It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time...
by Mike Bryan
A report on Mike Bryan's presentation to CAPS in
January 2002, when he explored the concepts of success
and failure, relating them to the phonograph industry
and to the fascinating machines on display.
In the late 1800s the rapid growth of consumer
societies in North America and Europe created fierce
competition in many industries. There were winners
and losers, success and failure. But these terms are
too simplistic, because they mean different things to
We can illustrate this with a couple of examples:-
Tiger Woods scores 85. Failure
A golf novice scores 85. Success
A 90-year-old man scores 85. Miracle
Betamax vs VHS Video formats
Betamax was a success for the wizards who created a
technically superior product. The format enjoyed
short-term sales success, but ultimately failed
So success would appear to be a relative term, a
matter of perception and a factor of the time scale
chosen for passing judgment. Weíll come back to
this, but first letís consider the underlying business
styles that cause companies to strive for their idea of
- Technically Driven
Some companies are technically driven. They pursue
technical advances regardless of customer demand,
believing that technical achievement or innovations
are ends in themselves. Having created a product,
they then just hope it will sell. If it does not, the
product will have a short life, surviving only in the
hands of a few owners who appreciate the technical
achievement or who get attached to quirky things.
- Customer Driven
Other companies research consumer attitudes and
needs. Then they develop products that will meet the
approval of the largest number of people. This lowest
common denominator approach often results in
mediocre, but competent, conservative, functional
products... all the ingredients of large-scale
- Copy Cat
This third type of company simply takes the ideas of
others and copies them, sometimes with technical
improvements, but often with technical differences,
introduced for the sole purpose of avoiding patent
infringement. These companies may find themselves
in constantlitigation, sometimes winning, often
losing, but sometimes compromising with cross-
Mike Bryan presents at a CAPS meeting
All of this will be familiar to those in business today,
but these different styles were just as much in
evidence at the turn of the 20th century. The very
inventiveness, competitiveness and high stakes drove
many companies to take risks, whether to satisfy their
technical egos or their sales goals. But while
companies and their products came and went, many
inventions of the period have transcended their
creators to become major long-term successes, eg.
bicycle, telephone, electric light. These are still with
us today in a form not dissimilar from the originals,
while other inventions like the cash register and the
typewriter have succumbed to computerization and
are losing their identity.
But what about the phonograph and recorded sound?
Whilst the utility of the items above was obvious, the
phonograph was an invention looking for a purpose.
Having made the technical breakthrough in 1877,
Edison seemed to lose interest, thinking only that his
invention may have some value to businessmen
recording dictation for their stenographers.
Edisonís tin foil machine was sold mainly for scientific
experiment and as a toy for the rich. As in the early
days of the tape recorder and VCR,it held no
universal appeal beyond its initial novelty value.
Edisonís lack of progress over the next 10 years
might indicate that he had no clear vision or firm
goals for the phonograph and was,therefore,
distracted by his work on other inventions. It wasnít
until Bell and Tainter launched the first permanent
wax record in 1888, that Edison revived his interest,
but both companies were remained focused on the
business dictaphone concept.
The other significant development in 1888 was the
invention of the disc record by Emile Berliner. As
with Edison, Berlinerís subsequent actions suggest
that the invention was an end in itself, since he sold
his idea to a German toy maker, Kammer and
Rheinhardt, who produced and sold toy gramophones
for several years. It wasnít until 1894 that Berliner
established a new business in Washington, DC and
began to produce machines for the adult market.
So neither of the two great inventors had created their
talking machines and records for the purpose of
exploiting the market potential for pre-recorded
music. Remember, too, that later in history, it was
only when extensive ranges of pre-recorded software
were made available, that the tape recorder and VCR
became mass market items.
While Edison and Berliner were now focused on
improving their machines, it was a man
unencumbered by such burdens, who would
recognize the commercial potential for recorded
sound. Edward Easton, the president of the Columbia
Phonograph Company began to exploit the cylinder
in the 1890s by promoting recorded music. Instead of
focusing on the one-time sale of a phonograph,
Eastman saw unlimited potential for multiple record
As Eastman, soon followed by his competitors,
expanded the range of recorded music, the industry
began to grow rapidly. Before long the 'big 3',
Columbia, Edison and Victor, having litigated and
cross-licensed each other into an orderly industry
structure, found a new wave of competitors
encroaching on their territory. They included the
'technically driven', the 'customer driven' and the
'copy cat' types of company. The stage was set for
many successes and failures, depending, as we have
said, on how one judges these qualities.
