Columbia Corporate History: The Marconi Label

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

Columbia was constantly fighting the “prestige gap” between it and its larger competitors. Edison cylinders bore the name of the world’s most famous inventor, while Victor discs shared the glory of the label’s prestigious Red Seal records. Columbia flaunted its Grand Prize awards, and constantly reminded the trade that it was the “creator of the talking machine business” (which, literally, was true). However neither claim had the impact of a name like Edison or Caruso.

During the summer of 1906, on a trip to England, Edward Easton struck a deal with world-famous scientist Guglielmo Marconi, who had gained fame just five years earlier as the inventor of wireless communication with the first transatlantic transmission. In September Columbia proudly announced that the 32 year-old inventor would join the company as a “consulting physicist,” working on recorders, reproducers and record composition. Marconi sailed to New York, was feted at a banquet, was given a whirlwind tour of the American Graphophone plant in Bridgeport, then promptly returned to London.32

The first tangible result of the arrangement was the flexible Marconi “Velvet Tone” disc, introduced ca. May 1907. Described as “Wonderful as Wireless,” they were single-sided and pressed from regular Columbia masters, although the numbering was different. Because of their soft surface—resembling a modem LP—they were to be played with a special gold-plated needle. Marconi discs were priced at 75¢ for 10” and $1.50 for 12”, only slightly above comparable Columbia issues.

It is unclear how much Marconi had to do with the unusual discs that bore his name. More than 400 titles were released on Marconi, and the quality was quite good. However they apparently did not sell very well, and were discontinued in 1908. [p. 11]

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