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The Canadian Connection - Part 1

     Although the first phonographs and records manufactured in Canada, and thus the beginning of an actual Canadian industry, occurred at the beginning of 1900, Canada's connection with the industry goes back some years further. Thomas Edison, who invented the phonograph, was born to Canadian parents, and his machine was both demonstrated and patented in this country in 1878. The "tin-foil" machine, so called because of its recording medium, was not a commercial success, since the recordings were too fragile to be permanent, and fidelity questionable. Edison, heavily involved in developing electric lighting, which had proved to be extremely successful, shelved further work on the phonograph after the initial flurry of interest.

     The next developments in the industry again had a Canadian connection. Alexander Graham Bell, the telephone inventor, who was a resident of Brantford, Ontario while developing this invention, used prizes and revenue from the telephone to establish laboratories for research in various fields, most notably sound, in which Bell was extremely interested. This allowed Bell's cousin, Chichester Bell and Charles Sumner Tainter to work further on Edison's neglected invention. By 1884 they had introduced a new and much more practical version of Edison's phonograph, and in 1885 they were granted a Canadian patent on their improvements.

     Edison, with the electric lighting business well established, was inspired by this to return to his invention, and by 1888 offered a still further improved version of the phonograph. The two camps, meanwhile, kept courts and lawyers busy with numerous suits and legal maneuvers to gain control of the phonograph, but finally agreed to pool patents in 1896, leading to the development of the two companies, Edison and Columbia, who between them formed the phonograph industry. During this time, the first pre-recorded records were sold in 1889 and 1890, intended primarily for arcade booths and other entertainment places who had installed coin-operated phonographs only to discover that their patrons preferred the efforts of professionals to their own attempts at singing!

     During this same time, developments were occurring which would eventually be more influential on the recording industry. Emile Berliner, German-born, had arrived in America in 1870. As a spare-time activity, he tinkered in a small laboratory of his own, and became interested in sound devices. He was successful in developing an improved telephone transmitter, which he sold to Bell interests for a substantial sum of money. This allowed him to continue full-time as an inventor. At this point he began experimenting with sound recording, and in particular with developing a recording which could be reproduced, rather than the cylinders which at the time had to be recorded individually.

     Additionally, and perhaps to avoid infringing existing patents he developed a method of recording laterally, so that the grooves varied from side to side rather than in depth. In 1887, he obtained a patent for recording in this way on a flat disc. He made a master recording by coating a zinc disc with beeswax and using acid etched the exposed metal where the cutting needle traced a groove in the coating. The resulting master was then used to stamp records in a hard rubber compound. This, plus the hand-wound power of his players, produced results far from perfect, and after trying to interest American companies, he finally arranged the marketing of his invention in Germany, where it was sold as a toy. He persevered in opening the American market, however, and first sold machines and discs (or "plates") in 1892 or 1893, setting up full scale operations in 1895. In 1894, he approached Eldridge Johnson, a Philadelphia machinist, to develop a workable constant-speed spring motor, which made his machines more practical. In 1897 he patented the machines and records in Canada.

     The entire recorded sound industry was, as noted, a legal nightmare. Columbia and Edison interests finally made peace in 1896, at which point both went after Berliner. This was made more complicated by the fact that Columbia had encouraged an employee to patent the process of recording on a wax disc master, a process which Berliner was using to replace the zinc etching first used. Additionally, Berliner's sales agent, Frank Seaman, left the firm after a dispute over payment and also entered the courtroom fray. These matters were settled by 1903, with Victor and Columbia agreeing to pool patents and Seaman bought out by Victor. But, in the meantime, Berliner sold his U.S. patent interests to Eldridge Johnson who set up the Victor firm. Berliner moved to Montreal.

     Our story of the actual Canadian recording industry per se begins here. Berliner moved his family to Montreal in 1899 and set up a small factory, including recording facilities, in that city. He had made arrangements as well with Victor in the U.S. and the Gramophone Company who held British rights to his patents, to press records from their masters as well. His first working space was in production by the beginning of 1900 when records bearing his name and the etched labels previously used in the U.S. first were sold. By 1901 he had followed Johnson's lead and was pressing 7-inch "Improved Gram-O-Phone" and 10-inch "Concert" records with paper labels. By 1904, arrangements with Victor had become more formalized, and the Victor name soon appeared on discs pressed from U.S. masters - albeit with the legend "His Master's Voice" in equally-sized print, an arrangement which would continue until 1947. Berliner's machines and records sold well and the firm expanded rapidly. As operations became larger, his two sons, Herbert and Edgar, were moved into executive positions in the company.