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Phonograph 'Show and Tell'
March 1998 Meeting Presentation
Mike Bryan describes some of the rare machines on display

For the third time in as many years CAPS members were asked to bring out some of their prize phonographs for the March meeting. As usual they responded with enthusiasm and provided the presenter with some unusual and interesting machines to talk about.

Before doing so, however, the scene was set with a few facts about Canada in the era during which the phonograph was developed. For example, in 1896 gold was discovered in the Yukon and the Klondike gold rush began. In the 1890s houses in urban areas generally had water and sewer services and by 1900 electricity and telephones were being installed in new upper and middle class houses. The bicycle became common around the time, perhaps because, "Unlike a horse, a bicycle could be easily stabled and left no manure."

In contrast to the depressed times of the 90s, Canada enjoyed its first great economic boom in the early 1900s, fueled mainly by the success of its wheat which was needed to feed the emerging industrial societies of Canada and Europe. The population of Canada grew from 5.4 million in 1901 to 8.8 million by 1921 with the vast majority living in Ontario and Quebec. By 1911 there were 20,000 motor vehicles on Canadaís roads, some of which would have been built by McLaughlin of Oshawa, later to be absorbed into General Motors. A hotel room was $1 per night, a 100 lb bag of flour $2.80 and a suit of fleece-lined, reinforced underwear could be had for less than $2. The earliest machine on display at our meeting was priced at $15 by Emile Berliner in 1895. It is doubtful that many people struggled with the choice between buying 7.5 suits of underwear or a phonograph, but the relative prices provide some perspective. Anyway, letís start with that machine:-

Berliner Hand-Crank Gramophone, ca. 1895

Berliner Hand-Crank Phonograph, c 1895 (Owner: Domenic DiBernardo)

This machine represented Berlinerís first attempt at commercialization of his invention after he received a patent for his 'Gramophone' in 1895. He needed financial backers for further development, so the visibility and success of this machine was critical to the future of his business. Reminiscent of the earlier German Kammer and Reinhardt toy gramophone, designed by Berliner, his own phonograph played only 7" hard rubber discs with a playing speed of about 80 rpm. Crude though it was and difficult though it was to achieve any kind of constant speed with hand power, Berliner managed to attract sufficient investment to incorporate the Berliner Gramophone Company.

An alternative to hand power had to be found. Unlike Edison who, for a while seemed to try every alternative power source except the spring motor, Berliner experimented briefly with battery power, then moved on quickly and by the fall of 1896 produced his first spring motor gramophone.

Edison Standard with Bettini
Micro-Attachment ca. 1898

Edison Standard with Bettini Micro-Attachment ca 1898 (Owner: Domenic DiBernardo)

Last year when we presented Domenicís Bettini #8 Phonograph, we learned about the Italian military officer, Gianni Bettini and his drive to achieve better sound reproduction of the operatic music that he loved. The #8 machine was made by Bettini after he moved from the USA to France in 1902 to develop and promote his products in Europe.

While living in the USA Bettini bought an Edison Class M phonograph and was disappointed in the quality of sound. He set out to find a way of improving the reproduction, developing and patenting his Micro Reproducer. This was marketed as a high end product to the discriminating listener seeking the very best sound reproduction. The large floating reproducer was expensive and not widely dispersed. It does turn up from time to time on Edison and Columbia cylinder machines of the late 1890s, with or without the usual Bettini red steel cone / aluminum bell horns.

Busy Bee 'Grand' 1906-9 (Owner: Horst Weggler)

By 1904 many companies were seeking to profit from the mass market for machines and records created by the giants, Edison, Victor and Columbia. In Chicago Arthur OíNeill formed the OíNeill-James Company with this purpose in mind. The first phonograph introduced by the new company was essentially a Columbia Q, but with a slightly larger mandrel so that standard Edison and Columbia cylinders could not be played on it. It was called the 'Busy Bee' after one of OíNeillís staff by the name of Sherwin Bisbee.

