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He was one of the most powerful men in the phonograph industry.
A self-educated scientist. A wealthy industrialist. An advertising genius.
At one time, as a Victor employee, he was earning more than Eldridge Johnson himself.
And yet today this pioneer is almost forgotten.
His name was Leon Douglass.
Born in Syracuse, Nebraska, March 12, 1869, Douglass never received much formal schooling. His father Seymour, a millwright and a carpenter, had gone blind and by age nine Leon had to support the family. He ran errands and was apprenticed to a printer.
Like Edison, Berliner and other young men, he was attracted to the cutting edge technology of the telephone. At the age of 13 he talked his way into a job as one of the first telephone operators in Lincoln, Nebraska, at a salary of $15 per month. He must have struck his employers as something of a prodigy, for at age 16 he was managing the exchange in Seward and two years later advanced to district manager of the Grand Island and Kearney exchanges.
His interest shifted to the phonograph. He was probably introduced to Erastus Benson, a Chicago businessman who had invested in the Nebraska phonograph monopoly.
At this time the phonograph was marketed by analogy to the telephone.The North American Phonograph Company had established 36 regional companies with exclusive territorial distribution rights.
Benson, a wealthy man, had bought into many of the midwestern territories, an expenditure which would have cost in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. He was president of one of the two territories which served Illinois: the Chicago Central Phonograph company.
Prior to 1890 the phonograph was too cumbersome and expensive for most families to place in the parlor, but it was still enough of a novelty that people were willing to pay a nickel to hear it speak. Soon everyone and his cousin were tinkering with coin slots. The young Douglass was granted one of the first patents for a workable coin-operated machine.
He sold the patent to Erastus Benson for $500 and moved to Chicago, where 200 of the machines, based on Class M components in floor model cabinets, were installed.
Sometime thereafter Douglass came in contact with Edward Easton, one of the founders and officers of the American Graphophone Company. Shrewd, hard-driving and a ruthless competitor, Easton was always on the lookout for talent. Douglass was a rising star of the industry.
Douglass accepted an invitation to move to Washington. However, he soon felt uncomfortable working under Easton and as a native midwesterner felt out of place in Washington. After six months Douglass returned to the security of Chicago. It would not be his last dealings with Easton.
By this time the phonograph was being sold in greater numbers and the happy problem facing the record companies was how to mass produce brown wax cylinders. In the early 1890s the musicians would barrage 8 to 10 recording horns over and over, but it was evident that this approach could not keep up with demand, to say nothing of how it must have exhausted the musicians.
Some method of duplicating was necessary. Most of the trade favored some sort of pantographic answer; even Edison and Bettini in 1892 had filed patents, but the problem wtih pantographs was that the master record would wear out after around 150 copies. Douglass tried a different tack, inventing an acoustic duplicating machine in 1892.
Columbia was the logical customer. In the early 1890s Columbia was the most aggressive record producer in the industry. The company had won renown through its recordings of the Presidential band, the United States Marine Band, which later became Sousa's band.
Douglass sold the duplicating patent to Easton and Columbia for $2000, plus a royalty of 2 cents per record. It's likely that the wily Easton didn't pay the total in cash, but instead provided Douglass with brown wax records at a discount.
Success at the Fair
Chicago in early 1890s was a magnet for ambitious people from all over the midwest. There was already excited discussion of the upcoming World's Fair, the World's Columbian Exposition, which opened in 1893.
A fair wasn't just entertainment. It was a meeting place for cultural, religious and scientific leaders and a means of disseminating the technlogy of the emerging century.
Chicago built a White City by the lake, traversed by lagoons and illuminated by Edison's new electric light. Over 21 million attended the most grandiose Fair of all time.
The Phonograph was of course represented.
The North American Phonograph Company gave Douglass a job tending its concession in its booth at the Fair and also granted him a private concession of at least 10 machines on Midway Plaisance, a strip of land which housed some of the anthropological exhibits and popular entertainments. Douglass made $30,000 for North American and around $3000 for himself from the coin-ops, which seemed to exert a hypnotic lure upon the crowds.
Almost anyone of consequence passed through the gates. One of the people Douglass chatted with was Peter Bacigalupi, a West Coast merchant who dabbled in phonographs, among other things. Impressed with the young man, Bacigalupi invited Douglass to visit California. Another new acquaintance must have been a local inventor, Edward Amet of Waukegan, Illinois, who was perfecting his prototype of a spring motor phonograph.
Using the $3000 he had bankrolled at the Fair as a springboard, Douglass in 1894 founded the Chicago Talking Machine Company with Charles Babson and Lynn Helm, each one third partners.
Not much is known of Helm. He was probably an Englishman, or an American who migrated to England. Babson was a Chicago merchant who later became prominent from around 1905 into the 20s when he operated the musical mail order house of Babson Brothers with his brother, F.K. Babson. The firm once boasted that it had received the largest shipment of goods from any manufacturer to any dealer--a train of Edison phonographs 5 miles long--although to the end of his life Babson was most proud of his invention of an automatic milking machine.
The Chicago Talking Machine Company, at 98 Madison Street, offered a full line of goods and records.
In 1894 the North American Phonograph Company had gone bankrupt. Under the terms of its original contract with Jessee Lippincott it had been obligated to buy 25,000 chassis, and when it went under it wound up selling some of the tops to the Chicago Talking Machine Company. Edward Amet adapted the tops (and some Columbia treadle tops) to his improved, smoother running spring motor phonograph, offered by the Chicago Talking Machine Company for $85-$95.
Amet also conceived a glass rod Echophone to sell for $10, but when Columbia got wind of this development it was not pleased, as it was planning to enter the low price end of the market with its Q and Eagle machines. It sued, ostensibly on the grounds that Amet machines were designed to use Columbia records, and put Amet out of business.
