3 Parlours, Pubs, and Parliament: The Gramophone Moves In
4 In the Drawing-Room or Nursery, and For Out-of-Doors
5 Stick Around for the New Jazz Band
6 BBC Sundays and the Gramophone Pirates
7 The Most Famous Zebra Crossing in The World
8 Al Bowlly’s Dead and Gone
9 Multimedia Mayhem
10 Dansettes and Teens
11 Shellac’s Back!
A convivial evening at home with the piano. The gramophone would soon put a stop to such sophisticated family entertainment.
Oxford Records make the grandiose claim that their cylinder recordings are ‘Good’. (Courtesy of the Accademia Nazionale del Jazz, Siena)
Charing Cross, early 1900s—home to the Edison‐Bell Consolidated Phonograph Company Limited.
The Cecil and Savoy Hotels on the Strand, early 1900s. William Barry Owen based himself at the Cecil when he arrived in London—the Strand would become the epicentre of the Gramophone Company’s emerging empire.
Gertie Millar, c. 1907. Miss Millar was a musical comedy star who took advantage of the gramophone to record her best‐known songs.
Isabel Jay, c. 1906. Miss Jay was a star of light opera and the London stage, who, like Miss Millar, seized the chance to record some of her most popular songs.
The Recording Angel fills up the ‘blank’ side of a Gramophone Company 7‐inch record. (Courtesy of the Accademia Nazionale del Jazz, Siena)
HMV warns of the dangers of improper storage and recommends its record albums as the perfect solution.
The Songster Company’s Gramophone Hint No. 5 offers some advice on keeping your records in tip‐top condition.
Nipper adorns the lid of a tin filled with loud tone needles. (Courtesy of Dave Guttridge)
Luigi Mancinelli, composer of the undistinguished ‘St Agnes’, which even gramophone effects failed to enliven. (Courtesy of the Norfolk and Norwich Festival)
A Salkind’s advertisement from the 1908 Norfolk and Norwich Festival programme: pianos still reigned supreme although ‘Genuine Gramophones’ were now available. (Courtesy of the Norfolk and Norwich Festival)
Thorn needles—an alternative to the more usual metal needles. (Courtesy of Dave Guttridge)
Songster Loud Tone needles—200 in one small tin. (Courtesy of Dave Guttridge)
A ‘Trench Decca’ portable gramophone. (Courtesy of Paul Buck)
A Beatall Records version of ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band’ by the Beatall Military Band, an anonymous orchestra on a budget label. The Yorke family of Erddig in north Wales owned a copy of this disc, indicating that budget labels appealed to the gentry as well as the poorer music fans.
Bessie Smith sings ‘St Louis Blues’ accompanied by Louis Armstrong. Recorded in New York in 1925, this is the real thing and a far cry from attempts at ‘jazzing’ by the Coldstream Guards.
Edgar Jackson’s ‘Rhythm Style Series No. 2’—a discography of Parlophone releases, vital for serious fans of jazz, swing and boogie‐woogie.
Oxford Street c. 1910, featuring Waring and Gillow, the department store that sold gramophones in its ‘Galleries’.
Christopher Stone, the first disc jockey.
The Two Leslies—a favourite of Christopher Stone.
Wilmott’s of Norwich. This 1930 advertisement notes that HMV has recently reduced the prices of all of its gramophones and radiograms. (Courtesy of the Norfolk and Norwich Festival)
A Tuck Gramophone Record Postcard, c. 1929. The company stuck small discs onto pre‐existing postcards, ensuring, in this case, that the ‘maiden fair to see’ could not be seen.
Nellie Wallace sings ‘Mother’s Pie Crust’, as advertised on an HMV record sleeve. Wallace was a popular comedy performer on stage and screen; she recorded this song in 1930.
V‐Disc 274A, featuring the legendary Benny Goodman Trio. (Courtesy of the Accademia Nazionale del Jazz, Siena)
A Columbia Records advertisement from the 1947 Norfolk and Norwich Festival programme. The label’s stars include Sir Malcolm Sargent and Dennis Noble. (Courtesy of the Norfolk and Norwich Festival)
HMV advertisement from the 1947 Norfolk and Norwich Festival. This label also lays claim to Sir Malcolm Sargent and Dennis Noble. It was just a spot of friendly competition, as both labels were part of EMI. (Courtesy of the Norfolk and Norwich Festival)
An unknown library makes an apparently unsuccessful plea for the return of Ray Ellington’s ‘very valuable’ 1948 recording. Ellington (no relation to Duke) is probably best remembered for his regular musical contributions to radio’s Goon Show.
A ‘limited edition’ Jazz Collector release of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band’s ‘Barnyard Blues’, which may or may not be a bootleg disc. (Courtesy of the Accademia Nazionale del Jazz, Siena)
The Cromer Secondary Modern School Choir’s three minutes of fame, thanks to Jack Bryant’s Cromer Recording label.
Jack Bryant’s detailed instructions for the care of Cromer Recording discs. The discs would quickly wear out if these instructions were not followed.
The iconic Dansette record player. (Courtesy of Mike and Liz Delf)
Dave Guttridge, in contemplative DJ78 mood, with a Songster Gramophone Hint at hand. (Photograph by Tascha Dearing)
Karla Richards, as her DJ alter‐ego Karla Chameleon. (Photograph by Alice Peperell)
Karla Richards’s Pramophone. (Photograph by Karla Richards)
At some time in the middle of 1963, using money from a now-forgotten source, I bought my first record: it was a 45-rpm, 7-inch, vinyl disc featuring Elvis Presley performing ‘Devil in Disguise’ (on the RCA label). Mum and Dad were not interested in Mr Presley’s style of popular music, but they let me play my new disc on the family radiogram. This great big brute of an object—a shiny, dark wood lump of furniture—sat in the front room, facing the window that looked out onto the glories of Bath Street.
