From Kodisk to Speak-O-Phone: Victor and A. T. Emerson Launch the Instantaneous-Recording Industry

From Kodisk to Speak-O-Phone:
Victor and A. T. Emerson Launch the
Instantaneous-Recording Industry
By Allan Sutton

Source documents courtesy of Doreen Wakeman

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Father and son: Victor Hugo Emerson and Adelbert Tewksbury (“A. T.”) Emerson (Doreen Wakeman)

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Victor Emerson’s next venture after resigning from the Emerson Phonograph Company in 1922 was the Metal Recording Disc Company. Beginning with the purchase of Henry Wadsworth’s patent on a process for manufacturing pre-grooved metal recording discs, Victor and his son Adelbert built an operation that would corner the market for bare-metal recording discs, in the process laying the groundwork for what would become the instantaneous-recording industry.

The Metal Disc Recording Corporation was incorporated in Manhattan on March 22, 1922, by L. E. Dresser, E. E. Ennison, and A. B. Hermans [1] W. Jay Ennison (Victor Emerson’s personal attorney) made the corporate filing and served as MDRC’s president, while Emerson served as treasurer. The corporate filing stated only that the company would “make phonographs,” with no mention of metal recording blanks.

It appears that the original plan was to manufacture a coin-operated automatic disc-recording and dispensing machine on which Henry L. Wadsworth had filed a patent in 1917. For recording purposes, Wadsworth stated his preference for a disc of varnish or shellac, the surface of which was to be slightly softened by the application of a solvent just prior to recording. [2]

Wadsworth soon came up with a more practical recording blank. In March 1918, he filed a patent on a pre-grooved, uncoated metal disc:

I have discovered that a substantially permanent record groove may be formed in the highly polished surface of a suitable fine grain metal, for example, copper, sheet aluminum, pewter, etc. For best results the surface of the blank is first properly prepared by filling the voids therein as by the application thereto of an element of wax-like nature… Aluminum possess all of the characteristics necessary to make a record by my process, and I prefer to use the metal.

On May 11, 1922 MDRC signed a memorandum of agreement with Wadsworth, agreeing to purchase both patents (the second of which was still pending) and the corresponding foreign patents. Wadsworth was paid $10,000 in cash and received 2,500 shares in the company. [3]

In the meantime, Emerson had filed his own patent embodying improvements to Wadsworth’s pre-grooved metal blanks, which he claimed would make the discs more suitable for use “in connection with the ordinary talking machine.” Chief among them was a wider groove that he claimed would offer less resistance to the cutting stylus. In his patent filing Emerson boasted, “I have produced a new type of disc record in which the public, that is the unskilled person, can utilize his talking machine for the purpose of recording and thereby making permanent and indestructible records.” [4]

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Victor Emerson’s metal-disc patent, showing the wide groove that Emerson claimed offered less resistance to the cutting stylus. (U.S. Patent and Trademark Office)

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With strong patent protection in place, the Metal Recording Disc Company was ready to commence operations. The idea of manufacturing Wadsworth’s automatic disc-recording machine apparently was dropped. Instead, the company focused on creating a market for pre-grooved aluminum discs and an accompanying recording attachment that could be used to make home recordings on ordinary phonographs.

There had been earlier, short-lived attempts to market home-recording devices for the disc phonograph, including the Landay Brothers’ widely advertised Land-O-Phone of 1906. None had been a technical or commercial success, in part because the discs usually were composed of wax or other materials that were easily damaged in playback. MDRC’s aluminum discs solved that problem, being largely immune to damage provided that they were played with thorn or fiber needles rather than steel.

MRDC sold its pre-grooved blanks under the Kodisk brand beginning in May 1922. [5] Recording was accomplished by simply shouting into the phonograph’s horn (preferably with the aid of a megaphone), allowing the phonograph’s own reproducer and stylus serving as the recording mechanism. For better results, the company offered a $6 recording attachment consisting of a pivoting recording horn attached to a reproducer. An early advertisement pictured the device being used by Irving Kaufman, a popular Emerson recording artist.

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Irving Kaufman plugs Kodisk, August 1922. As an exclusive Emerson recording artist for a time in the early 1920s, Kaufman would have been well-known to Victor Emerson. (Talking Machine World)

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Although MRDC at first warned that only Kodisk blanks were the genuine article, it was soon supplying other companies who sold the discs under their own names. The Plaza Music Company, which had recently taken over Emerson’s Regal label, marketed the blanks under the Echo brand. Even Eugene Widmann, president of the Pathé Phonograph and Radio Corporation, got involved. [6] For a short time, Pathé phonographs could be purchased with a home-recording attachment employing the MRDC blanks. The idea apparently failed to interest many consumers, but it would not be Widmann’s last involvement with Emerson’s metal discs.

