The Columbia Graphophone and Grafonola -- a beginner's guide

Bell-Tainter Graphophone
The grandfather of it all: Bell-Tainter treadle

Anyone know a debate coach? There's a fancy Latin expression, reductio ad absurdum, which means reducing an argument to its most preposterous conclusion. The history of the Columbia Graphophone is long and convoluted, and I would like to propose some pseudo-Latin to you in order to better articulate it: reductio ad simplicitum.

I'm going to assume that you landed on this site because you came into an old Graphophone and want some basic, simple information about it. So first I'm going to expose you to a little (but just a little) phonographic history, then I'm going to show you identification for some models, and lastly I'm going to talk about some repairs specific to Columbia machines. If you're hungry for more information check out the books at the end of this article; most of which should be available from your friendly local reference librarian.

A Graphophone was a phonograph made by the Columbia Phonograph Company under one of its myriad of corporate identities. Graphophones played both cylinder and 78rpm records. A Grafonola was an internal horn phonograph made by the Columbia Phonograph Company that played 78rpm records.

For many of the years we are interested in the American Graphophone Company, with factories in Bridgeport, Connecticut, was the manufacturing arm of the enterprise, and the Columbia Phonograph Company was the sales and distribution arm. The Columbia Phonograph Company, General was a sort of holding company. There were other corporate incarnations, but modern collectors don't pay much attention to such things and just lump everything together as 'Columbia'. In 1921, facing bankruptcy, Columbia was taken over by its British branch, but although these later years are of great interest to record collectors they are only peripheral to our story, which begins in 1880.

In 1880 Alexander Graham Bell was awarded the Volta Prize, $20,000, from the government of France. Bell used the funds to set up a research laboratory in Washington, D.C, headed by his cousin Chichester Bell and Charles Sumner Tainter, a distinguished scientist and instrument maker. Bell and Tainter had set out to do sound reproduction experiments involving the telephone, but their attention soon shifted to the phonograph, whose development had languished while Edison busied himself with other projects such as the electric light.

Edison's phonograph had employed a strip of tin foil, indented by a needle. Bell and Tainter employed a cardboard cylinder coated with ozocerite, a type of wax, incised by a needle. Of such a fine semantic distinction, indented versus incised, was over a decade of litigation to be born. Bell and Tainter patented some of their inventions and then went to Edison with a proposal to merge their forces. Edison turned them down flat.

The Bell-Tainter patents came under the control of the Volta Graphophone Company, later the American Graphophone Company. These companies were controlled by a group of men primarily in the Washington area, most prominent among them Edward Easton, a lawyer and Supreme Court reporter, who was to become the president of Columbia.

In 1888 Jessee Lippincott, a Pittsburgh businessman who had made a lot of money in the glass business, sought to create a monopoly of the phonographic trade by analogy to the telephone system. Regional territories were to be created and rights sold. Lippincott bought out Edison and Columbia, although Columbia cut him a much harder deal. Columbia was also established as a regional territory of Lippincott's North American Phonograph Company. This era is known to phonograph collectors as the Consolidated Period.

By 1894 Lippincott was dead and the North American Phonograph Company was a failure, as it had become evident that the telephone system was not the proper business model for the phonograph. Edison was forced to throw the North American Phonograph Company into bankruptcy in order to reclaim his patents, and because of this for legal reasons there was around a two year span during which Edison could not manufacture many phonographs. This allowed Columbia to jump into the market. Philip Mauro, the brilliant attorney of the Graphophone Company, attacked Edison with litigation and tried to sow doubt about the validity of the Edison patents. The end result of this was a cross-licensing of patents.

The Bell-Tainter machines had never performed as well as the Edison models. Thomas Macdonald, Columbia's factory manager, scrambled to to fit some of the machines with Edison type wax cylinders cut to the now standard 100 threads per inch. Before long Columbia introduced a series of spring-motor cylinder Graphophones, several of them designed and patented by MacDonald. One of the first to achieve popular acceptance was the Columbia A, followed by the N, C and others. These machines employed a floating reproducer, of black gutta percha at least on the earlier models. This reproducer, although acceptable, was acoustically inferior to the Edison reproducer with overhanging weight, which wasn't emulated until later, probably for patent reasons. An improved spring-contact reproducer was introduced with the B series of cylinder Graphophones, featured at the 1906 St. Louis World's Fair.

Columbia Eagle
For the masses:the Columbia Eagle
The best selling cylinder Graphophones were probably the Model Q, an openworks machine which sold for $5 without lid, and the Model B,. another openworks machine which sold for $10 and was nicknamed the Eagle, the stamping on a $10 coin.