The front room was special. It spent most of its time empty of life, reserved for receiving guests at weekends. Even on those occasions, the radiogram went unused, so it might remain mute for months on end; the wireless Dad made provided music in the kitchen, and the little black-and-white TV brought entertainment to the living room. The radiogram was big, but it was not treasured; it cannot have been because Mum and Dad allowed me to play it unsupervised. As long as I touched nothing else (the room held a few trinkets and gewgaws, a clock, antimacassars on the sofa and armchairs), I could operate the record player and listen to Elvis for as long as I wanted. This was how it began.
As the months and years passed and we left the Bath Street terrace behind, Elvis was joined by the Beatles, the Hollies, and Pink Floyd. By the time I left home a decade later, singles had given way to LPs, and the LP had taken second place to the white-hot technology of the tape cassette. The format did not really matter. Music was the important thing, and it still is.
Shellac and Swing! is not the story of vinyl, singles, albums, or—Heaven forbid—cassettes. It is the story of the records that came before and the machines that played them: the 78-rpm discs and the gramophone. In particular, it is the story of how these relatively humble objects became part of British society, influencing and being influenced by it, in turn, for over half a century. My first memory of these venerable old records is a destructive one. Scrambling through the attic of our house, I clambered over piles of dust-covered shellac and heard (and felt) the discs crack under the pressure of my skinny knees. Who knows how many of these discs I managed to destroy? I certainly cannot remember and I never told my parents, so they never got the chance to count them. I feel a bit guilty about such wanton vandalism these days. Shellac and Swing! is my attempt to make amends, a celebration of the ways in which gramophones and 78s changed life in Britain forever.
Monsieur Scott has a Great Idea
Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville decided to record the human voice. With commendable restraint, Scott described his decision calmly, objectively, and without hyperbole; the thought had occurred to him ‘of fixing on a sensitive stratum the trace of the motion of the air during song or speech.’
Scott was in his mid-thirties, based in Paris, and aware of the many new discoveries and inventions that science was bringing to the world. Photography could fix forever a pictorial image of a moment in time, so why could the same not be done for sound? In the next few years, Scott developed a machine for recording sound, named it the phonautograph, and used it to make a series of permanent records, which he called phonautograms. On 27 January 1857, confident in his achievement, he presented the Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France with the details of his work.
On one of his earliest phonautograms, Scott recorded a guitar, and a few years later he captured the sound of a cornet; however, for the most part, he made recordings of human voices—the voice of a young girl, a deep voice, voices at a distance, voices holding a certain pitch, speaking voices, and singing voices all found their way onto one of his tracings before he felt confident enough to leave his sealed envelope with the Académie. He achieved all of this with an instrument inspired by the anatomy of the human ear, using animal membranes as diaphragms and a boar’s bristle as a stylus. He attached the ‘sensitive stratum’ to a cylinder, which he rotated by hand.
Thirty years later, when Emile Berliner announced his own machine for recording sound, he acknowledged the debt he owed to Scott and described the Frenchman’s method: he covered a cylinder with paper, smoked it over a flame, and attached a stylus to the centre of a diaphragm, which, under the influence of words spoken into a large barrel-like mouthpiece, ‘would trace sound vibrations upon the smoky surface.’ A wiggly line, traced on a piece of smoky paper, captured the human voice for eternity.
Once captured, what was to become of this sound? Scott was clear about his intention. After recording, the paper would be carefully removed from the cylinder and flattened out. Once this had been done, any interested party could look at, marvel at, and scientifically study the wiggly line. Sound would be studied visually, not aurally, by eye rather than by ear. It would be seen but not heard. Was this really such a great idea?
Posterity should give thanks to the scientists, engineers, businessmen, and artists who followed Scott. They took his phonautograph and, eventually, turned it into the gramophone. They took his phonautograms and turned them into gramophone records. They created a revolution in home entertainment, changing the way we listen to and understand sound. They enabled a previously ephemeral activity to be captured in the moment and preserved forever. They changed the way we furnished our homes, enjoyed ourselves on picnics, joined in with our favourite songs, and listened to politicians and cultural leaders. They gave entrepreneurs new ways to make their fortunes and to separate the rest of us from our money. They offered us new ways to express our patriotism and new ways to promote propaganda. They absolved us from the responsibility of listening to untalented family and friends at intimate soirees and allowed us instead to hear the greatest artists in the world in the comfort of our own homes. They offered new ways for the sporting gentleman to enjoy some of his more private pleasures and turned singers and instrumentalists into world-renowned and fabulously wealthy superstars.
After a few decades, the discoveries and inventions made by other scientists, inventors, and artists would advance Scott’s great idea beyond its modest beginnings and impact the lives of millions of people across the world. Britain, at first resistant to the charms of recorded sound, would embrace the idea and become a world leader in the art and science of the gramophone record. From the ballrooms of stately homes to the cramped front rooms of artisans’ cottages, from the furthest corners of the British Empire to the muddy trenches of the Western Front, from Antarctica to the English Channel, and from E. F. Benson’s humour to the murderous plots of Agatha Christie, gramophones would become part and parcel of everyday life.
