The Zon-o-phone phonograph

Part 1. Early front mounts

History

The path of the Zonophone has a lot of crazy twists and turns, but in the end winds up where it started: begun by Victor interests, split off from Victor, acquired by Victor.

In 1896 Emile Berliner signed a 15 year exclusive contract with one Frank Seaman to handle the sales of his new Gramophone. Usually described as a New York advertising man and entrepreneur, Seaman did a bang-up job, agressively advertising the Gramophone in publications and selling by mail order and on installment plans.

Berliner held the patents and Eldridge Johnson manufactured the machines.

As sales ascended to undreamt levels Seaman came to believe he was getting a raw deal, and perhaps he was. Seaman was obliged to purchase the machines from Johnson at cost plus a fixed margin of profit, and some evidence suggests Johnson's price was inflated artificially high.

So in 1899 Seaman's sales arm the National Gramophone Company became the National Gramophone Corporation, and then a new entity, the Universal Talking Machine Company, became the new agent for the Gramophone.

Except it wasn't. The Universal Talking Machine Company began selling a new product called the Zon-o-phone. Some advertising prior to 1900 shows the Zon-o-phone as nothing more than the same old Gramophone Seaman had always been hawking, but by 1900 a line of new and completely different Zon-o-phones arrived on the scene.

Initially there was a series of small attractive front mounts with improved motors, introduced early May 1900, an A, B and C Zon-o-phone, with the A model in a spectacular glass-sided case.

In a drama whose machinations are worthy of profound legal study, Seaman secured patent protection from Columbia by accepting an injunction against his former interest the National Gramophone Company. (As a side effect of this litigation, Johnson was unable to sell his own machine as a Gramophone, and ultimately renamed it the Victor.) Some patents by inventor Louis Valiquet were also assigned to the Universal Talking Machine Company.

However in 1903 Columbia turned its legal ire against its erswhile ally, and succeeded in enjoining the sale of Zon-o-phone records. This pushed the Universal Talking Machine Company to financial disaster, and in desperation a sale was arranged to Eldridge Johnson. At this point Zon-o-phone in effect became a wholly owned subsidiary of the Victor Talking Machine Company.

Victor ownership was not publicized, but was an open secret in the trade, and could easily be discerned by the use of Victor features such as a modified Exhibition reproducer or the patented Victor tapering tone arm.

Front mount models

Below are the first three front mount models, introduced 1900.

Type A Zonophone
Type A Zon-o-phone

Type B Zonophone
Type B Zon-o-phone

Type C Zon-o-phone
Type C Zon-o-phone

For further identification of other early Zon-o-phone front mount models consult the Zonophone section of our Antique Phonograph Identification Guide or view all Zonophone front mount models as thumbnails.

Transitional front mounts

Transitional front mounts dating to after the merger with Victor, ie ca 1904 or later, have appeared from time to time. These machines employ a mix of early Zon-o-phone and later Victor components. The motor is often mounted to a wooden motor board, rather than a cast iron bedplate. As of this writing, no catalogue depicting all variations has been discovered.

Zonophone, ca 1904

This front mount Zon-o-phone most likely dates to after the Victor acquisition.

A note on the Cyrillic lettering

The best guess is that early Zon-o-phone models were manufactured in New York City, but the Cyrillic lettering on the bedplate of some models has led to speculation as to the point of origin. The Cyrillic lettering was formally registered as a trademark by the Universal Talking Machine Company, and according to their application, was first used June, 1901. The lettering was probably intended for models destined for export to Russia.

A note on the Zon-o-phone support arm

Zonophone support arm

The distinctive Zon-o-phone support arm with embellished teardrops and rod type tone arm was patented by Louis Valiquet on July 22, 1902.

NEXT: Zonophone front mount models shown as thumbnails.

Copyright 2018 Lynn Bilton

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