At the January CAPS meeting we looked at some
wonderful machines and discussed how they may be
regarded as successes or failures (or both!).
Edison Talking Doll 1890 (Owner Domenic DiBernardo)
This was quite a departure from the business
dictation purpose that Edison had originally proposed
for his invention. It suggests a lack of commitment to
that original purpose and a non-strategic stab at an
inherently limited market. The risks associated with
the fragility of the cylinders and the mechanism in
the hands of a small child, were discounted, as
Edison allowed his name to be used by the Edison
Toy Manufacturing Company, which began
manufacturing the Edison Talking Doll in 1887.
The reliability of the mechanism was poor and in
1890 Edison decided to take over the manufacture of
his own motor. It was for this doll that he produced
the very first Edison 'entertainment' wax cylinder,
but that did not detract from the continuing reliability
problems. The small motor and cylinders were,
indeed, just too fragile.
The $10 Edison Talking Doll, with its bisque head
and tin body also suffered the drawback of being
somewhat less than cuddly. Edison tried to salvage
the situation by having the mechanisms removed
from the dolls and selling them off.
In 1893 Lioretís Bebe Jumeau, with its celluloid
cylinders, was more successful technically and was
more durable, but it wasnít until the 1920ís that the
'talking doll' achieved wider popularity under the
names which included Mae Starr and Madame
The Edison Talking Doll appears to have been a
failure, both technically and commercially. It must
have been a frustrating and disappointing
experience for all involved, but there is nothing to suggest that
Edison and his team were daunted by this failure as
they quickly moved on to greater things.
Amet Echophone 1896 (Owner Mike Bryan)
Edward Amet was the designer of the Chicago
Talking Machine Companyís motors used in Edisonís
'Spring Motor' Phonograph. In 1895 Amet launched
his own machine,the first examples of which were
called the Metaphone, before being renamed as the
Echophone. However, it didnít take long for the
American Graphophone Company to sue Amet for
using a gravity weighted 'floating' reproducer and
engraved or incised cylinders.
Ametís partial answer was to modify his machine by
adding a spring to create downward pull on the
hollow glass tone arm. In an attempt to avoid
Edisonís tapered mandrel patent, he used a wooden
mandrel with the middle area turned to a narrower
diameter than the ends. Meanwhile, he claimed a
technical advance with the glass tone-arm, the
extruded tip of which formed the stylus. According to
Amet, molecular vibration of the sound energy
produced at the stylus passed along the glass tube to
a wooden post with a kind of wooden bellows.
Needless to say,it was not this strange method of
sound reproduction, which bothered his rivals. Of
much greater concern to Edison was that if the
American Graphophone Company won its reproducer
suit, then it could also sue his company for the same
Edison weighed in and negotiated a cross-licensing
agreement with the American Graphophone
Company, which opened the way for the huge industry
expansion that was to follow; Edison was licensed to use the
gravity weighted 'floating' stylus and engraved recordings.
In return the American Graphophone Company was
licensed to use the tapered mandrel, the jewel stylus and
the Edison-style wax cylinder. Meanwhile, Amet was ordered
to cease production of the Echophone in September 1896,
less than a year after its introduction.
As a machine, the Amet Echophone would surely be
regarded as a technical failure, partly because the
rather bizarre sound reproducing technology was
fragile, offered no benefits in sound quality and was
not adopted by the industry. It was clearly a
commercial failure, too, because of the short
production run and the constant modifications
designed to avoid patent infringement. Was Ametís
foray into phonograph production a cynical copycat
attempt to satisfy greed and ego? Or was it a genuine
attempt to launch a new technology that was simply
beset with the real difficulties of avoiding the patents,
which had already locked up the industry for the
major producers? Either way, the result is a rare and
delightful machine for todayís collectors. More
significantly, though, the short-lived Amet
Echophone was the catalyst for the cross-licensing
agreements that unleashed rapid industry growth.
Whilst Ametís motives are open to question, it would
be hard to believe that he envisioned the failure of his
machine, much less that it would spur the growth and
success of the whole industry.