On the Record: ‘Au Clair de la Lune’, Anonymous (Scott phonautogram, 9 April 1860)
Scott de Martinville may never have intended his phonautograms to be heard, but he failed to recognise that the scientific curiosity that drove him to record them in the first place would eventually drive others to develop the technology that would render his recordings listenable.
In 2008, the First Sounds organisation began its attempts to recover the sound from one of Scott’s black and smoky recordings. Since then, it has successfully reproduced the sounds from a series of these phonautograms, including the popular French song familiar to British children for decades: ‘Au Clair de la Lune’. Scott recorded ‘Au Clair de la Lune’ on a few occasions; this version from 9 April 1860 is, at the time of writing, the earliest recording from which the audio has been retrieved and enables us to hear a voice from 160 years ago.
The recording lasts barely twenty seconds, just enough time for the vocalist to begin the second line. The vocalist may well be Scott himself; even with modern technology, the voice is hard to hear and not obviously male or female. The words are unclear, but it is undeniably a human voice (though not one that appears to have much of a talent for singing). One line of a folk song, barely audible, sung with little enthusiasm and even less ability was an inauspicious start for the record industry, but it was a start, nonetheless.
The Old Familiar Voice
Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville never wanted to be a music business mogul. His intention was always to create a visual representation of sound in order to enable the detailed scientific study of the human voice. He hoped for the day when ‘the musical phrase, escaped from the singer’s lips, will be written by itself … on a docile paper and leave an imperishable trace of those fugitive melodies’, but he showed no interest in profiting financially from turning those imperishable traces into a commercial product. Instead, he carried on with his experiments with little publicity and barely any interest from the outside world. He left the development of a reliable recording and reproducing machine to other innovators.
The Slow Rise of the Talking Machines
The British scientific establishment first heard about the phonautograph at the 1859 meeting of the British Association. Prince Albert, the Prince Consort, attended the meeting in Aberdeen while leading scientists and engineers presented papers on up-to-the-minute discoveries and developments, from the exciting to the eccentric. In the physiology section, Professor MacDonald gave a paper regarding a female greyhound which had never given birth yet was able to suckle a kitten. In the zoology and botany section, Reverend W. S. Symond gave a talk ‘On different Pebbles found in the Stomach of a Cow’. Abbé Moigno was particularly busy; the fifty-five-year-old French Catholic priest gave papers on Newton’s method of resolving equations and on a portable apparatus for analysing light, took part in the discussion of Sir David Brewster’s paper on double refraction, and gave details of a process for preserving milk. He also presented a paper titled ‘On the phonautograph, for registering simple and compound sounds.’ The paper failed to cause a stir within Britain’s scientific community and it would be almost twenty years before another recording device emerged. This time, it would reproduce as well as record sound, but even this advance would garner little enthusiasm among the British public.
Charles Cros, another French inventor, sent his own paper to the Académie des Sciences on 30 April 1877, detailing his method of recording and reproducing audible phenomena. Cros’s machine, the paleophone, would make a spiral tracing on a surface blackened by flame in response to sound and would then retrace the mark, reproducing the recorded sound. He explained his theory clearly but failed to produce a model of his intended device, never mind a working prototype; his paper stayed in its envelope until December, when it was read to the Académie’s members at an open session. The eight-month gap gave someone else the chance to grab the glory. Across the Atlantic, an entrepreneurial, partially deaf, thirty-one-year-old inventor produced a working model of his own creation.
At his base in Menlo Park, Thomas Alva Edison was working on improvements to the recently invented telephone when he began to think about a talking machine. By the early winter of 1877, Edison had produced a working prototype, which recorded sound onto tin foil wrapped around a cylinder. Edison spent some time considering names for his invention; acoustophone, liquphone, didaskophone, brontophone, bittako-phone, and many others made the list, but he decided on phonograph. The audio revolution could have arrived, but it did not. Bored, frustrated, or lacking development funds, Edison soon moved on to a new project: the electric light.
In the early 1880s, Gardiner G. Hubbard, an early patron of the telephone, reinvigorated research into sound reproduction by the simple expedient of providing money for experiments. Alexander Graham Bell, Chichester A. Bell (Alexander’s cousin), and Charles Sumner Tainter set to work. Chichester Bell and Tainter soon designed their own machine, replacing foil with beeswax and changing the recording process from Edison’s indenting method to an engraving method, which dug wax out of the cylinder to form a ‘hill and dale’ groove. Bell and Tainter received a US patent for their new machine, which they named the graphophone. Edison noted the upstart new invention and returned to the fray: perhaps there was money to be made from the phonograph after all.
Edison confidently predicted the phonograph’s impact on modern life, giving numerous examples including the recording of court proceedings, audiobooks for blind or sick people ‘or even … the lady or gentleman whose eyes and hands may be otherwise employed’, educating children in spelling or elocution, letter-writing in the form of notes to be typed up by a third party, and recordings to be sent through the mail. Edison suggested two more functions of equal, if contrasting, importance. The machine would record the voice of a dying family member, preserving their last words for posterity. It would also act as an alarm clock that could tell the time, call its owner to lunch, and—in a rare show of rather naughty Edisonian humour—‘send your lover home at ten,’ a time- and potentially marriage-saving idea, if only your husband or wife could be guaranteed to stay out of the house until ten minutes past ten.
