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The Victor Talking Machine Company

Appendix XIII
Eldridge Reeves Johnson - An Autobiography

In 1894, I purchased my partner's interest in the firm of Scull & Johnson, Manufacturing Machinists, and changed the name of the firm to my own, Eldridge R. Johnson. This was the actual beginning of the business that is now the Victor Talking Machine Company.

There was very little expense or ceremony involved in this change. The stock of stationery happened to be low and our entire investment in the matter of advertising had been confined to a few business cards, letterheads, billheads, and a sign over the door. There were no electric letters or gold leaf connected with this sign; it was of the class commonly called shingle. While we set about to raise the standard of our business by calling ourselves Manufacturing Machinists, we had in reality a small machine shop for repairing any and all kinds of machinery.

The business was started by Captain Andrew Scull in 1886 as a career for his son, John, a Mechanical Engineer and graduate of Lehigh University. Young Scull was clever and possessed great ability as an engineer. Had he lived, the business started by his father for him would, undoubtedly, have proposed under his management, in which case my career would have been different. Certainly there would have been no Victor Talking Machine Company; of this I am quite sure, for no other combination of circumstances could have caused the Victor Talking Machine Company to have been formed, as will be made apparent to all by the following account of events leading up to its formation.

Young Scull died very suddenly, and in 1888 I took charge of the Scull Machine Shop as foreman and manager. Andrew Scull, who was a sea captain by profession, had no particular liking for the repair business. It was his impractical scheme to pay a certain portion of the expenses through the repair work and in the meantime, develop the factory along the regular lines of manufacturing.

Young Scull had left a partially completed invention of an automatic book binder which his father wished me to perfect, and he instructed me to make this my main purpose. I soon discovered the principles of young Scull's invention, and was able to construct a practical machine from the records and experiments which he had left. Feeling that my task was finished and that there might be broader fields for me in some other location, I resigned the position as foreman and went on a sort of general scouting expedition through the West. I visited the state of Washington and lived there about a year, during which time I found plenty of employment at liberal salaries; but I never felt exactly at home or satisfied in the West, and my experience convinced me that the East held far greater opportunities for a young mechanic. Employment was much more easily secured in the West and wages somewhat higher, but the opportunities of rising beyond the ranks of a wage earner were certainly not so plentiful. The trip was a great education, however, as it lifted me out of mental ruts formed by a long apprenticeship and a narrow circle of acquaintances confined to machinists and people of about the same ideas and experiences as mine. The atmosphere of the West raised my ideals.

In 1891 I drifted back to Philadelphia. Mr. Scull sent for me soon after my arrival. He had been unable to market the book-binding machine, on account of the excessive cost of manufacture. He was greatly disappointed in this as he had staked a large portion of his capital in the enterprise, and he found himself in a bad financial position, which is the usual luck of those who undertake to finance mechanical experiments. He stated his financial condition to me frankly, and said, "If you will again take charge of the machine shop, you may have half of whatever profits you can make it yield." The proposition appealed to me strongly. It was the ambition of my life to be the proprietor of a machine shop, but I did not know what I was up against when I accepted Mr. Scull's apparently liberal proposition. The work was hard, very hard; the profits small, but we divided and I managed to live on my share, even if I could not dress according to the latest fashion. My wardrobe did not contain a dress suit, and there was plenty of room for somebody else's clothes in my trunk. I could easily have made over three times as much money by working for someone else, but the dignity of proprietorship held me to the purpose. The sacrifices that I made in the early stages of my career for the purpose of being my own boss were more than I would care to be forced to repeat. We had hard times and plenty of them. Captain Scull grew tired and lost confidence. It became apparent to both of us that the little machine shop could not be made to yield sufficient profit (p. 117) to support two, and eventually it became a question of which one of us should leave, so Mr. Scull sold his interests to me, as I, on account of being a practical machinist, had the better chance to succeed. It was a close race with failure even for me-neck and neck for along time. I did not win by superior speed. It was a question of endurance. The cares and anxieties of those early days were hard to bear, and even time has not softened the memory of them.

