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Figure 2 (p. 6)-The original Bell Graphophone (1881), now in the Smithsonian Institute.

The Victor Talking Machine Company

chapter two
Bell and Tainter

Working in the Volta Laboratory with Alexander Graham Bell, Chichester Bell (Alexander's Cousin) and Sumner Tainter patented, in 1886 an improved recording process. They called the reproducer the Graphophone (Fig. 2).

The New Process

The grooves were cut, at the start, on a wax-coated, paper cylinder record. The Hill and Dale principle was used, but because of the greater flexibility of wax, the quality of the reproduction was much better than that obtained from Edison's metal-foil process. While the volume, at the start, was still so thin that ear phones had to be used, a notable step forward had been taken in the development of recorded music. Another important improvement in the Bell and Tainter instrument was the mounting of the sound box. A slight play provided better tracking of the sound box over the record.

The American Graphophone Company

In 1887, the American Graphophone Company was organized by Philadelphia capitalists to develop the improved product. A small plant, having a capacity of three or four machines a day, was established in Bridgeport, Connecticut.

Records, at this time, were almost exclusively of the popular-novelty-comedy variety. Because of the emphasis on volume of sound, a loud voice was more important than a finely cultivated one.

Early in 1887, Jesse H. Lippincott acquired from the American Graphophone Company the exclusive right to rent or sell the Graphophone under the Bell and Tainter patents. A little later, Mr. Lippincott purchased the Edison Speaking Phonograph Company and set up the North American Phonograph Company to promote the sale of both products nationally.


Edward D. Easton and Paul Cromelin, Stenographers to the Supreme Court, organized the Columbia Phonograph Company in 1889 as a selling agency under license from the North American Phonograph Company with exclusive rights for the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Delaware. Mr. Easton had some time previously received a fee of $50,000 (a record at the time) for having reported the trial of Guiteau for the assassination of Garfield. Their original objective was to sell the product to congressmen and others for dictaphone use. (p.5)

(Figure 2)

The use of the word "Phonograph" in the company's name would indicate that they specialized in the Edison product at this time. Some hundreds were sent out, and they were all returned. Columbia was, accordingly, in a difficult position, and was only saved from failure by a demand which sprang up from showmen at fairs and resorts. At these exhibitions, as many as ten people, at a nickel each, could be listening to a record at one time. However, the Graphophone was apparently not sufficiently sturdy to stand the gaff at the World's Fair in 1894.

Mr. Lippincott died during 1891, and a portion of his business was absorbed by the Columbia Phonograph Company which was soon to suffer a serious burden of debt that almost caused its collapse. It was at this time that Mr. Easton assumed the presidency of the company and reorganized it with fresh capital. The product was improved by Thomas Hood MacDonald, director and chief experimentalist, who, for 16 years, was Manager of the Graphophone Company until his death in 1911. He was credited with having made important improvements in the mechanical construction of the Graphophone including a spring motor, in 1894, which Columbia claims established the principle used in all subsequent phonographic spring motors.

It is interesting to note that Bell and Tainter were reluctant to use a disc type of record because of the distortion factor which has been stressed in connection with the 45-rpm development.

Of the patent claims made by Bell and Tainter, the most important was the principle of the use of wax as a medium of recording.

In time, Columbia purchased the so-called "Jones" patent which was principally known for its claim covering "...a stylus vibrating laterally and engraving a groove of approximately uniform depth."

In passing, it might be recalled that, at the start, all cylinder records were individually recorded. Subsequently, the artists recorded in banks of four, and later in banks of twenty. The usual fee was $2.00 a recording.

No evidence has been found of any broad, constructive effort to create a demand for the Graphophone as a source of entertainment and inspiration in the home prior to 1896. Sales efforts were chiefly on a price-novelty basis.

Mr. Easton, the motive power behind the Graphophone, was 41 years old in 1896 (about 12 years older than Mr. Johnson). He was an important, if troublesome, factor in the talking machine industry for 10 or 15 years. He died in 1915. (p. 7)

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