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It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time...

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.

Part 1

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 different people.

We can illustrate this with a couple of examples:-

Golf Scores

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 commercially.

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 success.

  1. 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.

  2. 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 commercial success.

  3. 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- licensing agreements.
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 sales.

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 Hendron.

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 patent infringement.

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 disadvantages.

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 Bonne Presse.

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 replace it.

Part 2

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 clock top.

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 benefits.

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 unusual machine.

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 waves."

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 was.


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 was.


  • 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 January presentation.