Busy Bee 'GRAND'

In 1906 the company introduced the Grand Busy Bee disc machine, a simple oak model with the reproducer attached directly to the front mounted horn. It was made for the OíNeill-James Company by Hawthorne and Sheble and designed with a special lug in the turntable that made it impossible to play anything but a Busy Bee record which was made with a hole to accommodate the lug. The lug hole was located in the label area of the record, thus not affecting the discís ability to be played on a standard machine.

O'Neill took this interesting marketing idea even further with his 'Aretino' machine which had a 3" centre spindle and correspondingly odd looking doughnut-like records. In the end though, Victor and Zonophone decided to stop making discs for O'Neill and then managed to tie up Hawthorne and Sheble in litigation. OíNeill turned to Columbia for supply and managed to keep going with the Yankee Prince and Aretino models until his company was absorbed into the Consolidated Talking Machine Company in 1916.

Wonder Talking Machine ca. 1912 (Owner: Don Scafe)

Little is known about this machine apart from the fact that it was made in New York. All we know is that the machine has a swivel reproducer that permits Pathe as well as standard discs to be played. Beyond that, we are simply left 'wondering'. If any reader has more information about the Wonder Talking Machine Company, the author of this article and the owner would be interested in learning it.

Wonder Talking Machine

U-S Rex ca. 1912 (Owner: John Peel)

In 1996 John brought out his U-S Junior model and this was written up later in APN. This time John displayed an internal horn model, the Rex. The U-S Phonograph Company developed out of the Cleveland Phonograph Record Company, producing U-S Everlasting 2 and 4 minute cylinders by artists such as Billy Murray, Ada Jones, Henri Scott and Guiseppe Peratori. In just 3 years the company issued some 1,100 titles. It started making machines in 1910, first with the Phonola A and B internal horn machines and soon with 12 more models. Four were also sold through the Montgomery Ward catalogue under the 'Lakeside' label. Less than 2,000 of each model were made before Edisonís relentless lawsuits on alleged patent infringements drained the company until it went out of business in 1913. You may recall that Edison never actually won any of his lawsuits and that it was U-S that took some small consolation in suing Edison over the 'Opera' name. That is the reason why the Edison Opera was renamed 'Concert' in 1912.

Coronet Toy Gramophone Late 1920s ( Owner: Don Scafe)

Coronet Toy Talking Machine

The disc gramophone entered this world as a toy when Emile Berliner returned to Germany and sold his gramophone idea to Kammer and Reinhardt. This company produced a hand powered machine that was quite popular until Berliner came out with his first spring driven machine aimed at the adult market, as described above.

The Kammer and Reinhardt toy machine lasted from 1890 to about 1894, after which the spring driven style of machine took over and the childís toy idea got lost in the battle for supremacy in the adult main stream market for machines and records. It wasnít until the mid 1920s, when the advent of radio had cooled the intensity of the battle, that toy phonographs appeared again. Bing and Nirona are two of the names that show up most often on these small tin machines, often with the type of large bell shaped sound box seen on this Coronet.

PAL Late 20s/Early 30s (Owner: Cecil Byers)

This was another hard to identify machine from New York. This portable gramophone is only 3" - 4" deep and has a small aluminum horn attached directly to the reproducer. The horn faces backwards so that the sound is reflected off the lid in its open, vertical position. Looking at these wonderful machines reminds us that, although Edison, Victor and Columbia were so dominant in the first quarter of the 20th century, there was still room, at least on a temporary basis, for many imaginative and innovative designers and marketers to make their mark. Their originators would likely be amazed that their machines still exist nearly a century later and that there are people like us who can still derive great pleasure from them.

Special thanks to Domenic DiBernardo, John Peel, Don Scafe, Horst Weggler and Cecil Byers for bringing out their machines. Their effort was much appreciated by the 70 members at the CAPS March meeting.