Unfortunately, due to the low volume inherent in the acoustic recording process and the mechanical resistance of the metal blanks, the recordings were often barely audible. As Douglas Cooke noted in his early account of the operation, “While an important step had been taken, there were still further obstacles to be overcome — the record was right, but mechanical recording was deficient.” [7] Interest in the Emerson–Wadsworth system of home recording faded in the mid-1920s. It would take the advent of commercial electric recording to rekindle that interest.

Little was heard of the Metal Recording Disc Company during 1925–1926. Management of the company had already passed to Victor Emerson’s son, Adelebert Tewskbury Emerson (or “A. T.,” as he called himself for business purposes) by the time Victor died on June 22, 1926. In early 1927, A. T. incorporated the Emerson Foundation Company to carry on the family’s business interests. H. T. Leeming, who had developed the inexpensive Regal label while an Emerson Phonograph executive in 1921, served as the company’s treasurer. [8]

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Emerson Foundation Company stock certificate #1. (Doreen Wakeman)

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On September 21, 1927, the Metal Disc Recording Company licensed Frederick H. Sanborn to manufacture blank metal discs, with or without pre-grooving, under the Emerson and Wadsworth patents. MDRC retained ownership of the underlying manufacturing rights, which it transferred to the Emerson Foundation Company on or about October 1, 1927. [9] Sanborn’s as-yet unnamed company was licensed to manufacture and sell the blanks in the United States, its territories and dependencies, and Cuba “in connection with installations of phonograph recording machines to make personal recordings on said discs at such installations.” [10]

Sanborn would be allowed to sell the blanks to his agents or sub-licensees, with several restriction. The blanks, and the machines on which they were to be recorded, were not be employed for commercial record production, broadcasting, home recording, or office dictation. The question of whether or not to enter the latter market, which at the time was dominated by Dictaphone and Ediphone, would resurface several times in the coming years. Ultimately, the machines and blanks would be marketed for dictation and other business purposes, but not until the early 1930s.

Sanborn was required to pay MDRC a royalty on each blank sold, ranging from ¼¢ for five-inch or smaller discs to 2¢ for ten-inch or larger. In addition, effective January 1, 1928, Sanborn would be required to manufacture and sell a minimum of 200,000 discs that year, and 500,000 discs in each succeeding year. The agreement prohibited Sanborn’s agents and licensees from duplicating recordings made on the blanks, effectively precluding their use in commercial record production.

By late 1927, Sanborn had acquired rights to an electrical recording system and was in the process of assembling a group of investors to develop and market that system. On December 30, 1927, Henry Blum, J. H. Schiller, and Helen Marsak, filed a certificate of incorporation for Speakeophone Incorporated in New York. Their names thus far had not appeared in connection with the metal-disc business, and they were inconsequential from an operating standpoint. The driving forces behind Speakeophone would be Frederick Sanborn, as president, and A. T. Emerson, as its largest stockholder. [11]

Speakeophone’s purpose, according to the incorporation filing, was:

To make, sell, lease, and otherwise deal in, metal or other discs for the recording, perpetuation or reproduction, or otherwise, of sound; and also recording and reproducing machines, their parts, thereof, and accessories therefor, relating to metal or other discs, and the making of phonographic records thereon, by any means, for the production, recording, or reproduction of sound. [12]

Incorporated as a separate entity, the Speak-O-Phone Corporation would serve as the public face of Speakeophone. It would handle distribution and licensing, while Speakeophone would continue to handle manufacturing. The distinction, although seemingly a fine one, would prove contentious in the later legal battle for control of the business.

The Speak-O-Phone Corporation filed a trademark application on the Speak-O-Phone name on August 28, 1928, claiming use since May 1. A second application covered the phrase, “A Snapshot of Your Voice,” a slightly revision of the old Kodisk slogan that would appear only on the earliest Speak-O-Phone discs. [13] The company planned to franchise walk-in Speak-O-Phone studio throughout the country.

The franchise operation Speak-O-Phone experienced steady growth. Licenses were granted to any financially qualified party wishing to open their own recording studio and willing to abide by a lengthy lease agreement that bound the licensee to purchase discs only from Speak-O-Phone.