Columbia AG 1900 (Owner Mark Caruana)
In 1898 Thomas McDonald designed the first 5-inch
diameter cylinder machine, the Columbia GG
(Graphophone Grand). It played at the standard
120 rpm, but produced greater volume because of the
increased surface speed. The original selling price
was $500, but this was reduced to $150 when the
competing Edison Concert machine was introduced at
$125 in 1899.
Then came the Columbia HG (Home Grand) with a
double spring and heavier reproducer at a price of
$100, followed in 1900 by a six-spring more ornate
'second style' machine.
Also in 1900 the HG 'first style' was renamed AG
(Columbia Grand) and priced initially at $75, before
dropping to $50 later that year.
Rapid revision of models and price reductions can be
a symptom of booming business and aggressive
marketing, but in the case of these machines,there is
more of an air of desperation. The price premium
sought for the 5-inch cylinderís increased volume
was too high to be of interest to the mass market.
Also, improvement sin reproducers, tone-arms and
horns proved to be a more sustainable path to
increased volume and sound quality. Furthermore, the
cylinders were expensive, fragile, cumbersome and
took up too much storage space.
The launch of the 5-inch cylinder machine may have
been a bold move to produce a premium priced, high
profit line at the top of a 'good, better, best' range. On the other
hand, it may have been no more than a technically driven
innovation, attempting to slow the ascendancy of the
convenient, consumer friendly disc. Either way,it seemed like
a good idea at the time, but with the benefit of hindsight,
was doomed to failure, because it offered such marginal
customer benefits, which were heavily outweighed by its
Ideal Phonographe #4 1905 ( Owner Domenic DiBernardo)
The French talking machine industry took off in 1893 when
Henri Lioret introduced his talking dolls equipped with small
celluloid cylinders. Despite his technical success in the doll and
other fine machines, it was Pathť, which soon became the industry
leader. This was partly due to the aggressive marketing
of its agent, Girard, which sold Pathť's range of mainly low priced machines on credit terms.
The Maison de la Bonne Presse was a Parisian religious
publishing house. It recognized the phonograph as a
moneymaking sideline and came to a distribution
agreement with the Ideal Phonograph
Company. Publishers would often, as they still do, give
or sell low value novelty items to entice
subscribers, but the introduction of a quality
phonograph line was a bold step for Maison de la
The particular feature of the Ideal #4 Phonograph
was its ability to play both disc and the three cylinder
sizes that were available in France ó standard, inter
31/2 inch and 5 inch. Whilst the battle between the
two formats was still in full swing, the manufacturer
of this dual mode machine would appear to have
been driven by customer need, or at least a logical
perception of customer need. This really did seem
like a good idea at the time, but the rarity of the
machines and the lack of similar competitive
products, suggests that the design and manufacturing
process may have been just too expensive. Or, despite
the apparent quality and technical competence of the
machine, it simply did not catch the publicís attention.
Surely this machine was built for both technical and
commercial success. Knowing so little about the Ideal
Phonograph Company and the level of their sales
ambitions,it is hard to judge whether they fully met
their technical goals or achieved profitable sales. This
might be a case of 'full marks for effort'.
Aretino Disc Machine 1908 (Owner Domenic DiBernardo)
By 1904 Edison, Victor and Columbia had just about
completed their cross-licensing agreements, but the
two disc machine companies had not yet worked out
how to successfully sue the smaller independent disc
machine manufacturers out of existence.
This state of affairs allowed Arthur J OíNeill to start
selling the Busy Bee, a Columbia Graphophone with
a slightly larger than standard mandrel. This meant
that the machine could only play Busy Bee cylinders.
This rather risky move proved to be successful, so
O'Neill then commissioned the Hawthorne and Sheble
Manufacturing Company of Philadelphia to make Busy Bee disc machines.
Following the principle of the oversized mandrel,
ONeill and other Chicago area talking machine
manufacturers extended this marketing ploy to their
disc machines with turntables on which only their
own brand records would fit. Different spindle
diameters and lugs prevented the use of other brand
records, but did not prevent the 'own brand' records
from being played on other machines.
