National Museum of Science and Technology
The National Museum of Science and Technology in Ottawa,
Ontario, was opened in 1967, a year when many museum
projects in Canada got their start. As a National Science
museum, however, it was a latecomer. (Other such museums,
like the Smithsonian in Washington,
D.C., had been in operation for more than 100 years by that time.) At cars May
7th meeting, Ernie DeCoste, Curator, Communications,
introduced members to the
"management" and "display" of
the Museum's sound recording and reproduction collection.
Following is a condensed version of his presentation.
The collection of objects and the information associated with them is what makes a museum possible.
We collect artifacts to show the development of
the technology, to demonstrate how devices work and, in
our presentations to the public, to show how they affected
our lives. Our mandate is to collect "with specific, but not
exclusive reference to Canada".
Berliner Type GT
The first step is to acquire (or already have) some
knowledge of the field. At first, curators were selected for
their knowledge of a particular field or actual experience.
My background, for example,is in telecommunications. The tendency today is more towards academic
qualifications, less towards actual knowledge of a
Given a certain basic knowledge, the ideal
approach is to develop what we call an "Historical
Assessment", and from this develop an
"Ideal Collection" on paper. This would
guide the development
National Collection in a given
field. In the early years
museum, partly because of the
choice of curators and in order
to actually have something to
show, this ideal procedure
could not always be followed. However, some
basic research always
has had to be done. The area of sound recording and
reproduction fell to the Curator,
We acquire artifacts by donation, by transfer from
industries or other institutions and, finally, if all else fails,
we buy (which is becoming more difficult as our government budget is reduced).
At the Museum of Science and Technology we do
not have the luxury of having buyers going around to various auctions or sales looking for items of interest. We do
rely on collectors and collections from time to time, not
only for artifacts, but also for information, because the
avid specialist collector generally has a greater depth of
knowledge on his or her area of interest than any museum
curator who has a variety of fields to cover.
Long before there was a method
of recording and playing
back sounds, there were mechanical devices in the home
to create music for those who could not, or did not want
to, play an instrument. Music boxes were developed in the
late 1700s and through the 19th century grew into a relatively
large industry, mostly in Europe but also in the u.s. I do not
know of any such industry in
Canada, but certainly the
instruments were sold here. The
later music boxes which used
metal discs were in some ways
similar to the record player in
that the discs were easily changed
and could be bought in quantity.
Another area of mechanical music
that opened up about the turn-
of-the-century was the player
piano. Later improvements
made the reproducing piano
possible; this instrument not
only plays the notes but has
recorded the touch of the
pianist as well as all the
Then Thomas Alva Edison invented the phonograph.
This caused great upheaval in the music box industry. In
fact,this, plus World War I, just about spelled its end. It
seems that no matter how poor the sound quality was,
most people preferred to hear the human voice rather than
In the Museum's sound recording and reproduction collection proper, we have tried to show the development of the
technology over the years, and, in our exhibits, show how
peopleís lives were affected by this technology.
To represent the beginning
of recorded sound, we have
a replica of Edison's Tinfoil phonograph (Patd. 1878). Before
we had acquired an original one I had found a July 20th,
1878, supplement to the Scientific American Magazine that
gave instructions for building a tinfoil phonograph. I gave
them to our work shop and they built one. I then tried to find
tinfoil. This was not easy. I did find a material manufactured
by a company in the u.s. They sent me a sample and it worked
very well. When I approached them for a larger quantity,
it turned out to be "high tech" material made up of three
layers that was only available in standard rolls for about
$15,000 per roll. Needless to say, we did not order any more.
Wax cylinders were the next step and we have a few
machines of this era: an Edison Standard A cylinder player,
ca 1890s, and an Edison Home A,ca 1900.
In 1881, Alexander Bell, Chichester Bell and C.S. Tainter
deposited a box with the Smithsonian Institution. When it
was opened in 1937, it contained a machine very similar to
one of Edison's except that it cut, or incised, the information
into a wax surface that was put in the grooves of the cylinder.
The Columbia Graphophone Company grew out of
Bell and Tainterís efforts and we do have, among others, a
Graphophone Type QQ, ca 1906.
Edison,of course, continued his business. He made
spring driven machines but also had a very early electrically
driven machine, one of which is in our collection. This class
M Edison phonograph was sold by the North American
Phonograph Co. The last patent date is July, 1888, and a
label on one phonograph states that it cannot be used in
Edison developed a method of using celluloid and a
method of moulding cylinder records and we have a variety
of machines that play the 4-minute records, among them
an Edison E, with cygnet horn, ca 1912. Edison did not desert
his earlier customers. Whenever he developed improvements,
such as the four minute
records, he generally
made kits available so
that earlier machines
could be upgraded.
1900, a new record came on the scene, the disc
record. The idea wasn't really new,
Edison's early patents
included recording on discs.
Berliner Type D
The Museum's collection includes a number of Berliners,
among them a Berliner hand crank machine marked
"Gramophone Berliners" (the last patent date shown is
February 1890); another Berliner hand crank machine,
with governor for speed control Style No.
2, is marked the "Gramophone Co Ltd. 31 Maiden Lane, London.", ca 1900.
These early machines made in the 1890s were little more
than toys but are highly collectible items today.