Love and marriage
Around 1896 Douglass decided to visit the friendly San Franciscan from the Fair, Peter Bacigalupi. A dynamo whom Edison had later admiringly nicknamed The Shark of the West Coast, Bacigalupi had bought the leftover North American displays from the Fair and had become an Edison dealer on Market Street. He cut records, discovering singer Billy Murray when Murray recorded a group of hymns intended for sale to missionaries in China. (When Bacigalupi was devastated by the earthquake of 1906 an unquestioning Edison promptly put him back in business, no money down.)
Douglass met and married Bacigalupi's step daughter, Victoria. She was a descendant of the two U.S. Adams presidents and, by contemporary photographs, a great beauty. The newlyweds returned to Chicago after a few months.
In 1897 Columbia purchased the Chicago Talking Machine Company and reorganized it as The Talking Machine Company of Chicago. It was prominently announced that Douglass would remain as manager.
The holy grail of late 1890s was volume. Douglass invented and patented what he dubbed the Polyphone attachment, two automatic reproducers hinged together. The purpose of the twin horned carriage wasn't to yield a stereophonic illusion as modern collectors sometimes surmise but rather to double the volume of the faint brown wax records. Wiser now in his dealing with his competitors, he kept the patent for himself and licensed the Talking Machine Company to retail it. He set up the Polyphone Co. of Chicago to sell the gadget, which was probably manufactured for him by Edison.
The attachment added about $5 to the cost of a machine. Here are the 1899 Edison prices, with Polyphone: Gem, $15; Standard $25; Home $35; Concert, $130. The euphoniously named Polyphone sold well for a couple of years--probably around 2000 examples--but was obsoleted by the superior sound enhancement of the Model C reproducer and the vibrant volume of gold molded records.
Another well established trick to pipe up volume was to increase the surface speed of the record: the dynamics of the 5" cylinder. Douglass in 1898 filed a patent for a 5" cylinder and soon found himself locked in a legal dispute with Columbia's Thomas Macdonald as to who had invented the concert record. Macdonald won the initial court battle and it wasn't until 1911 that Douglass was vindicated. By that date it didn't much matter as the concert record had gone the way of the tin foil machine. In 1900 Douglass invented a "Jumbo" cylinder which despite the misleading title was a standard size cylinder that whizzed at a dizzying 185 rpm.
By 1900 Douglass was making $5000 per year. He seemed confortably ensconced in Chicago. Yet that year Douglass maneuvered an astonishing shift in his career. He resigned from the Talking Machine Co. of Chicago and accepted a position with Emile Berliner.
Perhaps he desired a change of scenery. Perhaps he saw the handwriting on the wall for the raucous cylinder record and desired to learn more of the new disc technology. Whatever, the move east was a lucky one.
Berliner at this time was awash in trouble, under vicious attack by his former New York sales agent Frank Seamon and Seamon's Zon-o-Phone. He was even forbidden to use his own word, Gram-o-phone. Berliner tried to give the legal appearance of distancing himself from his manufacturing arm, Eldridge Johnson.
Within a month Douglass moved over to Johnson. He possessed far more stature in the industry than Johnson, the former machinist. Johnson offered him $5000 per year and a percentage of the profits.
Sales at Victor ballooned so rapidly that one year later Douglass was in the unanticipated position of earning more than Johnson himself. Douglass insisted this wasn't fair and offered to renegotiate the contract! He was issued stock.
Impressed by Douglass' integrity, Johnson and Douglass became lifelong friends. They had a lot in common. Both were about the same age, both were gifted with mechanical aptitude, both shared a rural background. Johnson had been a farmer before he became a bookbinder. At one point Douglass, who had acquired a taste for the finer things in life, trotted the gangly 6'2" Johnson off to the local haberdasher and bought him a $45 custom suit.
Douglass assumed the position of vice president and general manager, with responsibilities in sales and advertising.
He was a fervent believer in the power of advertising. At an early meeting, Johnson revealed the meager bank balance and asked what he should do with it. Spend it on advertising, Douglass confidently replied. In a few years Victor was spending $4 million per year on advertising, more than almost any other American company.
Douglass' patents now engaged the Victor: he designed the rubber flange for the Exhibition reproducer; the elegant cabinet of the Monarch Special; and a horn machine in a box, a distant ancestor of the Victrola.
In 1906, drained from overwork, Douglass suffered a nervous breakdown. He retired to San Rafael, California, recuperating for two years. Although he never again returned to work at Camden, Johnson kept him on the payroll at a salary of $25,000 per year. He left untouched Douglass' vacant office with Douglass' name upon the door, saying that as long as he was president of the company Douglass' office would always be there.
Fabulously wealthy from his stockholding, Douglass was free to play in his home laboratory. His contributions included the first snap lighter; a magnetic torpedo, a reflecting baloon that marked the spot in the ocean where a ship or plane had sunk; and an early version of technicolor photography, sold to Cecil B. DeMille.
In 1921 Douglass purchased a 52 room Italianate mansion in Menlo Park, California, a town by coincidence named for Edison's research site. The previous owners, heirs of the Comstock Lode silver kings, could not have guessed the renovations this buyer had in mind. He tore up the basement to install heavy equipment, converted the mezzanine to a sound and motion picture workshop, and cut windows in the sides of the swimming pool to experiment with underwater photography.
In 1933 he and Johnson took a cruise to South America in Johnson's 300 foot yacht the Caroline, accompanied by a team of Smithsonian scientists doing research involving the underwater process.
Leon Forrest Douglass, a phonographic giant, died in San Francisco on Sept. 7, 1940.
Sources: National Cyclopedia of American Biography
Koenigsberg, Allen. Patent History of the Phonograph.
Copyright 2015 Lynn Bilton
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