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Page 1 of the Speak-O-Phone studio operating and lease agreement. (Doreen Wakeman)

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Before the advent of Speak-O-Phone, individuals wishing to make their own disc records had to deal with commercial record producers. Turnaround times were slow and costs were high, and most companies required customers to purchase multiple pressings. With the advent of Speak-O-Phone, anyone could walk into a studio, record their talk or performance, and walk out a few minutes later with an electrically recorded disc at prices ranging from 50¢ to $1.50 per side, depending upon the diameter.

The entire unit was housed in a cabinet the size of a large console phonograph. The licensee was responsible for set-up, maintenance, and repairs. Sound quality of the finished discs could vary, depending upon operator skill and the microphone selected (the choices, all carbon microphones, included the default Speak-O-Phone model, of unknown manufacture; a Western Electric model; and a couple of off-brands). But in the hands of a skilled operator working with a decent microphone, the technical results could be surprisingly good.

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Early Speak-O-Phone discs had full-size back-plates (top). They were soon replaced by the familiar Speak-O-Phone label (bottom left), which allowed for recording on both sides. The slotted, embossed-label Remsen blank — essentially just a rebranding of the Speak-O-Phone disc — was introduced in 1930. Another  version of the Remsen disc, not pictured here, had Remsen’s name and patent notice embossed in a circle around the regular Speak-O-Phone label. (Author’s collection)

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A demonstration studio — little more than a closet, judging from the advertisements — was opened to the public in the “economy basement” of Snellenberg’s Philadelphia department store on September 3, 1928. [14] By October, the studio was doing so much business that it was moved to a more prestigious location, in the fifth-floor music department.

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Speak-O-Phone’s first demonstration studio, in the “economy basement of Snellenberg’s department store in Philadelphia. (Philadelphia Inquirer)

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Speak-O-Phone’s license #1 was granted to the Famous-Barr Company’s St. Louis store, which first advertised its studio on September 18. [15] Speak-O-Phone made international headlines in May 1929, when it installed a studio aboard the luxury liner Ile de France. It was back in the headlines on June 22, when Dorothy Caruso (Enrico’s widow) opened Speak-O-Phone studio #7 in New York. [16]

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Speak-O-Phone studio #1, in the Famous-Barr Company’s St. Louis department store, 1928. (Doreen Wakeman)

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Speak-O-Phone studio aboard the S. S. Ile de France, one of at least five ocean liners that licensed Speak-O-Phone equipment. (Doreen Wakeman)

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Dorothy Caruso, Enrico’s widow, opened Speak-O-Phone studio #7 in June 1929. (Doreen Wakeman / Brooklyn Daily Eagle)

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By the late summer of 1929, new Speak-O-Phone studios were being opened almost weekly. A 1930 list of contracts showed seventy-one active Speak-O-Phone installations at the time, in department stores, music and record shops, free-standing studios, colleges, and aboard at least five ocean liners.  [17]

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Speak-O-Phone brochures, c. 1929, announcing the opening of a new studio in Boston (top); and explaining the system and touting its profit potential to aspiring licensees (bottom). (Doreen Wakeman)

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Speak-O-Phone provided portfolios of customizable newspaper ads to its licensees and distributors. This copy was sent to Herman Germain, of the Plaza Music Company, retailers of Banner and other inexpensive records. Plaza had been one of the earliest sellers of rebranded Kodisk blanks in the early 1920s.

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On August 14, 1929, Emerson wrote to Sanborn proposing a new partnership with the Emerson Foundation Company to further develop the technology for commercial purposes, including dictation machines, to be called the Metal Recording Products Company. [18] The way was soon cleared for Speakeophone to transfer all licensing, distribution, and sales rights to Speak-O-Phone. The agreement between Speakeophone and Speak-O-Phone was signed on August 28, 1929, at which time Sanborn also signed over the rights to his electrical recording process to Speakeophone. [19]

Speakeophone further consolidated its control of the operation in October 1929, when the Emerson Foundation Company assigned it all of its remaining U.S. manufacturing, distribution, and sales rights in return for a royalty agreement on disc sales. [20] On February 17, 1930, however, Emerson suddenly reversed himself, writing to attorney Thomas H. Matters, “I believe that the Emerson Foundation Co., Inc., should immediately take steps to cancel all of the  arrangements which it has with the Speakeophone Corporation of America.”