In 1900, Emile Berliner arranged with the Northern
Electric and Manufacturing Co. to build Gram-o-Phones
in Montreal and he rented a corner of a plant at 371
Aqueduct Street to press records. The company produced
gramophones until 1904.
It is interesting to note the differences in the construction
of the cases. The American machines had lap
joints on the corners while the Canadian version had box
joints which, incidentally, were the same as those on the
telephones of that period.
Berliner sold his patents to The Victor Talking Machine
Co. in the u.s. but retained rights in Canada until about
1924. During this period several different models were made.
I donít know how many or in what quantities they were
made, but if anyone can help here I would like to hear from
them. Our collection includes a Berliner D, a Berliner E, a Berliner
F, and a Berliner GT.
Edison had valiantly stuck with cylinder records, and they
were technically superior. The speed of the record under
the stylus remained constant through the length
of the record. With his hill-and-dale method,the stylus could be
made to fit the groove and he used both diamond and
sapphire so record wear was reduced. Despite this, cylinders
were not as convenient to use or
store and so, as disc records improved, they replaced cylinders. Even Edison finally followed the crowd, but still in his
own way. His discs still used the hill-and-dale method. Our
Diamond Disc "Laboratory Model" is model c250,ca 1919.
The record player continued to develop and one of the
highlights was the Orthophonic Victrola with its logarithmic
horn. I mentioned earlier that our mandate referred to specific,
but not exclusive reference to Canada. Sound recording is
one of the areas where we had to have "outside" artifacts,
but there were a number of Canadian makers besides Berliner.
For example, Casavant Freres in Quebec, the organ maker,
made phonographs for a short period. They decided,
because oftheir expertise in sound and acoustics, as well as
their woodworking skills, to manufacture them. They
established a company under the name La Compagnie de
Phonographes Casavant Limitee and between 1919 and
1926 they built approximately 5000 machines. They had
20 employees and manufactured thirteen different models.
Another interesting Canadian phonograph in the
Museum is the Curtiss Aeronola, made by Curtiss Aeroplanes
& Motors, Ltd., of Toronto. The name tag even has a place
for the motor number. I spoke to a former Curtiss employee
some years ago but he did not remember the company
ever making phonographs. However, he felt that it would
have been quite possible after World War I when the airplane business dropped off and they had a lot of skilled
woodworkers with not much to do.
Other Canadian manufacturers included The McLagan
Phonograph Corp. Ltd., Stratford, Ontario. The Chippendale
model in our collection (M48, ca 1924) is equipped with a
McLagan-Fletcher pu and tone arm with an adjustable
weight. Another is the phonograph manufactured by the
Canadian Vitaphone Co. Ltd., Toronto. It may have been
only assembled in Canada since the company only operated
for three years between 1913-1916.
There were other makers of course. Many of the piano
makers got into the act ó Sherlock-Manning, the Amherst
Piano Co., Heintzman, and the Pollock Mfg. Co. of Berlin,
Ontario, for example.
There are other areas of sound that we cover. For example,
we have a collection of dictating machines from the wax
cylinder type to plastic discs and belts, to magnetic wire
Recording was very important to the broadcasting
industry. One of the first recording devices used by them
was the Marconi Stille recorder, better known as the
"Blattnerphone" after its inventer, Louis Blattner. The
CBC used them in Canada, certainly in Ottawa and I
think perhaps in Toronto, in about 1935 (Editor's note: see
"A CBC Earful of Canadiana", Antique Phonograph News
Basically, the broadcasting industry only really got
the means to record programs on a regular basis in the
mid to late 1930s and then it was on discs. We have examples
of the Presto recorder that was widely used for this. And
we have some ofthe tape recorders that replaced them.
This technology also made its way into the home and
there are examples of home recorders that used discs, wire
and, of course, tape.
Radio had a similar impact on the record player
business as the record player had on the music box industry
earlier. The record player industry reacted more quickly
though, and you soon began to see the two combined in
the same cabinet, as seen in the RCA Victrola
ó Radiola, model vE7-11x of 1928. This unit has both, but there is
absolutely no connection between the record player and
the radio. Once the electric pickup was developed, the
amplifier of the radio could be used for both. You could
say that the modern combination unit was born and
everything after that was simply technical improvement.
We don't collect records for the music. The National
Archives does that, but we do have a collection
of records to try to represent the different companies who made
them, to show their development, and to be able to
demonstrate some of the machines on special occasions.
Another part of the Museumís mandate is to collect
information related to the artifacts. We have two areas
where we keep this material. Trade literature is generally
kept in the Library, but we also have Supplementary
Information files. If an artifact comes in with the owner's
manual or other directly related information, this is numbered with the artifact and kept in the warehouse. Both
are on our computer so they can be found regardless of
where they are stored. Another area of collecting is books
and magazines for our library and of course we have some
relating to sound recording.
I hope that this overview gives you some idea
of the Museum's role in preserving the history of sound recording and reproduction. As I pointed out earlier, some of
you have a much deeper knowledge of some areas of this
field than we do and we always welcome help and advice
so feel free to contact me with any additional information.
Look upon the National Museum as a central storehouse
of information. One that can make this information
available to others for generations to come.
Earlier, I mentioned Historical Assessments. We have
a researcher working on one of these for Sound Recording
and Reproduction right now. So if any of you have, or
know of, sources of material or papers published on the
Canadian industry, I would be delighted to hear from you.