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Hail, Columbia

A fresh book at last gives Edward Easton and his Graphophone company their due

The Columbia Phonograph Companion, Volume II

by Robert W. Baumbach, data compiled by Mac Lackey

The Graphophone company was the most innovative and agressive in its field, yet for years there's been a dearth of material about it. The original proprietors were remarkably tight lipped, and every time the company went through one of its many corporate reorganizations valuable records were discarded. Then too, modern collectors acquired the strong anti-Columbia bias hidden in one of the first books on the subject, From Tin Foil to Stereo.

P3 Adam.jpg (4468 bytes)Bob Baumbach's book at last gives the Graphophone its due. Did you ever wonder when the little front mounts were produced? They're dated here for the first time, as well as depicted in all their variations. Also depicted: the entire run of internal horn Grafonolas from 1908-1929 including a series of period Grafonolas that outdo in artistry and ornateness anything designed by Victor.

There's a reprint of Ray Wile's article on how Columbia entered the disc record business in 1897--alone worth the price of the book. There's also an authorized history of the company, a reproducer chart, and a Columbia chronology.

This book, Volume II, describes the disc Graphophone and Graphonolas. A prospective Volume I  is to be a reworking of Howard Hazelcorn's monograph on the cylinder Graphophones.

There was a time long ago when the entire phonograph industry in the United States was under the control of one man. This magnate wasn't Thomas Edison--his name was Jessee Lippincott and when he went bankrupt in 1894 the men running his Washington, DC territorial franchise decided to make a go of it on their own. They spun the Columbia Phonograph Company-General out of Lippincott's defunct North American Phonograph Company.

Aggressive and talented, these men, led by Edward Easton, powered the Graphophone Company to industry prominence. Their legacy of machines and music can be seen in The Columbia Phonograph Companion, reviewed here. But unlike Edison or Eldridge Johnson they left behind almost no company history or personal memoirs.

Here's a brief look at what is known of some of the most significant contributors to the Graphophone Company.

Edward Easton (1856-1915)Easton.gif (3476 bytes)
Shrewd, agressive and litigious, Easton was the founder and president of Columbia.

Educated in Paterson, New Jersey, at the age of 15 he became a stenographer for several New York newspapers. As a star stenographer in 1881 he sold his account of the trial of Guiteau, the assasin of President Garfield, for $25,000.

Easton put himself through Georgetown law school and emerged in 1889 as a corporate lawyer in the District of Columbia. About this time he was seized with a vision of the phonograph altering stenography.

In 1887, with two financiers, Andrew Devine and Philip Clephane, he formed the American Graphophone company. Easton approached the task with a lawyerly thoroughness. In the 1890s transportation was arduous and slow, but Easton travelled across the states interviewing the managers and personnel of the North American Phonograph Company in order to learn the business.

When Lippincott went bankrupt in 1894 Easton the corporate lawyer figured out a way to make Columbia Phonograph the record end of the business and American Graphophone the machine end of the business. In 1895, in a stock swap deal, he became president of both. Of all the regional territories Columbia endured triumphant, independent and alone.

Easton could drive a hard bargain. He had signed Lippincott to a personal, non-transferrable contract that obligated North American to purchase 5000 Graphophones per year, an impetus behind Lippincott's bankruptcy.

It's safe to guess that Easton was the force behind Columbia's success. He must have been an articulate, urbane man. (He once referred to Eldridge Johnson as a farmer who had made good.)

In 1908, as a nationwide recession devasted the industry, sales fell almost in half. Depressed, Easton attempted suicide by stepping off a moving train on a commute from his home in Arcola, New Jersey to his office in New York.

Landing on a trestle he survived--dazed, bruised and shaken. He recovered in a  sanitarium and returned to work until his death in 1915.

JosJones.gif (4024 bytes)Joseph W. Jones (1866-?)
In 1887 the young Joseph W. Jones was working as a researcher for Emile Berliner, probably hired because his uncle was one of Berliner's investors. He had patented a feed screw phonograph for Berliner, and more important, had participated in Berliner's secret research electroplating wax records.

Berliner feared Jones would "drift into an oppositon concern." He did. He left Berliner and struck a deal with New York businessman Albert Armstrong and C.G. Conn of Indiana, who were promoting a machine dubbed the Double Bell Wonder.

The Double Bell Wonder and its successor the Vitaphone flopped, but during this time Jones was presenting the patent office with an application for a laterally cut, electroplated disc. He was rejected several times.

Finally Jones approached Philip Mauro, Columbia's brilliant patent attorney. Mauro pushed the patent through on Dec. 10, 1901.

Columbia had been eyeing the disc machine business for some time. They had furtively tested the waters through their Climax record label, manufactured by the Globe company. Columbia purchased Jones' patent for an astonishing $25,000.

A stunned Eldridge Johnson, scenting injunctions and lawsuits, responded. He had heard of dissension between the Burt company, Globe's parent, and Columbia. He purchased Globe for $10,000 and held it hostage until Victor and Columbia entered a cross-licensing agreement.

Joseph Jones sold another patent to Columbia in 1902 and then, his usefulness ended, disappears from the Columbia story.

Philip Mauro (1859-1952)
One of Columbia's chief assets, Mauro was the most talented patent attorney in the United States.