Edison predicted that music, too, would find a home on the phonograph cylinder, although his ambitions in this regard were rather limited. The phonograph could reproduce music with such power and clarity that ‘a friend may in a morning-call sing us a song which shall delight an evening company’—charming but hardly the global industry that recorded music would become.
Architect and writer Philip G. Hubert enthusiastically supported the phonograph. Mr Hubert had personally heard a phonograph recording of Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby; sound reproduction was so clear that fewer than one word in twenty was lost—a ringing endorsement of the instrument’s quality. Operation required skill and technical understanding—the ‘office boy or typewriter girl’ could not be trusted with such a delicate instrument—but even so, Hubert predicted that wax cylinders would be reproduced in their thousands, that a novel could be recorded on a single cylinder and sold for a few cents and that operas from Vienna, plays from London, and Congressional debates would all be accessible on wax cylinder. Indeed, thought Hubert, books and stories need never be produced on paper; why not simply send them straight to wax? Newspapers, too, could be published on cylinders, with music critics able to include examples of the performance they critiqued. Hubert foresaw a brave new world of audio transmission, but he was already behind the times.
The Phonograph Arrives in Britain and an Argument Ensues
The people of Britain did not hold their collective breath in expectation of this brave new world. The Times first mentioned Edison’s invention in a report on a lecture about the telephone from a Professor Barrett, who referred to Edison’s ‘talking phonograph’ and proposed that an understanding of the waveforms of articulate speech would enable science to reproduce speech artificially; for him, a talking machine was an electronic device for the creation of human-like sounds rather than for the recording of actual human sounds, what might be called a synthesiser. The Times felt it necessary to explain how a ‘talking phonograph’ operated, given that readers would doubtless have no personal experience of the machine, but the following week, it devoted an entire article to Edison’s invention, asserting that it would be a scientific marvel. Soon after, the machine was the subject of the sort of argument beloved of correspondents to The Times, an argument about the derivation and correct spelling of ‘phonograph’. ‘Pedagogus’, ‘Nuper Etonensis’, and Mr E. Walford MA joined in, debating whether the word should be ‘phonegraph’, expressing disgust at the ‘barbarous termination—graph’ and drawing on esoteric Greek philosophy to justify their propositions. As with many debates in the letters pages of broadsheet newspapers, no one took any notice.
When the first phonographs arrived in Britain, people engaged with the instruments in different ways. Mr Garner of Brighton added a chapter on the phonograph to his book on constructing a telephone, ‘by which failure is impossible.’ At a London dinner party, Mr Preece of Her Majesty’s Telegraph Department demonstrated a phonograph to guests, including the Duke of Argyll, Mr and Mrs William Gladstone, and Anthony Trollope. Public demonstrations were organised at the Crystal Palace by the authority of the London Stereoscopic and Photographic Company; one formed part of the Clematis Show in May 1878, alongside Goldings Ventriloquial Entertainment, Living Marionettes, seals in a newly arranged pond, and (presumably) clematises. The sporting world followed suit when Mr Adrian’s two-year-old colt, Phonograph, ran his first race at Newmarket. The horse came last.
When Edison made improvements to the phonograph at the end of the 1880s, the British press was more enthusiastic. The new instrument was about the size of a sewing machine, used wax cylinders (cutting a groove that was described poetically as a ‘delicate and ridgy trace’), and was notable for its exquisite workmanship. George Gouraud (a retired US Army colonel, a veteran of the American Civil War, and holder of the Congressional Medal of Honor) acted as Edison’s agent in Europe. Gouraud, whose father was French, envisaged a great future for the phonograph and enthusiastically promoted it. He travelled to England in 1887 with a strategy for gaining the attention of society by recording some of its leading figures.
Gouraud interviewed well-known men and women from European social, cultural, and political life, recording these interviews on cylinder. Over two decades, he succeeded in recording figures including actors Henry Irving and Sarah Bernhardt, the composer Sir Arthur Sullivan, William Gladstone, Florence Nightingale, and Otto von Bismarck. Colonel Gouraud was an unashamed admirer of the phonograph and its inventor; when the Gouraud family moved to England, they took up residence in a house called ‘Little Menlo’. When he received the first of Edison’s improved phonographs from the Menlo Park factory in New Jersey, he immediately wrote to The Times. The machine arrived with a selection of cylinders (which Gouraud called ‘phonograms’) containing music, poetry, and a message from Edison himself. Gouraud informed readers that he had dictated his letter onto a cylinder, from which a family member transcribed it.
Gouraud insisted that this machine was ‘perfected’ but was unwilling to offer a public demonstration. One journalist noted that sound was poor, heard clearly only when it was ‘conducted into the ears of the listeners by tubes.’ However, the writer was optimistic that a great future awaited the instrument; covert surveillance was high on the list of potential uses, for if a phonograph could be hidden successfully then it would be ‘a terror to evil doers, and a source of joy to novelists as an entirely new source of startling disclosures and of unexpected dénouments.’
A fresh delivery of a phonograph and cylinders gave Gouraud the confidence to go ahead, inviting selected guests to Little Menlo for his demonstration. The new phonograph was the first to be fitted with an amplifying horn, removing the need for listeners to use hearing tubes, and it would reproduce sound with ‘marvellous fidelity’. Mrs Alice Shaw, an American performer known as La Belle Siffleuse (a more romantic title than its English equivalent, ‘the beautiful whistler’), was prevailed upon to whistle into the machine. Played back, her whistling was reproduced with impressive accuracy and proved to be far louder than the music and song on the pre-recorded cylinders. At the British Association meeting a month later, demonstrations of the phonograph and the graphophone proved to be the hit of the weekend with crowds ‘besieging’ the room to judge the merits of each machine. Colonel Gouraud carried on spreading the word through demonstrations and lectures, including a Boxing Day demonstration at Olympia, featuring La Belle Siffleuse. Meanwhile, the London Stereoscopic and Photographic Company, holders of Edison’s original British patent, began advertising phonographs for sale and offered home demonstrations for the exorbitant fee of 3 guineas.