Competition drove manufacturers to successively
increase spindle diameters, so that each latest
machine would only accommodate
its own records with the correspondingly
large holes. With a simple
adapter, though, the records could also be played on
any existing competitive machine with a smaller
diameter spindle. In 1907 ONeill trumped all
predecessors by establishing the Aretino Company to
market a machine with a 3-inch diameter spindle and
record with the corresponding 3-inch hole.
Ultimately, Victor decided that enough was enough
and successfully sued Hawthorne and Sheble, the
maker of the Aretino. This forced OíNeill to turn to
Columbia for supply of machines, not only for the
Aretino, but also for his Yankee Prince model. After
1910 only Aretino brand survived and lasted for
several more years.
Although the principle of record/machine
exclusivity did not catch on beyond the Chicago area
manufacturers, the Aretino and its predecessors had a
good run for their money. OíNeill could
hardly claim technical success, but the
marketing concept was certainly a
moderate success, despite the fact that it
was not exactly driven by customer need.
Once the concept ran out of steam, though,
OíNeill had nothing new of significance to
Hiller Clock 1911 (Owner Mike Bryan)
B. Hiller was the designer of a special talking clock
that was made in Berlin in 1911. The idea behind it
was to eliminate the need to look at the face or count
the chimes. The clock would speak the time on the
hour and quarter hour by means of a celluloid loop,
which would move on sprockets, like film in a
camera. On the film was a vertical recording of the
48 tracks necessary to announce the time every
quarter hour. As the film loop turned, it
would make a small horizontal shift so
that each sequential recorded announcement
would be made as it passed under the reproducer. The sound
was projected by a small vertically mounted horn through a grill in the
The solid mechanism was complex and it was difficult to keep the film loop in synchronization with the time. Unfortunately,it is a source of
frustration that we will never be able to hear crackly, original
renderings of 'halb funf' or 'acht uhr', since no celluloid loops are known to have survived and no successful reproductions exist.
The Hiller Clock must have been
created for the sole purpose of
satisfying the drive of the technically
minded designer. Were customers really
asking for a clock that they didnít have
to look at or count the chimes, or were
these dubious benefits offered as
justification for the technical
achievement? A good marketer would
have shot the idea down in flames, because the
machine would have been expensive, unreliable,
subject to film breakage, all in the name of providing
features unlikely to be regarded by customers as
Only about 300 of these machines were made, so
they cannot be considered successful in either
commercial or technical terms. A good idea at the
time? Not really, but a fascinating experiment and a
source of delight for todayís collectors.
Wizard 1911 (Owner Domenic DiBernardo)
The Wizard cylinder phonograph was made by the
International Phonograph Company of Newark, NJ,
for about a year. There is something 'tongue-in-
cheek' about this machine because the very name,
'Wizard', suggests a dig at Edison, often referred to
as the "Wizard of Menlo Park". The machine also
bore the names Ellisdon (another dig) and Champion.
Technically, the machine is quite basic, but the
unusual feature of note is the mandrel and feed screw
which must be lifted off as one piece in order to put
on the cylinder. The 2-minute machine was available
in oak, usually seen with a black horn and mahogany
with a maroon horn.
The unusual technical feature offered no particular
customer benefits. Also, the Edison digs suggest that
the company was not really serious about carving out
a position in the market for cylinder machines.
1911 was a bit late for a new player to be introducing any
type of cylinder machine, let alone a 2-minute model.
With its technical differences offering no real
customer benefits, the Wizard could not be deemed a
technical success. The short life of the machine and
its rarity today would suggest that it was not a
commercial success either. None of that detracts from
its desirability among collectors, who remain
puzzled about the motives behind the launch of this
Vitaphone 40, 1913 (Owner Horst Weggler)
The first Vitaphone was sold by Clinton Repp in
1899, but soon failed and disappeared until Repp
revived the name in 1909 when he applied for a
patent on a wooden sound conducting arm, stationary
reproducer and amplifying horn. He obtained the patent in 1911 and the next year launched four internal horn machines and one
external horn model for the remaining die-hards who
spurned the sleek new cabinet style.
By 1913 the Vitaphone range comprised the Model
15" external horn machine at $15, the '18' table
model at $18.50, the 25" at $25, the '50', '150' and
the '200'. An electric motor option was available for
an extra $50.