He received his education at Columbia University in Washington and became a partner of Anthony Pollak, the most prominent patent attorney of the era. When Pollak drowned in the shipwreck of the steamer LeBourgoyne on a voyage to France, Mauro took over the business.

So adept was Mauro that he once succeeded in having the patent office change the filing category "phonograph" to the world "graphophone."

Mauro continued practicing patent law into the 1930s.

Charles Sumner Tainter (1854-1940)
In 1880 the French government had awarded Alexander Graham Bell the Volta Prize ofColumbiaGamingTable.jpg (7057 bytes) $10,000 for his invention of the telephone. Bell spent the windfall on research, establishing the Volta Laboratories in Washington to study the production of sound.

Tainter, a scientist and manufacturer of scientific instruments, had custom made some electrical apparatus for Bell from his shop in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Bell invited Tainter to Washington.

The first experiments involved the transmission of speech through a beam of light. This device was called the photophone, and it actually worked! Bell and Tainter transmitted speech a distance of 1300 feet by means of the variable electrical resistance of selenium cells. The sensation was exhibited in 1881 at the electrical exhibition in Paris where it won Tainter a gold medal. It was too far ahead of its time to be further applied.

Bell and Tainter turned to Edison's phonograph. The problem was that the tinfoil of the day was too fragile a medium to precisely incise the sound waves. With Chichester Bell, a chemist and an English cousin of Alexander Graham Bell, they experimented with a cardboard cylinder coated with a thin layer of ozocerite, a wax from Japan.

Around 1885 Bell and Tainter tried to interest Edison in a joint venture, but were rebuffed, a snub which the master was to dearly regret. (Edison disparaged the Columbia group as "a bunch of pirates.")

Alexander Graham Bell coined a new name: Graphophone. On May 15, 1887 Bell and Tainter licensed their patents to the newly formed American Graphophone Company in an exchange for stock.

Tainter established Columbia's Bridgeport, Connecticut factory in 1888 at the site of the old Howe sewing machine works and labored on and off for the company during the 1890s, managing the  company exhibit at the Chicago World's Fair. He fancied himself the rival of Edison.

In 1903, fighting ill health, he moved to California where he resided and experimented until his death.

Thomas Macdonald (1859-1911)
The most prolific inventor in phonographic history next to Edison, Macdonald was bornColumbiaToy.gif (5376 bytes) in Yuba Dam, California.

A high school dropout, he visited San Francisco at the age of 17. As he saw ships sail beyond the Golden Gate bridge, he was possessed by a desire to sail round the world. He joined the merchant marine.

In Gibraltar he was struck a savage blow by a burtal second mate. Macdonald felled the assailant. Not knowing if he had killed the mate, he swam to shore, where he was hidden by friendly natives. He signed on with another ship and completed his voyage.

He returned to California, taught school for a while, and then joined the Army. After military duty in Texas he secured a government clerkship in Washington.

In 1889 he got a job with the Eastern Pennsylvania Phonograph Company, one of Lippincott's territories. Two years later he joined Columbia.

It was Macdonald who saved Columbia when Lippincott went under, designed a spring motor to attach to the sudden surfeit of treadle tops.

Macdonald engineered much of the production machinery in the Bridgeport plant, which was spewing out 2000 Graphophones per day by 1909.

For a while he was factory manager. With his roisterous background he must have been the workingman's friend: he won them a nine hour day in 1901.

Among the gems from Columbia's Chief Experimentalist:

  • The 5" Concert record of 1898 and the Graphophone Grand.
  • Gold molded records.
  • The Columbia Eagle of 1897, the first inexpensive, quality phonograph.
  • The AS and N coin slot phonographs.
  • The Multiplex Grand, exhibited at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair. The world's first stereo, each of three horns was aimed at a different part of the orchestra. One was sold to the Shah of Iran at the stratospheric price of $1000.

Macdonald was working on the internal horn Nonpareil at the time of his death at age 52.

Louis Sterling
In the early 1920s Columbia was in financial trouble. The adroit Easton was gone, and mismanagement combined with competition from radio nudged the firm toward insolvency.

A general downturn in business affected the entire industry around 1922. Columbia's position was particularly precarious.

Unlike Victor, which tended to accumulate its profits, Columbia tended to distribute its profits. Victor tended to make most of its cabinetry and parts in-house; Columbia winged it with outside suppliers.

In 1923 Graphophone indebtedness exceeded $23 million. Creditors were petitioning for bankruptcy.

Into the breach stepped Louis Sterling. Sterling was long experienced in the British phonograph industry, dating to his partnership with Russell Hunting in the Sterling Record Company of 1904. Since 1914 he had been the European manager of Columbia.

In April 1923 Sterling took control of British Columbia and of its failing American cousin. He began to turn the company around, acquiring a license from Western Electric in 1924 for electrical recording.

In 1931 he became head of the British phonograph giant EMI, and was knighted.

Sources:
Baumbach, Robert. The Columbia Phonograph Companion, Vol.II.
Dancer, Cecil. San Jose, CA. Interview, Thomas Macdonald.
Koenigsberg, Allen. Patent History of the Phonograph.
Marro, Guy. The Encyclopedia of Recorded Sound.
National Cyclopedia of American Biography.
Who Was Who in America.
Wile, Ray. Interview

1998 Lynn Bilton