine he has not made with his own hands, and the most delicate parts he has himself created...

The Federal Reserve Bank's estimated consumer price index shows that $1 in 1910 was equivalent to $23.05 in 2008.

The New York Times,
    December 19, 1926, p. XX3:

...Eldridge R. Johnson Recently Sold
Interest in Talking Machine Company...

    ...A few days ago... Eldridge R. Johnson, President of the Victor Talking Machine Company, gave an option to New York bankers for the sale of his controlling interest in that corporation. The option covered 245,000 of the 348,863 shares of outstanding common stock, and the option price was $115 a share, a total of $28,175,000...

    The Johnson influence will still be felt in the organization. Some of the officials who have seen the phenomenal development of the business will continue with it... Only Eldridge Johnson himself, whose health recently has not been good, will be out of the active picture.

The Federal Reserve Bank's estimated consumer price index shows that $1 in 1926 was equivalent to $12.18 in 2008.

The New York Times,
    February 28, 1929, p. 41:


    The stockholders of the Radio Corporation of America at a special meeting held yesterday approved the changes in capitalization necessary to the acquisition of the Victor Talking Machine Company, and also voted full power to the directors to transfer all or any part of the assets of the corporation to one or more of the subsidiaries organized or to be organized...

    The action taken yesterday represents the final step in the merger of the Radio Corporation and the Victor Talking Machine Company with the exception of the deposit of seven-eighths of the outstanding Victor common stock before next Monday...

    The plan and agreement of Jan. 4, 1929... provided for the issuance of one new Radio common share, one Radio $5 preferred B share, and $5 in cash in exchange for each share of Victor common stock.

The Federal Reserve Bank's estimated consumer price index shows that $1 in 1929 was equivalent to $12.58 in 2008.
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Classic Phonograph Articles:
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Phono to Production 1888-94
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Loud & Tube Victrolas 1898-1925

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Marconi's Wireless 1898-1899
The Wireless Telegraph 1899
Marconi-Grams 1902
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Radio Dancing - RCA 1916-1919
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Classic Telegraph Articles:
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Classic Telephone Articles:
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    Strangely, no New York Times articles from the period can be found which connect Eldridge Johnson's Victor Talking Machine with Emile Berliner's Gramophone, of which it is the direct descendant.

    Berliner began work on the gramophone in 1886, and obtained a patent in 1887. In 1896, Berliner, operating in Philadelphia, contracted with Eldridge Johnson, across the river in Camden, to design and build spring motors for his gramophones, which previously had been hand-cranked. Then, Johnson's machine shop became the main supplier of gramophone playback machines.

    In 1898 illegal competitors began to challenge Berliner's gramophones, and in 1900 a court injunction instigated by these competitors forced Berliner to close his Berliner Gramophone Company of Philadelphia. It is apparently because of Berliner's legal problems that Johnson and his companies distanced themselves from any reference to the inventor of the gramophone.

    Later in 1901, Eldridge Johnson formed the entirely new Consolidated Talking Machine Company--at the same address as the previous Berliner Company. In 1901, after winning a legal battle with Columbia Phonograph for manufacturing rights, Johnson changed the company's name to the Victor Talking Machine Company.

    Emile Berliner, who had also invented the carbon microphone for telephones in 1876, moved on to working on inventions regarding aircraft engines, helicopters, and acoustical tiles.

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