By 1902 it was becomming apparent to insiders in the phonograph trade that the long term prognosis of the cylinder phonograph was not healthy. Berliner's Gramophone, which had evolved into the Victor Talking Machine, was stealing sales from the cylinder machines as the flat disc records became louder and more lifelike, a development particularly irksome to Columbia in urban areas where it was dominant. Columbia had tested the waters with a Toy Graphophone in 1899 (using a center-start record for patent armor), but it wasn't until sometime in 1902 that they jumped into the market in a major way. They acquired some patents originally belonging to Joseph Jones, a former Berliner employee, and these patents and the reputation of Columbia's legal department were sufficient to eventually intimidate Victor into a cross-licensing agreement. The first Disc Graphophones, the AH and AK, were introduced in 1902 and 1903.

Most cylinder Graphophones play a record two minutes in length. (I show you how to distinguish record speed in another posting.) Shortly after Edison introduced his improved gold moulded records Columbia came out with a moulded black wax record of their own. These records do not have the quality of the Edison product and are especially susceptible to mildew, a defect that became embarassingly apparent even when the records were new (although of course you can play Edison records on your Graphophone). By 1908, when Edison introduced his four minute records, Columbia was only marginally participating in the cylinder trade. A few late cylinder Graphophones were equipped with a switch and a reduction gear to accomodate four minute records, and a universal stylus midway between two and four minute cut was fitted to Columbia reproducers. In 1908 Columbia committed to buy the entire production of the Indestructible Record Company of Albany, New York, a maker of celluloid cylinders; these were marketed as Columbia Indestructible Records.

Unlike Edison, who manufactured a relatively limited range of models, Columbia produced a vast panopoly of machines covering every available niche in the market. I'll mention some here, and show you some pictures of them in the next section of this article, although unfortunately I don't have pictures of every Columbia Graphophone to display for you. There were cylinder machines on the order of the Edison Standard, such as the AZ, AT, and BK. There was a series of cylinder machines designed for an extra long six inch cylinder, the BE, BF, and BG, also introduced at the St. Louis fair. A cylinder machine which made use of frictional amplification via an amber wheel, the Twentieth Century or BC. Machines to play the five inch cylinders -- Concerts in Edison nomenclature or Grands in Columbia parlance: the AG, HG, and the powerful GG or Graphophone Grand. Inexpensive trivet type cylinder machines without feedscrew such as the AP. And of course all the Disc Graphophones, an A series of front-mounts and a B series of rear-mounts.

The Bell-Tainter machines are so rare that their identification is best left to the province of a small group of experts, much as in the same manner that only a professor of dead languages can translate ancient Etruscan. Most of the regular cylinder Graphophones are marked either by a name tag, or by a stamping on the left of the upperworks. The disc Graphophones aren't that easy to identify, you have to match them up against a catalogue. Columbia advertising copywriters worked overtime to concoct glorious names for most of these models, such as the BI Sterling or the BD Majestic, but I've almost never heard modern collectors refer to them by anything other than their alphabetical designation.

Columbia Gaming Table
Masters of disguise:Grafonola as gaming table
The Grafonola, an internal horn disc Graphophone, was introduced in 1907, around a year after Victor begat the first Victrola. Only a few have great appeal to contemporary collectors. There are the early Grafonalas such as the Symphony Upright and Symphony Grand, which resembled a Chinese pagoda and a small, upright piano, respectively. There was a series of expensive Grafonola art case or period machines, in the styles of Hepplewhite, Sheraton, Adam and others. There was the Viva-Tonal, Columbia's equivalent to the Orthophonic Credenza, the apex of the development of acoustic reproduction. According to many collectors the Viva-Tonal surpassed the Victor Orthophonic in acoustic fidelity. There was a series of Grafonolas in which the Grafonola was disguised as an article of household furniture, such as a desk or an end-table. Other than this, there isn't much collecting interest in the great run of Grafonolas, although this may change with time.

I should note that Columbia also manufactured machines for other companies, most visibly the Standard Talking Machine Company of Chicago, whose Standard Model A and Standard Model X use common Columbia components.

If you're contemplating the purchase of a cylinder Graphophone you should jump ahead to the repair section. Certain of these models, for all practical purposes, are not repairable.

*Here are the references I promised you:
Read and Welch, From Tin Foil to Stereo. 1957 edition only. I do not recommended the revised, second edition.
Tim Fabrizio and George Paul, The Talking Machine, An Illustrated Compendium.
Robert Baubach, The Columbia Phonograph Companion

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Copyright 2015 Lynn Bilton

Lynn Bilton
Box 435
Randolph,OH 44265
330 325-7866


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