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Edison Class M’s Unique Place in Canadian Phonographic History

It was in the year 1961 that I was a participant in an antique car tour from London to Brighton, Ontario. Antique cars and boats have always been my "summertime" passion, while antique phonograph and record collecting seemed to be most appropriate activities for "those long, cold, dark, shivery evenings when your health and convenience compel you to stay indoors," as an early phonograph ad stated.

One of the scheduled stops on that London- Brighton tour was historic Barnum House, near the village of Grafton, Ontario. Staffed largely by volunteers, Barnum House presented a wonderfully eclectic mixture of historic artifacts so typical of small country museums. The second storey of the building was rather less organized than the main floor, and it was in this area that all manner of strange and unusual items were to be found. It was apparent that most of the articles upstairs were unidentified, or perhaps things that did not fit neatly into the well-organized display areas on the main floor.

Fig. I - Edison Class M phonograph with original tooled leather case

While poking about this jumbled array of miscellany, I chanced to see an ornate leather carrying case and wooden box underneath a table. Further investigation revealed a strange-looking phonographic device in the case (Fig. I), and about 48 mint brown wax cylinders in the box (Fig. II). The machine bore some resemblance to an Edison Triumph phonograph, but did not appear to have the Thomas A. Edison trade mark anywhere. I concluded that it must be some kind of dictating machine, of minimal interest, so I replaced the lids and rejoined the car tour for the next leg of the journey.

About five years later, I visited Barnum House and saw the machine again, under similar circumstances, but noted that almost half of the wax cylinders had been broken. But this time, I took notes of the information on a nickelled plate attached to the bedplate of the machine and left, determined to find out more about it.

Now, it is essential to understand that we phonograph buffs 25 or 30 years ago did not have at our disposal the wealth of research and reprinted material that exists today, material which makes it rather a simple matter to identify even the most obscure phonograph. Of course, we all had Roland Gelatt’s book, "The Fabulous Phonograph", and the subsequent "Tin Foil to Stereo", but beyond these and a few Edison reprints available from the City of London Phonograph and Gramophone Society, there was precious little to go by.

I eventually began to realize that this machine bore an uncanny resemblance to Edison's "Perfected" phonograph, the one shown in the famous picture of the bleary-eyed Edison taken at 5:30 a.m. on June 16 1888 after an intensive period of work on the playback machine. I was on to something.

Long after Barnum House had been closed down for the season, I awoke the curator from her long winter’s nap and discovered not only that the museum had accepted the phonograph and cylinders on loan, but that the staff really didn’t have any idea what to do with them anyway. It was suggested that I would probably be doing the museum a great favour if I could make arrangements to purchase the machine from its owner, and then remove it from the already overcrowded building.

Some hours later, in the midst of a December blizzard, I knocked on the door of a lovely Victorian home in Warkworth, Ontario, where I met Miss Nell Ewing, the octogenarian owner of the machine. The dear old soul seemed to be convinced that I must be a burglar or at the very least, a confidence man, but luckily her nephew happened to be visiting and with his help, I was able to negotiate a fair sale price for the phonograph and cylinders which she had loaned to the museum many years before, just to be rid of them.

I presented the bill of sale to the museum curator next day, and took delivery of my new "find". Upon my return home, I discovered that in addition to the phonographic items, I had purchased several thousand hibernating houseflies, all of which escaped from the bowels of the machine as soon as it was exposed to a heated room. The next day was spent, alas, not tinkering with the new toy, but swatting flies, whose numbers had by this time assumed mammoth proportions not unlike the locust plagues of Biblical fame.

Identification of Machine and Cylinders

Then the quest for proper identification of the machine and cylinders began in earnest. Photographs were taken, a description prepared, and letters of inquiry were sent out to several collectors whom I thought might be able to shed some light on the matter. Nobody seemed to know what the machine was. Even Professor Walter Welch at Syracuse University had never seen anything quite like it before. Such was the state of phonographic knowledge in 1966.

Meanwhile, I set to work on the machine itself to see if it could be made to operate. The North American Class M is driven by a 2 1/2 volt D.C. electric motor and it was evident that some previous tinkerer had hooked it up to 110 volts A.c. and had fried off all the soldered connections on the commutator. Beyond this, everything looked in pristine condition. Even the 75-year-old leather drive belts were in excellent condition, and they still remain so today after more than 100 years of service.

Fig. II - Original 48 brown and white wax cylinders, dating 1890 to 1893, which came with the Edison phonograph

In less than a week, the machine was operational and I began to play the 30-odd surviving cylinders, all of which appeared to be of 1890 to 1893 vintage. It was a most awesome experience to be enabled to hear sounds from the very dawn of phonographic history, reproduced just as clearly as they were three quarters of a century before. Eventually, I was to discover that whereas most of the cylinders or "phonograms" were of commercial U.S. origin, there were several others which were contemporary Canadian recordings, undoubtedly recorded on the same machine.