Of course, talking machines were not replacing silence. Nineteenth-century Britain was filled with the sounds of factories and mills, of traders crying out their wares in the streets and markets, of children playing in the fields, and of birds singing in the skies. There was plenty of entertainment on offer, too, from amateur musicians and singers at home to professional performers in the music halls and theatres, tirelessly singing, playing instruments, and telling jokes. Phonographs were slowly muscling in on this lively soundscape when the next great talking machine appeared, this time emerging from the inventive mind of a German émigré to the United States.
Berliner’s Gramophone Appears
Emile Berliner was born in Hamburg in 1851. Originally named Emil, he added the final ‘e’ because he thought it looked better. He moved to the USA in 1870, worked in a Washington dry goods store then moved to New York, taking on odd jobs and studying at the Cooper Institute. Berliner became intrigued by the telephone, which he saw demonstrated in Washington in 1876. Within a few years, he patented an improved transmitter, sold his patent to the Bell Telephone Company, and joined it as a research worker. He stayed with the company for a few years before going independent in 1884 to pursue his new interest in the talking machine.
On 8 November 1887, Berliner was awarded a US patent for ‘certain new and useful Improvements in Gramophones’—an odd phrase, suggesting that gramophones already existed. The Electrical World published the story of Berliner’s new sound-reproducing equipment. Illustrations showed a gramophone with a face mask—looking scarily like the mask used to administer anaesthetic—to be used for the recording process and, waiting to be fitted, a small horn to project the sound. Another illustration showed a section of a gramophone record; the flat disc, with its spiral groove moving from its outer edge to its centre, is instantly recognisable. A few days later, Edwin A. Houston spoke to the American Philosophical Society about Berliner’s machine, offering a concise summary of those ‘new and useful improvements’. They were mainly in the recording process, said Houston. The gramophone recorded onto a flat glass disc, covered in printer’s ink and soot from a coal oil lamp. The stylus made a groove in the sooty ink, which was parallel to the surface rather than at right angles to it. It was on such seemingly simple, even mundane, developments that a new industry would be forged.
Berliner made a detailed public announcement, with a practical demonstration, at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia the following May. Berliner confessed that he had initially been unaware of Charles Cros’s work, but Berliner was an honourable man and he wanted to give credit where it was due, declaring that Cros was the first to develop a means of reproducing recorded speech. His declaration was both admirable and expedient. Cros gained his rightful place in the invention of talking machines, Berliner avoided the possibility of legal action by the Frenchman and Edison’s status as the inventor of sound recording was subtly questioned. Berliner intended his gramophone to be used for the production and sale of ‘recitations, songs, and instrumental solos or orchestral pieces of every variety’. He predicted that every city would contain at least one recording machine and related equipment (including a piano) available to everyone who wanted to make a recording. A large funnel (or ‘acousticon’) would concentrate sound and send it to the recording stylus: ‘Persons desirous of having their voice “taken” will step before the funnel, and, upon a given signal, sing or speak, or they may perform upon an instrument.’ After the session, the customer would leave with as many copies of the recording on discs as they wished.
Berliner foresaw a time when the best performers would make an excellent living from recordings. ‘Prominent singers, speakers, or performers, may derive an income from royalties on the sale of their phonautograms,’ he wrote, going on to predict that people would soon be collecting recordings and spending evenings listening to their favourite artists. Berliner did not envisage an entire future of entertainment; the voices of the dead would speak through the gramophone, just as Edison suggested they would speak through the phonograph. The voices of dead relatives and friends would join those of the great men and women, famous actors, and notable singers, their utterances captured for eternity. Berliner referred to ‘tone pictures’, which would condense a lifetime onto a few discs: ‘five minutes of the child’s prattle, five of the boy’s exultations, five of the man’s reflections, and five of the feeble utterances from the death-bed.’ It would be, he claimed, like holding communion with immortality.
Berliner demonstrated his new talking machine to the Franklin Institute by playing a selection of phonautograms. There were no recordings of great men, no croaky death rattles, and no recitations by leading poets. Berliner selected half a dozen popular songs: ‘Home, Sweet Home’, ‘Tar’s Farewell’, ‘A Wandering Minstrel I’, ‘Yankee Doodle’, ‘Baby Mine’, and ‘Nancy Lee’.
News of Berliner’s gramophone reached Britain a few weeks after the publication of the article in The Electrical World. The gramophone, said the ‘Scientific and Industrial Notes’ column of the Manchester Times, would offer strong competition to the phonograph. The Leeds Mercury placed the gramophone in the context of work by Scott, Cros, and Edison. The first mention of Berliner’s machine in The Times was brief, noting only that Edison’s phonograph was now improved by the graphophone and Berliner’s ‘grammophone [sic.]’. In the ‘Scientific Notes’ section of The Graphic, T. C. H. reported on the gramophone as a rival to the phonograph but warned that the gramophone’s ‘sound-record,’ which T. C. H. noted as being made of a zinc plate, ‘cannot very readily be sent away by post.’