Previous to the dissolution of the partnership, I had designed a new book-binding machine. This was my first invention. It was a good commercial proposition, and we formed a corporation called the New Jersey Wire Stitching Machine Company, to market it. The result of the new company's first efforts to sell the book-binder or wire-stitcher was very discouraging. The firm of Scull and Johnson had contracted with the new corporation to build a quantity of the stitchers. We made a miscalculation in our estimate and lost money on the contract which was the largest proposition we had ever undertaken. This was hard luck, and the firm never recovered from the loss until after the dissolution of the partnership. The single ownership had the effect of somewhat checking the financial drain on the business, so that after a few years of hard work the business reached a paying basis. The demand for stitchers began to increase and the New Jersey Wire Stitching Machine Company paid a dividend. This was sixteen years ago and the Stitcher Company is still paying a dividend.

The machinery manufacturing business has changed. All machines are now made in duplicate parts. The small repair shops have grown smaller in size as well as in number. When a machine breaks down today the owner sends to the factory that made it for a new part, which the maker carries in stock; it is no longer necessary to send to the small machine shop to have the part made. Therefore, many of the little organizations so necessary and useful a few years ago, have gone out of business or changed to some other line. My business was among those that changed, an(l I took very little money with me in changing, but I did take a wealth of experience which was unquestionably worth all the trouble, hard work and sacrifices that it cost, measured by financial standards.

Being the proprietor and manager of a repair machine shop twenty years ago was well calculated to either break a man's spirit or fit him for better opportunities.

Not a small part of my early business was the manufacture of experimental models for new inventions. Such models now are generally made in the laboratories of large factories, but in those days independent, poverty-stricken inventors were numerous and their haunts were invariably the small machine shops. They were generally impractical and visionary but possessed by the boundless, unreasonable enthusiasm of treasure hunters.

It was interesting work and there was a profit in it if you could collect your bills; but in many cases the machine shop proprietor took a portion of his profit, at least, in experience.

During the model-making days of the business one of the very early types of talking machines was brought to the shop for alterations. The little instrument was badly designed. It sounded much like a partially-educated parrot with a sore throat and a cold in the head, but the little wheezy instrument caught my attention and held it fast and hard. I became interested in it as I had never been interested before in anything. It was exactly what I was looking for. It was a great opportunity and it came to me as it can never come to any other man in the talking machine business again. Other opportunities may come to other people, but that was the great opportunity, and I was ready for it-thanks to a chain of favorable circumstances one link of which, if missing, would have changed this account totally.

The stitcher was a good paying proposition, but its possibilities were limited. Book-binding was an old and well-developed industry, while the talking machine was a new art with a boundless future waiting only to be developed. Contacts with so many inventors had inoculated me with their disease and the talking machine fever broke out all over me.

Mr. Berliner had given the world the greatest basic improvements in the talking machine since the day of Mr. Edison's original discovery, and I happened to be there at the right time to give this great discovery the needed improvements and refinements, and to manufacture it in such forms and designs as to become (p. 118) most popular with the buying public. My years of hard experience in model making and repair work had well qualified me to cope with intricate designs and processes. I immediately undertook a course of experimenting with talking machines and made discovery after discovery until a talking machine of the disc Gramophone type, capable not only of reproducing sound in its own mechanical fashion and in a tone of its own but of reproducing the tone true to the original sound, stood in my laboratory.

The talking machine is destined to play an important part in educational matters eventually; already the Victor Company is breaking the way. My great hope in the beginning was in musical reproduction: so I searched for a process of recording that would give true tone. It cost me $50,000 and two and one-half years of desperately hard work, but the Victor Company's factory is a standing testimonial that justifies the cost.

