Birth of the Victrola clones -- 1912-1914

September 1999
This article is part of the Noteworthy News archives.


An epochal event ocurred Feb. 11, 1912 in the talking machine trade, but it evoked a belated response

On that date the Berliner patent of 1895 expired, the patent that allowed the reproducer to be driven by the groove of the record.

"You are all aware what glee numerous small manufacturers, past infringers and even foreign manufacturers—who would fain dump their trashy products upon American soil—have awaited the expiration of the Berliner patent," Victor told its dealers.

Nonetheless Victor warned that it still possessed plenty of other controlling patents, some 228 of them. Chief among these would have been the tapering tone arm and the tone-modifying doors.

More important, Victor’s patent for lateral cut records would not expire until 1919, and records were where the big money was.

Victor and Columbia litigation had just about obliterated all competition. Any start up company could count on being sued. It would take a lot of capital to compete with the two giants.

Keen-o-Phones.
The horn-in-lid Keen-o-Phone and the $35 Keen-o-Phone.
Vitaphone arm
Vitaphone's wooden arm

In fact, in 1912, there was only one competitor to Victor hegemony that was advertising heavily in the trade and whose weird design immunized it to lawsuits: Keen-o-Phone.

Founded by Morris Keene, Keen-o-Phone had a factory in Philadelphia that manufactured mechanical feed machines with a distinctive spiral tone arm that looked for all the world like a snail shell. At the expiration of the Berliner patent the mechanical feed was dropped.

Although in 1911 Victor’s general manager Louis Geissler had opined that the internal horn phonograph might be something of a fad, it was obvious by 1912 that hornless machines were outselling outside horn models. Keen-o-Phone offered a full line of Victrola imitations, ranging in price from $35 to $200, the most expensive being a series of sumptous horn-in-lid machines.

Although the company enjoyed good distribution in the Philadelphia area it couldn’t seem to attract jobbers elsewhere, and when the Christmas season of 1913 proved a disappointment the company went belly-up. In 1914 the remaining machines were offered at a substantial discount ($52.50 for the $175 machine) and the assets were taken over by the Rex Talking Machine Company.

Meanwhile in 1912 the expiration of the Berliner patent freed another small company, Vitaphone, from the terms of an injunction and allowed it to manufacture machines.

Vitaphone was started by H. Clinton Repp, a longtime phonograph man. Repp had been the Cuban salesman for an earlier, unrelated Vitaphone company, and when he discovered that the name had not been trademarked he liked it so much that he appropriated it for himself.

Repp invented perhaps the oddest reproducer of the era, a long vibrating wooden arm attached by a silk linkage to a stationary diaphram, touted as "the non-metallic reproduction of sound."

In November 1912 a catalogue was issued showing six styles of Vitaphones priced from $15 to $185, manufactured at the Vitaphone factory in Plainfield, New Jersey.

Vitaphone was undoubtedly undercapitalized. It tried to cut costs by opening an in-house cabinet factory in Newburgh, New York, but when the deal fell apart it was sued around June, 1914 by the head of the Newburgh chamber of commerce, who had bought stock in the venture. By this time Vitaphone production had pretty much ceased.

A number of small companies whose names are now forgotten tackled the Victrola trade shortly after 1912: The Schroeder Hornless Phonograph Company, Vocatone, Triton, Pure-o-Phone, Crescent, and others. But it wasn’t until late 1914 that four players with deep pockets at last entered the market: Pathe, Cheney, Aeolian and Sonora.

Pathe was Europe’s largest phonograph concern, said to press records in every known language. In Europe, people didn’t say "Victrola"as a synonym for talking machine, they said "Pathephone." The company enjoyed enormous name recognition due to the dominance of its other branch in the motion picture industry: millions of moviegoers were familiar with the trademark red rooster.

It was announced in January, 1912 that a group of financiers were incorporating a separate American Pathe corporation under license from the French company, with Emil Pathe as consultant. This may have been a ploy to isolate the French company from legal liability, for a lot of money was poured into Pathe, which by 1918 was probably the leading print advertiser behind Edison, Victor and Columbia.

Pathe had cooked up a lot of exotic machines in Europe—dish in lid machines, art case machines with tambour doors, and a duplex machine that played two records without a break. These machines were exhibited in New York, but when Pathe was finally ready to go to market in late 1914 it offered only conventional Victrola clones in domestic cabinets with domestic motors assembled in its Brooklyn factory. Only the arms and reproducers were imported from Europe.

The first Pathe records were imported— center start and vertically cut  for Pathe’s special rounded saphire stylus, which was said to ride like a boat on the waves. Opera singer Leo Slezak and dance records endorsed by Maurice and Florence Walton were featured. It wasn’t until 1916 that Pathe records were pressed in the United States.

CheneyArm
Cheney's octagonal arm.
Forest Cheney
Forest Cheney
SonoraInvincible
Bombe Sonora. Sonora said that the bulge was patented.

Cheney was bankrolled by Chicago department store magnate Marshall Field. Forest Cheney was a concert violinist and writer (he was a friend of author Jack London). Cheney invented a machine with an octagonal tone arm that increased in steps, thereby skirting the Victor tapered tone arm patent.(A lawsuit was decided in 1921 in favor of Cheney.) It was suggested that the octagonal arm somehow mystically harmonized with the octaves of the musical scale.

Part of a high traffic area on the third floor of Field’s State Street store was turned into "an aristocratic talking machine parlor," exhibiting the Cheney machines including an $800 carved Georgian model, although Field continued to sell Columbia records. Cheney distributors were secured in other cities.

Sonora was descended from a company that manufactured chimes—hence its motto, "Clear as a Bell." An earlier incarnation in 1909 had sold horn and hornless machines manufactured by the Swiss company Paillard, but had quickly run into legal problems. The company was re-incorporated February, 1913 at the same address, 78 Reade St., New York. Its upscale, bombe machines were manufactured by the Herzog Furniture Company of Saginaw, Michigan.

Aeolian, a long established manufacturer of organs and player pianos, announced in December 1914 that it was entering the talking machine business. In Greek mythology, Aeolius was the god of winds; the new machine was called the vocal Aeolian, or Aeolian Vocalion. A volume control dubbed the Graduola, invented by F.J. Empson of Australia, was incorporated into the machine. Aeolian would be the first of many piano companies to try to crash the phonograph business.

At the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exhibition Cheney and Sonora put on impressive displays next to Columbia’s booth and Victor’s talking machine palace, as the Victrola clones began to legitimatize themselves as the equal of their established brothers.

Sources:

Fabrizio, Tim. Rochester, NY. Interview.

Fabrizio, Tim and Paul, George. The Talking Machine, An Illustrated Compendium.

Koenigsberg, Allen. Patent History of the Phonograph. APM Press, 502 E. 17th, Brooklyn, NY.

Talking Machine World, 1911-1915.

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