Columbia Corporate History: Entering the Disc Business

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

By the end of the decade Columbia was the dominant force in the recording industry. However it was still a relatively small business, and storm clouds were on the horizon. Recording technology was advancing rapidly, presenting major threats to the company’s continued viability. The next few years would hold high drama for Columbia.4

Edison had resumed recording activity around 1897. With strong financial resources and the power of the Edison name it was rapidly overtaking Columbia in its core cylinder business. There were rumors that Edison was on the verge of discovering a means of mass duplicating cylinders (up to this time, only a handful of copies could be made from each original recording). This would dramatically lower costs and increase production. At the same time Emile Berliner’s little 7” disc records, introduced on a small scale in 1894, were being aggressively marketed. Their sound quality was not as good as that of cylinders, but improvements were being made and backed by a massive advertising campaign Berliner discs were beginning to snare a significant portion of the potentially huge home market. According to the U.S. Census of Manufactures, 2.8 million cylinders and discs were produced during 1899 (including blanks); available information suggests that about 600,000 of these (21%) were discs, vs. zero percent a few years earlier.5

Never a cautious company, Columbia moved boldly along several tracks to address these threats. Easton kept his chief inventor, Thomas H. Macdonald, funded and busy at his laboratory in Bridgeport, Connecticut, working on improved phonographs and cylinder duplication processes. The company handled promising cylinder phonographs developed by others, including Edward Amet’s Metaphone (a.k.a. Echophone) and possibly Gianni Bettini’s Lyraphone.6 Seeking to broaden its base, it also dabbled in motion pictures and typewriters.

It was clear to Easton that he also needed to get a foothold in the disc business, but Berliner held the key patents in that area. So for once Columbia moved cautiously, using its various patents for leverage wherever it could. During 1899 it briefly licensed the American Talking Machine Company, which had been founded by inventor Joseph Jones and businessman Albert T. Armstrong in late 1898 to manufacture the Vitaphone disc machine and red-shellac “American Talking Machine Record Disks.” Jones and Armstrong initially tried to manufacture their own products, but couldn't, so they turned to the American Graphophone Co., which also failed. A few Vitaphone machines and American Talking Machine discs eventually reached the market, but they must have sold in very small quantities as they are incredibly rare today.

Once it became apparent that the Jones and Armstrong venture would not succeed Columbia decided to use the experience it had gained for its own first, tentative foray into the disc business. The $3 “Toy Disk Graphophone,” designed by Macdonald and produced for the 1899 Christmas season, looked as much like a cylinder machine—and as unlike Berliner’s disc gramophone—as possible. The tiny three” discs were brown wax, vertically recorded (like cylinders) and center-start. The small, hand-driven phonograph shared parts with Columbia’s cylinder machines. One flyer listed five sets of five discs each, mostly children’s songs, priced at fifty cents per set. Few of these phonographs seem to have been sold, although limited advertising for them continued into early 1900.7

Columbia next allied with Frank Seaman’s Universal Talking Machine Company, which had been marketing discs under the Zon-O-Phone label (and others) since 1898. Seaman had originally been the sales agent for Berliner, but had split with the inventor and was attempting to start his own disc business. Columbia allowed Seaman some measure of protection under its cylinder recording patents, and for a brief period in 1900-1901, Columbia’s large network of dealers stocked Zon-O-Phone products. However Seaman’s company was in constant litigation with the Berliner interests, making his entire venture quite shaky; it finally went bankrupt in 1901.

Columbia was by this time becoming desperate for a means to legally enter the disc business. Fortunately its cylinder sales were still healthy, despite the heavy competition from Edison. Judging by the relative number of copies found today, Columbia and Edison split the business more or less evenly around the turn of the century. Columbia’s market share may have been down, but the entire industry had grown so rapidly between 1896 and 1901 that there was plenty of business for everyone.

Columbia and Edison both introduced mass produced “moulded” cylinders during the winter of 1901-1902. They were louder, harder, and cheaper than the 1890s variety, and most importantly could be duplicated in large quantities. The price of a standard Columbia cylinder, which had averaged $1 or more in the early 1890s, and 50¢ in the mid and late 1890s, was now cut to 30¢, underpricing both Edison and those pesky 7” discs, both of which remained at 50¢. Columbia and Edison each employed gold in the production of the new cylinders. Although the processes were different, both called their cylinders “gold moulded,” and each claimed that it had invented the process. Curiously neither company embraced an even more revolutionary type of cylinder invented by a man named Thomas Lambert—the unbreakable celluloid cylinder. Lambert’s company marketed this product from 1900 to 1905, but there was quite a bit of turmoil within the company (Lambert himself quit in 1902) and constant legal challenges from Edison took their toll. Lambert filed for bankruptcy in January 1906.

Legal warfare was also producing chaos in the disc business. Suits between Berliner and his former sales agent Frank Seaman resulted in Berliner being forced to close its U.S. operation in mid-1900. The Zen-O-Phone label limped along through 1900 and 1901, as did a series of labels produced by Berliner associate Eldridge R. Johnson (called Improved Gram-o-Phone, Improved, and finally Victor). Columbia’s crack patent attorney Philip Mauro was deeply involved in the litigation, constantly searching for a way to get Columbia—in which he was a substantial stockholder—into the disc business. He finally found it in 1901. The key was a patent application for a new disc production process submitted by one Joseph Jones.

Jones had once worked in Emile Berliner’s laboratory, and latter day historians with an anti-Columbia bias assume that he simply stole his ideas from the disc inventor. However that may be, Jones’ patent application showed promise, even though it was turned down several times by the patent examiners. Each time it was rejected Mauro helped Jones redraft it to address the examiners’ comments, and by 1901 it was becoming apparent that it might eventually be granted. Columbia bought a financial stake in the application from the cash-starved inventor in the hope that this would happen, and began to lay plans for entry into the disc business “in the proper way.”8 


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