I manufactured the instruments and put them on the market. The Trade could not get enough of them from the start. I got into difficulties with the Berliner Company over the complicated question of Berliner Patents. This litigation and dispute led to the formation of the Victor Talking Machine Company so that the Berliner Patents and my own interests (improvements and patents) could be combined in one corporation. It is a bad plan to fight a patent unless you are perfectly sure that you are right.

The Berliner Patent and the litigation arising from possession of it cost the Victor Talking Machine Company over a million dollars, and the patent expired within a very few months after it had been finally sustained. The litigation to this purpose has been the greatest in the history of patent litigation in the United States, but the Victor Talking Machine Company feels amply repaid for the large sum expended. The Victor Company was a very small affair when it was first formed in 1901, but it has grown and will continue to grow as long as its products grow better and better. The Victor Company, with its organization of competent experts, is able to accomplish more in a day now than I was able to accomplish in twelve months, fifteen years ago. Its great object and ambition is to improve its product. Just as soon as a certain improvement is secured, the experts in the organization are set to the task of making something new that is better than the last improvement. The Victor Company is now in possession of many patents and secret processes, but our greatest secret process is this:


The manufacture of the Victor and Victrola calls for skill and workmanship far beyond that of watch manufacturing and violin making. Watches are constructed to measure time at intermittent intervals, but a talking machine record must revolve evenly, true to pitch and maintain the same percentage of accuracy throughout each degree of its revolutions. It must measure out billions of vibrations so small that the eye can detect but few of them, so accurately as to make the true tone of the original. The construction of the parts that record and reproduce the sound to a satisfactory volume without destroying its beauty is most difficult and complicated, and calls for an organization of experts with a greater variety of skill than any other known business.

The matter of advertising and selling calls for unusual methods and is different from any other business in many respects. Victor advertising is excelled in quantity by few other enterprises. It is aimed to be artistic in sentiment as well as practical in effect. The Victor selling organization is the most important and most expensive of the whole establishment. The research and debate devoted to advertising and selling always astonishes those who chance to learn to what extent a scientific study of these matters is made.

A Legal Department of considerable size is part of the regular organization. This, however, is purely advisory. There must be a legal analysis made of every new law, legal decision or patent that can possibly affect the business. The actual litigation is always handled by independent attorneys. (p. 119)

The art of manufacturing sound records of a quality sufficiently high to insure commercial success is far more complicated and more difficult than is generally supposed or could possibly he imagined by those not in a position to know.

The Victor Company has the greatest and most efficient musical organization ever gotten together for any purpose whatsoever. None but the most competent can stand the fierce test of a permanent record. A single performance is heard and forgotten, but think how serious would he a mistake made in a record that is heard over and over again by so many. Talking machine records must be technically correct, as well as pleasing, or their educational value becomes nil and the Victor Company would be lost standing to the same extent that a publisher of text books would suffer through the publication of books containing inaccuracies.

The Victor Company depends very largely on its experimental departments for the future of its business. There are several of these departments, each specialized to a particular branch. As a whole, they are intended to entirely cover the field of research from which the future improvements on talking machine manufacturing may be dug. Improvements come hard now-a-days. The field is no longer a virgin one. Great chunks of free gold are no longer lying around to be picked up by lucky hunters. Comparatively speaking, prospecting must now be done with a diamond drill, and upon the location of a good vein, great shafts must be sunk and an expensive plant built before pay dirt can be taken out. The old fashioned prospector is out of the race. It is now also necessary to dig according to the latest scientific methods and keep on digging with the best equipment that money can buy. What the public is eager to purchase today cannot be given to it tomorrow. It will take twenty-five years yet to perfect the talking machine. What the future holds in store can only be imagined by those who are learned in this new art. It will play as important a part in future education matters as has the printing press in the past.

The future of the Victor Company is now in the hands of its organizations, as the business is too large and complex for any one man to ever fully grasp. Each unit of the organization is being taught and is trying to do something a little better each day, and this progressive spirit is all concentrated on our product.

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