The existence of these Canadian cylinders, along with a number of tickets found inside the cabinet drawer saying, "Admit One to Phonograph" (Fig. III), led to the conjecture that in the beginning the machine was probably used as a demonstrator. A bill of sale found inside the case (Fig. IV), dated January 21st 1892 indicates that 1 dozen No. 1 blanks were shipped to W. A. Holmes of Warkworth, Ontario, at the cost of $4.00 plus 25 cents packing and return charges. An early typewritten list of record titles found in the drawer bears evidence that there must have been considerably more cylinders with the machine at one time than now exist. Some of the earliest cylinders (1890-91) have spoken announcements which give the actual recording dates. Some others have thin printed paper titles glued into a shallow groove on one end, naming the title and artist. These appear to have originated in the Orange New Jersey studios.

W. A. Holmes was apparently Miss Ewing's grandfather. Unfortunately, she was failing mentally, and was not able to supply any relevant information about him or his reasons for having purchased the outfit in the first place. Nevertheless, considerable evidence exists, both with the equipment and elsewhere, which has formed the basis for a probable scenario.

The machine itself is a Class M (the "M" indicates a battery-powered motor-driven model) built by the Edison Phonograph Works for the North American Phonograph Company, Jesse Lippincott’s patent-holding and sales trust established in 1888 to exploit both the Edison and Bell-Tainter patents and machines. Lippincott licensed a series of territorial agents throughout the North American continent, and in turn these agents leased phonographs and gramophones in much the same way as Bell leases telephones and equipment today. One of the notable agencies was located in the lucrative territory of the District of Columbia, and this organization survives to the present day as CBS.

The general agents for the territory of British North America and Alaska (remember that the Dominion of Canada at the time comprised only a portion of British North America) were Holland Bros. of Ottawa. This was an agency of parliamentary reporters, so it is understandable that they could foresee a bright future for the phonograph in their field. (They subsequently became involved in the Canadian promotion of early motion picture equipment.)

Fig. III - Yellow cardboard admission ticker indicates that the Class M may have been originally used as a demonstrator

Whereas the U.S. agencies promoted the use of phonographic equipment on a lease basis, this idea must have been judged unworkable in Holland Bros. territory due to its geographic vastness. Thus the machines were sold outright to customers, a happy circumstance as it turned out because Holland Bros. did not recall their equipment to be scrapped upon the collapse of North American in 1893 as was the fate of many of the leased U.S. machines. This accounts for the comparative rarity of North American machines today and also accounts for the existence of the Edison "Victor" and "Balmoral" machines of a decade or so later — machines that were undoubtedly built largely of parts salvaged by Edison from the assets of the defunct North American Phonograph Company.

The earliest Edison machines available from North American in 1889 were known as the "Spectacle" phonographs, due to the peculiar arrangement of the separate recorder and reproducer on a swivel bracket developed by Ezra Gilliland in 1887-88. By 1890, this device had been simplified considerably by the consolidation of the recording and reproducing styli onto the same "standard speaker", as it was then termed. The speaker can be easily changed from recording to play- back mode by simply revolving the unit about 30 degrees one way or the other within its carriage by means of a hand lever. This lever continued on for many years in the reproducers and recorders of later Edison phonographs as a useless appendage long after its original function had ceased to exist.

The phonograph is identical to the one detailed in the Holland Bros.bill of sale with one exception: where a large cast iron "pause" bracket is screwed to the cabinet base in the engraving, this machine has a nickelled plate stating: "Holland Bros. Ottawa, Ontario, Solo Agents for Canada". The location and size of this plate suggest that, as was the case with all the other agencies by 1891, Holland Bros. had become fully aware of the dismal failure of the phonograph as a practical piece of office equipment, but that its salvation rested undoubtedly in its promotion as an entertainment device, hence the removal of the "pause" brackets.

According to the report of the 1890 Convention of local phonograph companies,it was already becoming obvious that the only road to commercial success of the whole North American phonographic venture lay in the vigorous promotion of phonographs in the field of musical entertainment, and as a corollary, good quality pre-recorded musical cylinders would have to be made available in much the same way as pre-recorded VCR tapes are available today. This evidently would create an ideal situation for the business: individual local promoters could be enticed into a purchase or lease arrangement whereby they could give "demonstrations" or "phonograph concerts"as a sort of travelling road show. Perhaps Mr. Holmes used his phonograph in this way.