The Globe claims the notable achievement of being the first British publication to use the gramophone to insult a leading politician. On the same day that the Leeds Mercury’s article appeared, one of The Globe’s commentators bemoaned the ‘want of originality’ shown by those responsible for naming the talking machines: ‘Surely a more imaginative and appropriate name for a talking-machine would be the “Gladstone”.’
The Aberdeen Weekly Journal was more enthusiastic and light-hearted, noting that while the gramophone would do everything that the phonograph could do, it would do so at a substantially lower price—just a couple of guineas compared to the phonograph’s likely cost of at least 25 guineas. This was quite a prospect:
The gramophone will reproduce your voice, to be taken down later on in evidence against you; and, if you are musically inclined, ‘Yankee Doodle,’ as played by a band in the States some months ago, will be given on this side of the Atlantic, without any apparent symptoms of sea-sickness during transit.
Parkins and Gotto, Court Stationers and purveyors of fine travelling bags, offered gramophones for sale in London at Christmas 1891. The Oxford Street store advertised the ‘Gramophone or Talking Machine’ as ‘an apparatus for reproducing the human voice or other sounds as often as desired’. Although it was solid brass and cost 42 shillings, it was advertised as a toy—a seasonal gift for a child, albeit a child from a comfortably well-off family. In Ireland, the gramophone created a sensation in Belfast’s Bank Buildings, where it could be heard and purchased along with a selection of ‘plates’ of recitations, songs, instrumental solos, and orchestral pieces. It was ‘the rage of the season as a Xmas present.’
Parkins and Gotto took some of their advertising copy from a Berliner Gramophone Company leaflet. A young girl, aged perhaps ten or twelve, is pictured on the cover. She sits at a table, operating the gramophone herself, though she is far from thrilled with the cutting-edge technology. She sits unsmiling, looking bored and perhaps even a little anxious. The gramophone horn points away from her as if the volume of sound will damage her ears should she get too close. The machine may be simple to operate, but it requires constant attention. She must rotate the turntable by hand, at a steady speed, if she is to hear any sound at all; stop for just a second and the pleasure ends. None of this looks like fun. If the illustration has a positive message, it is about ease of use. Here, the photograph seems to suggest, is a machine that even a child can control, a machine that can be easily accommodated in the smallest house or apartment. Beneath the photo was a brief explanation of what the machine did. ‘The GRAMOPHONE is an apparatus for making permanent records of the human voice or other sounds, including music of all kinds and for reproducing the same at any time thereafter as often as desired.’ The gramophone would reproduce the voice in its natural quality, projecting sounds at such a volume that they could be heard clearly even in a large room. Parents concerned about their offspring and the machine were reassured: ‘As the reproducing machine has no gearing or other intricate mechanism, even children can operate it without risk of derangement’—a comforting statement, although it is not clear whether it was the child or the machine that might become deranged.
Bored, anxious, or deranged children could be dealt with, but hand-cranked turntables were a problem. A motor that drove the turntable without the need for constant attention was a vital improvement, but not one for which Berliner could take credit. In 1896, Berliner approached Eldridge Reeves Johnson, an engineer from New Jersey, to see if he could develop an efficient clockwork motor. Johnson’s motor was soon fitted to Berliner’s gramophones. Previous motors proved unreliable or underpowered, but Johnson’s enabled the turntable to revolve with a consistent speed and, just as importantly for commercial purposes, it meant that the listener could wind up the motor, set the turntable in motion, and relax as the disc played rather than having to provide constant motive power personally. Johnson’s clockwork motor was the final stage in the development of a reliable, commercially viable instrument. The gramophone was now a machine to revolutionise home entertainment.
One innovative busker saw the potential of the gramophone even before the clockwork motor arrived. When Daniel Moore fell into rent arrears, his landlord took his gramophone in part-payment of his debt. Moore went to the Enfield Petty Sessions in an attempt to get his property back and had to explain to the puzzled magistrate that a gramophone was a type of talking machine. He needed it to help pay off his arrears, claiming that he could earn ten shillings with it on a Saturday night, probably by playing the machine on street corners or giving impromptu performances in Enfield’s pubs. The magistrate was unmoved; Moore’s gramophone remained with his landlord.
The Beetles Make Records
At first glance, the gramophone disc is a rather simple object. Eighty years after it first appeared, the Welsh rock band, Man, would succinctly sum it up in the title of their second album: 2 Ozs of Plastic with a Hole in the Middle. At the time, the description was immediately recognisable to every music lover, not just to fans of Welsh psychedelic rock; however, for most of its existence, the disc was not 2 ounces in weight and it was not made of plastic. The hole in the middle does seem to have been around from the start, however.
Berliner made his first discs, available in 1890, to fit the products of German toy manufacturers Kämmer und Reinhardt: 3-inch discs for a talking doll and 5-inch discs for small, hand-cranked gramophones. Berliner’s first commercially available clockwork gramophone used 7-inch discs—a useful size but still limited in playing time. The first 10-inch discs arrived in 1901, followed a couple of years later by 12-inch discs. Seemingly random ‘in-between’ sizes—such as German company Odeon’s 10.75-inch Orange Label discs—were also available, but the 10-inch and 12-inch discs became the industry standard for the next fifty years.
