Columbia Corporate History: Victor Steals Climax!

Columbia Master Book, Volume I, Tim Brooks, ed.

By January 1902 Edward Easton and his colleagues must have been feeling a little more secure about their new venture. They had been marketing disc machines and Climax records (manufactured by Globe) for about four months without challenge, and the new, powerful Jones patent covering disc manufacture was in their pocket. There was some friction between Columbia and Globe, which claimed that Easton’s company was slow in paying its bills, but nothing that couldn't be handled.

Then the unexpected happened. Easton’s arch-rival, Victor President Eldridge R. Johnson, somehow found out about Globe’s dissatisfaction with Columbia. He began secret negotiations with the Globe management and on Sunday, January 19, 1902, while Easton was out of town, he bought the company from Burt for $10,000.

Johnson moved fast. Before Easton could find out what happened, Victor shipped the Climax masters out of New York to its headquarters in Philadelphia. Researcher Raymond Wile speculates that this was done so that when Columbia sued, as it would surely would, it would have to do so in several court jurisdictions at once.12 In addition, it appears that Victor began embossing the circled letters “VTM” on Climax masters, to denote their new ownership by the Victor Talking Machine Co. The “VTM” symbol is most frequently found on numbers up to about no. 600 (although a few are higher), which may give us a clue to the matrix numbers in production as of January 1902. It is also probably no coincidence that there is some confusion in numbering in the 500s. At least eight numbers between 515 and 657 were assigned to two different recordings, possibly a result of confusion due to missing masters or log books.

One can imagine the scene that transpired in the Columbia offices when Edward Easton returned to New York and found out that his source of disc records had been stolen out from under him. As anticipated Columbia immediately filed suit, but Easton, always the pragmatic businessman, simultaneously began negotiations with Johnson. By mid-February Columbia had agreed to buy Globe from Victor for the $10,000 Johnson had paid for it and, equally important, to drop all pending lawsuits against Victor. Continued negotiations eventually led to an even more sweeping agreement a year later, in which Columbia and Victor agreed to cross-license each other. This meant that both companies were now free to pursue disc manufacture without fear of litigation from the other, and all others were effectively shut out of the business.

Not wanting any more unpleasant surprises, Columbia bought the Burt Co., which pressed Climax records, securing its source of supply. Ironically Johnson had concluded an arrangement with Burt to press Victor records as well (since he was short of capacity), which meant that Columbia was now pressing Victor records as well as its own. Columbia bragged about this in its mid-1902 catalog, but Victor was unamused and broke its contract with Burt in the fall of 1902. On December 31, 1902, Columbia closed Burt’s Millburn, New Jersey, plant, and moved the entire operation to American Graphophone headquarters in Bridgeport, Connecticut.13 Burt remained an active subsidiary of American Graphophone for many years thereafter, with Edward D. Easton as its president.

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The Columbia Master Book Discography, 4 Volumes, Complied by Brian Rust and Tim Brooks. Reprinted by permission.