The U-S Everlasting Story: the U-S Phonograph

Cleveland entrepreneurs perfected a hard record, but found Edison a hard competitor

September, 1991
This article is part of the Noteworthy News archives.


In 1906 a group of wealthy Cleveland businessmen with no prior association to the phonograph industry saw visions of additional profit in the sale of a better record to the owners of millions of Edison and Columbia machines.

The sounds of Edison's empire rested for all posterity in the grooves of fragile wax. The medium of the Cleveland millionaires was to be durable celluloid.

Invented in 1867 as a substitute for ivory, celluloid had a flirtatious history with the record industry. Lioret had employed it as early as 1893; J. Lewis Young had secured a British patent (never developed) in 1894; the Lambert company had been organized in 1900.

U-S Banner.jpg
U-S Banner
U-S Rex
U-S Rex was like an Amberola.

Edison adamantly opposed celluloid because he believed it produced too much surface noise . (To diminish the hiss, chemical were added to the naturally clear celluloid, giving the unintended side effect of turning the record brilliant pink. )

The Cleveland group was in contact with a talented chemist named Varian Harris who had been instrumental in the founding of the Lambert company.

Harris believed--correctly--that a thin layer of celluloid would yield the most faithful impression. He took the thinnest sheets of celluloid available, wrapped it around an asphalt core, and butted the edges with a chemical solvent.

The Cleveland Phonograph Record Company was organized in August, 1908. In July, 1909 it was reorganized as the U-S Phonograph Company. An earlier U.S. phonograph company from New Jersey was long defunct.

Harry McNulty, an engineer who may have been working at the Eclipse Musical Shop, a long established Cleveland phonograph store, set out to design a machine for the new company. He came up with a model with parallel two and four minute feed screws, shifting side by side reproducers, and a flexible tapered tone arm.

Two and four minute U-S Everlasting records first appeared sometime in the spring of 1910.

The first fifty master records were cut in the 6th Avenue New York studios of Isaac Norcross, although the records were all manufactured in U-S' own Cleveland factory. U-S sent its own engineers to New York to supervise recordings.

The appetite for a better record seemed to be as strong as the Cleveland businessmen had forseen. A deal was cut with Montgomery Ward to sell the records and two of the machines under Ward's proprietary name, Lakeside.

Many big name artists such as Collins and Harlan, Billy Murray and Ada Jones recorded for U-S.

Albert Benzler, a classically trained German musician of the old school, became Music Director. Benzler had left Edison's employ, most likely in disagreement with Edison's refusal to manufacture celluloid records and Edison's common man selection of titles. Then too, Edison had been courting composer Victor Herbert as music director.

Possibly through Benzler's intercession, U-S produced a number of operatic recordings with such exclusive artists as the basses Henri Scott and Allen Hinckley, the tenors Giusseppe Peratori and Jose Erard, the baritone Cesare Alessandroni, and diva Irma Wright-Heims.

The company was creative. A Medicophone series was released, 25 cylinders narrated by doctors for doctors, on how to diagnose different diseases. A foreign language series for the R.D. Cortina company was produced, along with a Cortinaphone machine.

A prolific creator of records, U-S gave birth to around 1100 titles in around 3 years.

In May 1910 U-S announced its first machines to complement the records: the Phonola A and B. (There are no known surviving examples.) The Phonola soon evolved into the Peerless, a floor standing model. The U-S Banner was announced at the same time as the Phonola. All were manufactured in U-S' own Cleveland factory.

Although the exact chronology of introduction of the remaining U-S machines is not known, by 1912 there were nine models in the U-S universe including an internal horn Grand, a smaller version of the Grand called the Royal, an external horn Junior, an external horn Opera, and the Rex.

Some of the later models dropped the tandem feed and reproducer in favor of a single 2 minute-4 minute stylus.

Machines did not sell as prolifically as records. U-S spurned mail order pitches to the public. It did post letters to known phonograph dealers, but it was competing with Edison's well established jobber network. Based on observed serial numbers, less than 2000 examples of any U-S model were manufactured.

As the only major company by 1910 still involved in the cylinder trade, Edison followed U-S' adventures with something more than keen eyesight. As soon as U-S was incorporated Edison received a report from Dunn's credit service.

From the 1890s, dating to the electrification of New York City, Edison had employed an industrial spy named Joseph McCoy. Edison had felt that the lighting interests were cheating him. He found it useful to employ McCoy thereafter. McCoy posed as a go-between with intimate connections in the phonograph industry. He was soon probing U-S for information, feeding the reports to Edison.

Edison sued U-S at least four times. The cases alleged patent infringement over details of the molding process, reproducer design, and feed screws.

U-S won a small retalliatory victory in a lawsuit over the word "opera." It enjoined Edison from using the word to describe his deluxe machine. Late "Operas" were rechristened as "Concerts."

It must have seemed to U-S that the litigation dragged on forever. Edison didn't win a single case. In the spring of 1914 Edison dropped all lawsuits, all costs to be born by Edison.

It didn't matter. By 1914 U-S was no longer in business. The wealthy founders had earlier pulled out of the company. The last known U-S record supplement appeared in October, 1913. The company was not listed in the 1914 Cleveland directory. Perhaps the continual litigation depleted the company's capital. Or perhaps by 1914 the cylinder trade was a relic of the past.

Sources:
Klinger, Bill. Chardon, OH. Interview.
Koenigsberg, Allen. Patent History of the Phonograph

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