In his early experiments, Berliner made discs from metal or glass. For commercial use, he tried celluloid and rubber-based compounds. Eventually, he settled on the compound most usually associated with the gramophone record—shellac. This is a resin secreted by female lac beetles, native to India and other parts of Asia. It is produced in different colours depending on the species of tree in which the lac beetle lives, and it is still used as a wood-finishing product and in food production (it even has its own E-number—E904). Berliner’s choice was a boon to the British Empire; India was the main exporter of the resin, and by the late 1930s, around half the shellac produced was being used for gramophone record production. In fact, the beetle produced just one constituent of the material; around one-third of a so-called shellac disc is actually shellac, with most of the rest composed of pulverised rock or mineral filler, with some cotton fibres and a small amount of carbon black to give the disc its usual colour. The precise mix of materials was a compromise to give the best combination of good-quality sound, long-term survival of the disc, weight, and consistency of reproduction.
The groove on Berliner’s gramophone record starts at the outer edge of the disc and moves towards its centre. Therefore, the needle must do the same, beginning at the outer edge of the disc and being drawn by the groove towards the middle. This, too, would be the industry standard, although the Paris-based Pathé produced discs using the ‘hill-and-dale’ groove and started the groove in the centre of the disc, so that it progressed to the outer edge as the recording played. In France, this was initially a successful approach, but eventually, Pathé changed to lateral cut grooves that moved from the outside to the middle.
By 1903, the gramophone record was established as a black disc, 10 or 12 inches in diameter, with a hole in its centre so that it could be fixed to the spindle on the player and a groove that drew the stylus from the outer edge to the centre. It lacked one final refinement; the groove was only cut on one side of the disc. It would take a year or two more before someone had the bright idea of recording sound onto both sides of the record.
The Gramophone Company—Britain’s First Gramophone Company
In 1897, an East European nobleman sailed to England and landed at Whitby, taking care to stay out of the Yorkshire sun. His name was Count Dracula; his story, as written by Irish journalist Bram Stoker, was the first major work of literature from the British Isles to feature a talking machine. Two lead characters, Dr Seward and Lucy Westenra, owned phonographs and Dr Seward made regular use of his instrument to record his personal diary. Dr Seward’s use of the phonograph marked him out as a modern man—a man of science—as opposed to the ancient Count Dracula. Mina Harker knows what a phonograph is, but until she spies Seward’s machine on his table, she has never seen one; when the doctor lays his hands on the machine Mina becomes ‘quite excited over it’ and asks to hear it play something. Unfortunately, the serious-minded Seward uses it only to record his diary; there is no chance of a jaunty reel or a seductive ballad and the moment passes. In an act of anger, occasioned perhaps by frustration at not owning such a fine instrument himself, or by a Luddite objection to modern technology, Dracula destroys Seward’s cylinders by casting them into a fire.
Another migrant arrived in Britain in 1897, this time from the west. William Barry Owen was thirty-seven years old and experienced in the American talking machine industry, most notably as general manager of the National Gramophone Company. He aimed to establish the gramophone in Britain and to expand the business into Europe on Berliner’s behalf. Trading at first from his base in the Hotel Cecil on the Strand, he planned to import gramophones bought from the National Gramophone Company, giving Berliner a royalty on each one he sold. Owen found a business partner in Edmund Trevor Lloyd Williams, a London lawyer. They formed the Gramophone Company as a partnership, with offices near the Strand at 31 Maiden Lane, then established it as a limited company in 1899. Despite their links with Berliner, Owen and Williams did not have an easy time, and barely a year after the Gramophone Company’s formation, it took on a new name to reflect its expansion into a new field of business: Gramophone and Typewriter Ltd. The decision to expand into typewriter sales was perhaps an indication of panic or of a lack of faith in the future of the gramophone. The typewriter in question was the Lambert typewriter, which was not a success. By the early 1900s, production had ceased in the US and the UK; the gramophone would prove to be the longer-lasting instrument, and in 1907, Owen’s company abandoned the typewriter market and started trading as the Gramophone Company Ltd.
When Owen arrived in the UK, the Edison-Bell Consolidated Phonograph Company Ltd, based in Charing Cross Road, was selling a variety of cylinder recordings from many entertaining (and not-so-entertaining) genres at 2s 6d each. The new Edison-Bell phonograph (‘For commercial use and home amusement’) cost £6 6s and was beginning to find a market. Edison-Bell offered recordings by marching bands and orchestras, solo recordings on numerous instruments (including the flute, ‘clarionet,’ banjo, and bagpipes), sentimental and comic songs, whistling solos, and recitations. There were selections by ‘serious’ composers such as Mozart and Richard Wagner, but for the most part the music was light opera, religious pieces, and popular tunes. For the patriotic or the politically minded customer, there were cylinders featuring William Gladstone and, following Gladstone’s death, tributes to the late Prime Minister from Lords Rosebery and Salisbury and A. J. Balfour. These worthy politicians were named in the catalogue, but the musicians, comics, and singers who appeared on the vast majority of the company’s cylinders remained anonymous.
For a few years, as the Gramophone Company built its business, the cylinder trade continued to flourish. In May 1903, the first issue of Talking Machine News appeared—its full title was Talking Machine News and Record Exchange: A Monthly Journal devoted to the Interests of Users and Makers of Phonographs, Automatic Machines, and Scientific Inventions. Although it acknowledged all types of talking machines, in its early years, the journal emphasised phonographs and cylinders, concentrating especially on the technological side of the business rather than on the artists and performers. The first issue revealed the eclectic tastes of King Edward VII; among the cylinders (rather than discs) taken by him on the royal yacht during a visit to Portugal were various light classical compositions, violin solos, the descriptive ‘Departure of a Troop Ship’, popular songs including ‘Lily of Laguna’, and five recordings of sketches featuring the popular Irish character of Casey.