The existence of a few Canadian-made cylinders in the group is tantalizing testimony as to what kind of historic material was lost through breakage during that 5-year period in Barnum House. With all due respect to the efforts of the curator and staff of Barnum House, this accidental destruction of historic artifacts serves to emphasize that esoteric equipment of this type often stands a far greater chance of long-term survival in the hands of an interested private collector than in even the best-intentioned institution.

The Machine’s Features

The "standard speaker" or combined recording/reproducing head is unlike the later "Automatic" and Model C reproducers in that it contains no provision for any lateral runout of the record grooves in playback mode. This peculiarity requires the listener to constantly adjust or "tune in" the sound, much as one would tune a radio, by adjusting a knurled thumbscrew, which in turn slightly alters the position of the stylus vis-a-vis the record groove. If you neglect to make this adjustment, it is quite possible to play an entire cylinder without hearing the slightest sound, due to the stylus' travelling the land between two adjacent grooves, rather than in the groove itself. The introduction of the "automatic" speaker in 1893 must have been a welcome improvement.

Fig. IV - Faded with age, the bill of sale reads: "Ottawa, Jan. 21st 1892. Sold to W. A. Holmes, Warkworth, Ont. To 1 Dozen No. 1 Blanks $4. Packing .25 cents. C.0.D. $4.25 and return charges."

The most unique identifying feature of the Class M and Class E phonographs is the vertically-mounted flyball governor just to the left of the machine. This governor, which looks very similar to that found on any ordinary spring-wound phonograph or gramophone, is actually very different in function. Whereas both types of governor are really modifications of the James Watt steam engine flyball governor of earlier times, the adaptation found on the Class M and E machines is, in my estimation, the most creative.

The electricity to drive the Class M was supplied originally by a choice of Grenet cell, Primary Edison Lalande Battery, or Primary Chromic Acid Battery. Due to the high cost and relative inefficiency of such batteries, it was imperative to design an efficient governor which would conserve battery current as much as possible. At the same time, however, the designer of the governor was faced with the reality of a very heavy electrical load upon start-up, a load so great that it would preclude the use of anything of a delicate nature in the governor mechanism.

This anomaly was solved in a most ingenious fashion. Upon closing the main motor switch, the large proportion of the current is made to pass directly through a "shunt" or by-pass circuit, thus avoiding the delicate governor. However, the current supplied through the shunt is only about 80% of the value required to bring the machine up to its full operating speed of 120 rpm. The remaining 20% passes through the governor. Whereas in the usual gramophone governor the centrifugal expansion of the flyballs engages a collar against a friction pad to limit speed, this governor functions exactly the opposite: the electrical current which passes through a brush to the collar is gradually reduced as the rpm increases, thus increasing the electrical resistance of the circuit and limiting the current supplied to drive the motor. Speed changes may be made by a vernier adjustment which moves the brush into tighter or looser contact with the collar, thereby varying the electrical resistance at a given speed. This governor is thus a current regulator and in actual operation it works quite acceptably, although it is a lot more delicate and sensitive to adjust than the familiar spring motor governor.

Accessories that appear to be original with the Class M machine are as follows: spare drive and governor belts, camel's hair brush for removing wax shavings from cylinders, a small camel's hair brush for cleaning the styli, extra listening tube ends, speaking tube, spare French glass diaphragms and spare motor and governor brushes. It is a tribute to the quality of design and workmanship found in this machine that it has not been necessary in its first century of operation to make use of any of the spare parts. They are still brand new. If only today’s audio equipment could be as long lasting! Such is the price of progress.

Over the past quarter century the Class M has been featured in countless displays and lectures, but two in particular stand out in my memory as unique. The first was upon the occasion of the opening of the 1975 exhibition, "85 Years of Canadian Recorded Sound"at the National Library in Ottawa. I was asked by my dear friend Ed Moogk to have the machine operable in order to re-enact, after a fashion, the occasion of the recording of the voice of Governor-General Baron Stanley of Preston at the Toronto Industrial Exhibition on September 11, 1888. This time, though, Governor-General Jules Léger was to make the Vice-Regal cylinder which would then be deposited in the National Library. Unfortunately, His Excellency was stricken with a paralysing stroke shortly before the opening of the Exhibition, and regretted having to decline the invitation to make the historic recording due to the extreme difficulty he was experiencing with speech. However, a cylinder was made of the voices of some lesser dignitaries and thus the occasion was captured permanently in wax.

The other occasion that stands out was in 1988 at the CNE in Toronto when the machine was featured in a display organized by John Rutherford and other cars members. This display commemorated the 100th anniversary of the making of the Governor-General’s legendary cylinder at the same location on a similar machine.

It is to be hoped that fate will be kind enough to permit this unique piece of Canadian history to continue to survive and function for a very long time in the hands of careful and concerned owners, or should I say custodians, and that it may be as interesting and relevant in the lives of future generations of Canadians as it has been in mine.