The Vitaphone was promoted on its technical merits,
with claims such as "one can feel the every tone
vibration throbbing through this wooden arm." The
claim was based on relating the resonating quality of
wood in instruments like violins and organ pipes to
the resonance of the reproduced sound through the
wood of the tone-arm. Another claim was that instead
of the sound being diverted downwards, "it is
allowed to float UPWARDS, as is natural with sound
Also in 1913 the American parent established the
Canadian Vitaphone Company at 156-160 John
Street, Toronto, before moving to the corner of
Carlaw and Eastern. The company was managed by
W R Fosdick, the former HMV manager in Toronto.
Canadian Vitaphone models are known to include the
'28' and the '40', on display at this CAPS meeting.
Despite supporting the machines with a good range
of records the Canadian Vitaphone Company was
wound up in 1916.
The technical features described by Vitaphone offered
no tangible benefits that would enable this newcomer
to do any damage to the well entrenched 'Big 3'
phonograph companies. There was an air of sincerity
in the technical claims,the range was solid and the
marketing good. Nevertheless, any
success the company might have
had was modest and short-lived.
It looks as though once the designer
latched onto the resonating wood
idea, the attempt to make it work in
a phonograph was more a leap of
faith than a marketable reality. Did
the designer ever really believe in
his technical achievement and feel
the satisfaction of success? Or did
he fear that the marketing hype
would raise customer expectations
of sound quality to a level that
could not be met?
Perhaps this was a genuine attempt to meet customer
demand for improved sound quality, or at least started
as such. When the claims could not be proven to the
satisfaction of potential customers, the company had
nothing new waiting in the wings and no further
reason to exist. Perhaps it seemed like a good idea at
the time, but the industry was too well advanced to
be influenced by technology that could not be proven.
Carryola 1920ís (Owner Don Scafe)
As truly portable gramophones became all the rage in
the 1920ís, there were endless variations made to
appeal to all tastes. One such variation was the
Carryola, made in the shape of a ladyís hat box.
Manufacturers of such machines would assemble
generic parts into whatever shape and style they
thought would appeal. Itís not hard to imagine how
the hat box idea flashed into the designerís mind. A
quick drawing, a meeting with the production staff
and the idea would soon become reality.
It seemed like a good idea at the time, and it probably
In addressing the concepts of success and failure, this
article has unapologetically entered into areas of
speculation. It has been difficult enough for
researchers to piece together factual histories of the
phonograph industry, let alone get into the motives
and personal feelings of those involved. We just donít
know if the makers of the Wizard patted themselves
on the back at the end of the year or if they sulked
away, broken by the failure of their great hope. Hiller
may have used the failure of the talking clock to learn
something that brought him great success in another
venture, or he could have decided that he just wasnít
cut out to be a designer.
This illustrates how little is known about the
outcomes of the successes and failures documented
here. We know something about the rise and fall of
the products or companies, but unlike the Edisons
and Johnsons, we know so little about the men
behind these wonderful machines that were presented
at CAPS and described here. What motivated them,
how did they view their achievements, what did they
do after the chapter of history that we know about?
In the absence of knowing such detail, but based on
the little we know about the machines under review,
opinions have been offered here from the perspective
of a modern businessman. Hindsight is 20/20 and it is
easy to see from this position why some of these
machines were failures. However, these opinions do
not detract from recognition of the enthusiasm,
experimentation and risk taking that were hallmarks
of this exciting, inventive period in history.
But it remains that the notion of success or failure is
a matter of perception, affected by expectations and
by time scale. For example, by around 1890 Edison
had settled on the cylinder, but by 1900 it was
fighting a rearguard action against the disc record.
The cylinder and the machines for playing it,
soldiered on until 1929 when it finally succumbed to
the disc, which would see its own centenary before
making way for the Compact Disc.
An uncharitable pessimist might perceive the cylinder
as an ultimate failure. An optimist, though, would see
it as a 40-year success, believing to the end that what
seemed like a good idea at the time, most definitely
- The Talking Machine. An Illustrated Compendium 1877-1929. Timothy C Fabrizio and George F Paul.
- Discovering Antique Phonographs 1877-1929. Timothy C Fabrizio and George F Paul.
- Columbia Phonograph Companion Volume 1. Howard Hazelcorn
Special thanks also to the CAPS members
who brought along their machines for the