As patents expired, more and more firms entered the phonograph market and prices for instruments and recordings fell; instruments could cost as little as £1. The Russell Hunting Record Company (originally the Sterling Record Company) arrived in 1904, becoming a major producer of cylinders for the British market; it may have sold 1 million cylinders in its first year. Hunting was an American performer who would become known in Britain for the Casey series of comedy records as well as his recording and production. In 1896, Hunting had been charged with making obscene cylinder recordings—a trip across the Atlantic may have seemed like a smart move after his conviction.
A combination of low prices and favourite tunes made cylinders popular with working-class customers, but they, in turn, were vulnerable to economic downturns. By 1908, a depression was hitting the luxury goods market hard. Both cylinder and disc markets were affected, but the cylinder trade was especially badly hit. Cylinders were more popular with working families, who were struggling against low wages and falling employment rates, so cylinder companies dropped their prices and profit margins fell as a result. The Gramophone Company’s persistence, technological developments, and marketing strategy slowly began to pay off. Discs played for longer than cylinders (around three minutes for discs, just two minutes for cylinders) and were easier to store. Both formats were fragile, but many people felt that discs sounded better. The phonograph’s ability to record as well as reproduce may have enabled it to be commercially profitable as a business dictation machine, but the public never saw this facility as important. The Gramophone Company’s disc catalogues soon outstripped cylinder catalogues in choice and artistic quality. In June 1908, the Gramophone Company opened its first British record pressing plant, at Hayes in Middlesex. By the 1913–14 financial year, disc sales in Britain reached 3,867,406.
The Columbia Graphophone Company would prove to be the Gramophone Company’s chief competitor. Smaller companies also entered the market, selling discs and machines, often at lower prices than the larger firms. These lower prices appealed to poorer households which, in previous years, might have been seen as the ideal market for the cylinder business. Businesses still used phonographs as dictation machines, but for home entertainment phonographs were no longer the instruments of choice. Berliner’s gramophone was triumphant.
Emile Berliner Bows Out
Emile Berliner stepped away from the gramophone business before the instrument’s final victory could be claimed. His early work and commercial partnerships ensured that he lived the rest of his long life in financial security; when he died on 3 August 1929 at seventy-nine years of age, he left an estate worth $1,527,573. The bulk of his fortune went to his widow and four children but he left his house and $100,000 to the Bureau of Health Education. He gave some indication of his attitude to life and money in a handwritten note regarding his funeral, which he wrote the year before his death:
When I go I do not want an expensive funeral. Elaborate funerals are almost a criminal waste of money. The kind advertised for $125 plus extra autos is ample. I have always admired the plain pine coffins of old with a black cloth thrown over. A long bar handle on each side could be added. I should like Alice [his daughter] to play the first part of the Moonlight Sonata and at the close maybe Josephine [his daughter-in-law] will play Chopin’s funeral march. Give some money to some poor mothers with babies and bury me about sunset … I am grateful for having lived in the United States and I say to my children and grandchildren that peace of mind is what they should strive for.
Berliner’s wishes were granted. He was buried in a simple ceremony at sunset, Alice and Josephine performed the requested pieces. No gramophone records were played at his funeral.
On the Record: ‘My Old Dutch’, Albert Chevalier (Gramophone Company, 1899)
In the early days of the British gramophone industry, music hall stars made some of the most popular discs and were a mainstay of record company catalogues. Albert Chevalier was already a star when he made his initial recordings for the Gramophone Company as the first artist to sign a royalty-based contract with the firm. His full name was Albert Onésime Britannicus Gwathveoyd Louis Chevalier. He was born in London’s Notting Hill in 1861, the son of a language teacher named Jean Onésime Chevalier, and became known as the ‘coster’s laureate’ because of his songs about working-class cockneys, performed in his version of a cockney accent.
‘My Old Dutch’ is Chevalier’s most famous song (he wrote the lyrics, with music by Charles Ingle, a pseudonym for his brother Auguste). ‘Dutch’ is probably Cockney rhyming slang for wife (Duchess of Fife) or mate (Dutch plate); on at least one version of the sheet music, the song is referred to as a ‘Cockney Song’. It is a sentimental number, which Chevalier sings in character as an elderly Londoner who is still in love with his ‘pal’ of many years.
The Gramophone Company’s 1899 catalogue gave Chevalier’s first recordings the full marketing hype:
Mr. Albert Chevalier has long been a favourite with the Public, and the popularity of such songs as ‘My Old Dutch’ and ‘The Future Mrs. ‘Awkins’ will live long and ultimately be handed down to posterity. Our records of these and other selections will give posterity a chance of hearing them sung as the Composer intended, whereas without these records this Artist’s rendering of them would be lost.
The song gained some notable cover versions, including one by comedian Peter Sellars. The tune is simple, the chorus has a singalong quality, and even 120 years after the song appeared on record, many people can sing one particular line—‘We’ve been together now for forty years and it don’t seem a day too much’—even if they might be hard-pressed to identify the song. Legend has it that when the Beatles received their OBEs, the Queen asked them how long they had been together, to which Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney replied by singing ‘We’ve been together now for forty years’. Posterity may not always treat the music hall with respect, but ‘My Old Dutch’ does seem to have stuck around.