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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 particular area.

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 of the National Collection in a given field. In the early years of the 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, Communications.

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 pedal controls.

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 mechanical music.

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 New Jersey.

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.

Along about 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 and tape.

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 1993; May-June:12-13.)

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.