The uses of amber: the Columbia BC 20th Century Graphophone

Frictional amplification depended on an eons old event

September, 1993
This article is part of the Noteworthy News archives.

It was news when the New York Times recently reported, coincidental with the release of the movie Jurassic Park, that scientists had extracted strands of DNA from a 150 million year old weevil entombed in amber.

It was news, too, in 1904 when the American Graphophone Company brazenly ballyhooed a breakthrough in mechanical amplification using the same mineral: amber.

Columbia BC

Mined in the Baltic areas of eastern Europe, amber is pre-historic plant resin. In primeval forests, the sap of twenty to forty varieties of extinct coniferous trees flowed like a heavy river to the ground, occasionally trapping plants and insects. Over the ages it oxidized, polymerized and hardened.

Roman gladiators sported amber amulets for good luck, medieval people wore it to ward away disease, and at the turn of the century Victorian ladies decreed it fashionable for jewelry.

Around 1880 the Germans discovered that small pieces of amber could be fused together in a vacuum under intense heat and pressure. Between 1895-1900 miners harvested over 1 million kilograms of amber from the earth.

In 1904 the cylinder phonograph companies were confronting a problem: the cylinder record, even in its improved gold molded form, was no longer as loud as the flat disc record. The search was on for more volume.

A solution known as early as the 1880s was to place more tension on the stylus bar, but this carried the detriment of causing the stylus to dig into the record. William Cooper, employing brass cylinders, had experimented with mechanical amplification with his Phonodymograph of 1882.

In 1901 Daniel Higham of Winthrop Highlands, Massachusetts, was thinking of improvements in telephone technology. Looking for some way to amplify and record the faint volume of early speakers, he conceived the idea of linking the stylus to a constantly rotating amber wheel under friction.

In 1904 Higham went to work for Columbia and set about improving his invention, now dubbed the High-am-o-phone. It was the year of the St. Louis World's Fair.

The promoters of the St. Louis Louisiana Purchase Exhibition were determined to outdo even the 1893 Chicago event in grandiosity.

An Ivory City was constructed, replete with "aeronautical concourse" for a flying machine race. The intrepid could tour the grounds in the new motorbus, the passive could watch the first United States Olympic games. An enterprising ice cream vendor who ran short of dishes scooped his product into a waffle, thereby inventing the ice cream cone.

The talk that season was of Marconi, Fessenden and "wireless," but the phonograph was still enough of a novelty that someone advertised a year in advance, "A phonograph is the only infallible amusement for every sort of visitor."

Columbia put on a spectacular display.

There was the Multiplex Grand, a Thomas Macdonald design. The world's first stereo, it simultaneously played three records, each recorded from a diffferent portion of the orchestra. One was sold, to the Shah of Iran for $1000.

Touted as the wave of the future, a special Disc Graphophone playing steel records was shown. The steel discs never caught on, but double sided records, also introduced at the Fair, soon went on to be a huge success.

The new AZ, with reproducer fixed in rigid frame, was premiered, although when a spy filtered world of this improvement to Edison he sued, on the basis of a patent dating to his North American days. It came to nothing, as the controlling patent expired a few months later.

This was the Fair where Columbia and Victor entered a spat as to who won the Grand Prize. (Edison, eschewing competitive exhibitions, didn't participate.) Columbia had placed a man on the jury, then a governing body recommended a contrary way. For years afterward both Columbia and Victor advertising stridently claimed the prize.

Prominent in the Columbia exhibit, billed as the loudest speaking talking machine in the world, was a prototype of the Higham machine, this one with moving mandrel and stationary reproducer in the style of the later Edison Opera.

By 1905, after Higham had secured six additonal patents, the machine, designated as the BC, was ready for commercial introduction. To hype sales Columbia announced a contest in the pages of Talking Machine World to name the new Graphophone. The winners: George Elder of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania for the "20th Century" label and Carl Miller of Fremont, Ohio for the "Premier" label. Each received a free BC for his contribution.

How did the 5" reproducer work? In the words of a contemporary ad, this new departure used "a wheel of pure amber which turns simultaneously with the rotary motion of the cylinder. Over this amber wheel passes a vulcanite 'shoe' connecting at a mica diaphragm nearly four times larger than on any other talking machine."

All this could be purchased for $100, or $125 with electric motor and repeating attachment. Special horns were required: silk finish, $10; hammered brass, $15. The BM, a Graphophone with a smaller version of the Higham reproducer housed in a mahogany cabinet, was introduced a few months later at $75.

The BC proved to be an exciting seller (the BM was not, despite its lower price), but almost from the inception the factory began to hear customer moaning. The mechanism was just too tempermental but most of all Columbia didn't emphasize how important it was to keep the amber wheel dry: oil and wax were anathema to the Higham reproducer.

Contemporary publications recommended using gum tragacanth, a sort of food additive, to clean the works, but modern collectors can substitute alcohol. There's a related problem for present day collectors--the heat fused amber can begin to fracture with age.

Almost simultaneously with the introduction of the 20th Century machine Columbia appropriated the 20th Century name to debut a series of six inch long, three minute records. It wasn't the first ever six inch record--Pathe had illustrated a six inch brown wax record in an 1898 French catalogue--but it was the first limited commercial success. Around 85 titles of these very scarce Columbia records were cut, selling for 50 cents each, or double the normal price.

With the expiration of the Edison patents for the fixed frame reproducer, Columbia by 1906 dropped the inferior floating reproducer and introduced a new B series of cylinder Graphophones with Lyric reproducer: the BK Jewel, BE Leader, BF Peerless and BG Sovereign. The two most expensive, the BF and BG, were equipped with extra long mandrels to accept the new 20th Century cylinders.

Higham continued to perfect his invention. In 1906 T.V. Skelly, a vending machine manufacturer, incorporated an improved version of the reproducer in his giant oak 25 cylinder Concertophone.

Then in 1908 Edison hired Higham, apparently to secure his expertise in the problems of mating sound to the nascent motion picture. A version of the amber wheel appeared on the Kinetophone of 1913. Higham's last patent dealt with the details of placing a horn behind the movie screen.

Hilton, Suzanne. Here Today and Gone Tomorrow.
Koenigsberg, Allen. Patent History of the Phonograph.
Rice, Patty. Amber, Golden Gem of the Ages

Copyright 2015 Lynn Bilton

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


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