The Records Guglielmo Marconi Didn’t Invent: The Marconi Velvet Tone Story

The Records Guglielmo Marconi Didn’t Invent:
The Marconi Velvet Tone Story
By Allan Sutton

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Related Article: Columbia Marconi-Type Pressings
in Chile (
Fonografía Artística Records)

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.Although shellac-based pressing materials were the industry norm virtually from the start of commercial disc-record production, there were periodic attempts to press in celluloid, beginning with Emile Berliner’s 1890 German discs. Nicole Frères introduced celluloid-coated cardboard discs in Europe in 1903.

In the United States, the Lambert Company introduced molded celluloid cylinders in 1900. But celluloid would not be used commercially for disc records in the U.S. until 1906, when the American Graphophone Company (Columbia) announced its Marconi Velvet Tone disc — a lightweight semi-flexible laminated celluloid disc — with tremendous fanfare. The records bore the name and likeness of Guglielmo Marconi, who was riding a wave of international acclaim as the inventor of radio.

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The earliest Marconi labels showed the inventor’s receding hairline (right), which was retouched on later printings.

 

Hoping to capitalize on Marconi’s popularity, Columbia offered him a position as “consulting physicist” on what it termed its “great experimental staff” in the summer of 1906. Columbia president Edward Easton was dispatched to London to personally interview the inventor.

On August 16 of that year, The New York Times reported that Marconi had sailed for the United States in connection with his new duties. Following his arrival in New York on September 8, he was treated to a lavish banquet at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel as Columbia’s guest of honor. Edward Easton, music department superintendent Victor Emerson, factory manager Thomas Macdonald, and other Columbia officials spoke at some length, vaguely alluding to Marconi’s experimental radio work, but without mentioning how that might possibly relate to phonograph records.

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Columbia announces its collaboration with Marconi, September 1906. (Courtesy of Steve Smolian)

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On September 10, Thomas Macdonald escorted Marconi on a whirlwind tour of Columbia’s plant in Bridgeport, Connecticut, followed by a luncheon at Macdonald’s home. Marconi boarded a ship back to Italy the next day, after telling a reporter for The Music Trade Review that he had not yet given the matter sufficient study to announce any new ideas.

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In this highly retouched photo, factory manager Thomas Macdonald is at the wheel, with Marconi beside him. Columbia president Edward Easton sits immediately behind them. (Courtesy of Steve Smolian)

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Macdonald and Marconi in the Bridgeport factory, from The Columbia Record. (Courtesy of Steve Smolian)

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Little more was heard of the alliance until November, when The Columbia Record ran a self-congratulatory piece that still failed to mention what, if anything, Marconi might be developing in the record field. An article in the London Music Trade Review noted that Marconi had not yet “disclosed what his views are on this and other talking machine ideas.”

Marconi had good reason to remain silent — he apparently had no hand in developing the discs that would bear his name. His sole contribution apparently was to allow Columbia the use of his name and likeness. Searches of U.S. and Italian patents have consistently failed to reveal any filings by Marconi that might relate to these discs.

However, the groundwork had already been laid for what would come to marketed as the Marconi record. On August 19, 1905 — a year before Marconi was tapped as Columbia’s “consulting physicist” — Victor Emerson had filed a patent on a lightweight disc pressed in a celluloid–shellac mixture. Emerson noted that the proportions of celluloid to shellac could be varied to produce a lightweight disc, with or without a cardboard backing.

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Victor Emerson’s 1905 patent for a lightweight celluloid–shellac disc, which Emerson subsequently assigned to American Graphophone. (U.S. Patent and Trademark Office)

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Thomas Macdonald took Emerson’s idea a step further. On July 9, 1906 — nearly six weeks before Marconi’s brief visit to the States — he filed a patent application on a flexible, lightweight laminated disc with a playing surface of pure celluloid:

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Thomas Macdonald’s patent on what would be marketed as the Marconi record even specified the embossed pattern that is found on the reverse sides. There is no reference to Guglielmo Marconi anywhere in the patent filing. (U.S. Patent & Trademark Office)

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Thus, American Graphophone already held two patents covering all the essential features of the “Marconi” disc by the time the inventor was invited to serve as a Columbia consultant.

Macdonald’s patent specifications were exactly those that would come to be embodied in the Marconi Velvet Tone Record. Macdonald specified a flexible paper or cardboard core laminated between two thin sheets of celluloid — one to receive the impression of the sound recording, and the other to receive either a second sound recording or “a roughened surface…covered by fine lines close together and crossing at right angles.” Columbia addressed Macdonald’s claim that needles need not be changed after each playing by marketing semi-permanent gold-plated needles for use with the records.

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Marconi discs carried a large warning sticker on the blank reverse sides. The “fine lines close together and crossing at right angles” specified in Macdonald’s patent can be seen on the outer edge.

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Columbia reportedly sent advance copies of the first Marconi catalog to dealers in February 1907, the same month in which the records were announced in The Talking Machine World. A few dealers began advertising the records in March, inviting customers to come and listen, but it appears to have been a trial balloon. Little advertising appeared during the summer of 1907, and Columbia itself did not make its “first announcement” of the new records in The Talking Machine World until September.

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(Top) One of the earliest dealer advertisements for Marconi records was published in Washington DC on March 20, 1907. The Chattanooga ad (center) appeared on April 18; “Fifteen Hundred” apparently refers to the quantity of discs for sale, not the number of individual selections. Columbia’s own “first announcement” (bottom) did not appear in The Talking Machine World until September 1907.

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Bearing Marconi’s name, portrait, and facsimile signature, the records were touted as “Wonderful as Wireless.” American Graphophone filed a trademark application on the Velvet Tone trademark (but not Marconi’s name, which likely would not have been approved under U.S. trademark guidelines) on May 1, 1907. The records were a deluxe product, pressed in smooth black celluloid and packaged in heavy paper sleeves with glassine windows. Elaborate, oversized patent notice labels, affixed to the blank reverse sides, warned that the records could be safely played only with special gold-plated semi-permanent needles. Marconi’s receding hairline, which is evident on the early labels, was retouched in later printings.

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Despite their premium price and exotic appearance, Marconi records were pressed from standard Columbia masters, including material recorded several years earlier. The discs were produced in 10″ and 12″ series. The standard 10″ series substituted special catalog numbers for Columbia’s own, starting at 01 and reaching into the low 0400s before being discontinued. Twelve-inch discs were assigned the same 30000-series catalog numbers as corresponding Columbia releases.

Double-sided Marconi pressings are known, as are Marconi-type pressings with standard Columbia labels, but these probably were prototypes or samples. Thus far, no evidence has been found that they were intended for retail sale.

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Relatively few Marconi sleeves have survived.

 

Columbia apparently envisioned an international market for the Marconi discs, and various export versions are known. The best-known are the specially numbered Fonogramas Marconi, manufactured at Bridgeport for Mexican or South American distribution. A Chinese Marconi-type record (labeled Columbia Concert Record) and a Marconi sleeve with text in Japanese have also been reported. Several extremely rare Marconi-type  pressings from Italian Fonotipia masters, bearing special Fonotipia–Marconi Velvet Tone labels, are also known to exist.

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A rare Fonogramas Marconi disc made for the Mexican market.  (Kurt Nauck collection)

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Sales of the Marconi records lagged, however. Retailing for more than the ordinary Columbia releases they duplicated, requiring the use of expensive special (albeit reusable) needles, easily damaged, and having a tendency to slip on the turntable, Marconi discs do not seem to have engaged the general public. Production was discontinued in 1908, leaving Columbia with a large unsold inventory. By 1910 the discs were being remaindered by Simpson, Crawford & Co. (New York) for 17¢ each, or six for $1. The special gold-plated needles were given away with a minimum purchase.

Today, Marconi records are highly prized by collectors. They range from fairly scarce (for some of better-selling popular issues) to extremely rare (particularly for the export and Fonotipia-Marconi issues). The original paper envelopes can also be hard to find. Well-cared-for Marconi discs have remarkably quiet surfaces revealing recorded details that can be lost in Columbia’s usual grainy shellac pressings. Unfortunately, many surviving copies suffer from lamination cracks or needle damage, which can reduce their monetary value to “wall-hanger” level.

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© 2020 by Allan R. Sutton. All rights are reserved.

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