At issue was some bad publicity over the company’s failure to deliver machines and records for which customers had paid. The issue came to a head after crooner Rudy Vallee publicly complained that he had not yet received a machine and discs for which he had paid $750 many months earlier. Complaints to the Better Business Bureau increased as a rumor flew that executive Jacques Blevins was misspending company funds. Emerson was also displeased over the company’s failure to pursue the home-recording and radio markets. [21]

The next few months would be marked by ongoing disputes between Emerson, Blevins, Sanford, and various shareholders, involving accusations of questionable loans, overdue notes, missing stock, and unpaid salaries, among other issues. Thomas H. Matters (who ten years earlier had been of the receivers for the Emerson Phonograph Company), was finally called in by Emerson in an attempt to resolve some of most contentious issues. The ongoing legal squabbling had no apparent effect on Speak-O-Phone’s day-to-day operations, which so far seemed to be weathering the early effects of the Great Depression reasonably well.

By April 1930, Eugene Widmann — now working in banking after having resigned as president of the Pathé Phonograph and Radio Corporation three years earlier — was preparing to step into the fray. Blevins clearly wished to be out of the business. On April 8, he wrote to Widmann,

In connection with the proposal that you step into the situation and furnish the necessary capital to meet the requirement of the Corporation and develop its business, I propose to turn over to you the control of the business and its management and supervision on whatever basis you deem fair to the respective interests involved. [22]

At the same time, Blevins turned over a list of Speak-O-Phone accounts payable, notes payable, and studio contracts to Widmann, and Sanborn supplied him a breakdown of disc-production costs and an estimate of costs to produce attachments for home and radio recording. [23]

On April 11, Emerson informed Widmann that the Presto Machine Company could supply Speak-O-Phone fifty large studio recording machines within six to eight weeks and was also prepared to look into the production of home-recording equipment. Furthermore, Emerson reported, Presto was eager to take over production of the metal discs, with eighteen presses available and the capacity to “take care of unlimited quantities.” Emerson concluded his letter by writing, “I consider this an ideal plant for our work and for all of its future development.” [24] However, no agreement with Presto was forthcoming. The announcement that RCA Victor was about to introduce its own home-recording system may have dissuaded Emerson from further pursuing a Speak-O-Phone home system.

The long-simmering feud between Blevins and Sanborn came to a head toward the end of 1930, with Blevins complaining to Emerson that Sanborn had conducted “practically no business” since June, and had spent only $100 on sales. Blevins wrote to Emerson in January 1931, “In the interests if the creditors of Speak-O-Phone Corporation of America, I should like to see you and the other stockholders place a management in charge which will immediately take advantage of the demand for the product and give the business a progressive management.” [25]

As the sniping continued, Emerson finally moved to assume full control of Speakeophone Incorporated, canceling the Emerson Foundation Company’s contracts with Blevins and Sanborn. On January 20, 1931, he requested the return of their stock from the Harriman National Bank and Trust Company, which had been holding it in escrow. [26] Full manufacturing, licensing, and sales rights were transferred from the Metal Disc Recording Company to Speakeophone, which was now firmly under Emerson’s control (Speak-O-Phone now being little more than a trade name). In addition, MRDC lifted some earlier restrictions on its products’ use, although it inexplicably continued to prohibit their use for dictation purposes. [27]

On January 22, 1931, Emerson authorized the Emerson Foundation Company to sell any or all of its shares in Speakeophone Incorporated. [28] The move roughly coincided with the formation of H. T. Leeming’s Remsen Corporation, and it appears that Emerson accepted Remsen stock in exchange for some or all of his Speakeophone stock. By February, Emerson was negotiating to have Remsen take over manufacturing of the metal discs.

The Remsen Corporation left little in the way of a paper trail. It was affiliated in some way with inventor Douglas H. Cooke, who wrote a rambling, six-page document “not for public consumption” extolling the Remsen record’s virtues, although there is nothing to indicate that the Remsen disc was anything more than a rebranding of the regular Speak-O-Phone disc. [29]

According to Cooke, Remsen either owned or otherwise controlled (it is not clear which, from his wording) the Emerson and Wadsworth metal-disc patents, in addition to holding Cooke’s own pending patent on portable and home-recording machines. [30] When Cooke balked at the idea of manufacturing recorders, preferring to contract the work to outside suppliers, Emerson went to Widmann to with a proposal that they form a new company to manufacture recording machines. Widmann was not interested. [31]

On August 10, 1931, Sanborn wrote to Emerson, “Being completely out of Speak-O-Phone, I would like to clear it all up. The sum total of my loans to you is somewhere over $1,000. I would like to see this taken care of in some way… Trusting that Speakeophone is now doing all that you have expected from it.” [32] Emerson replied, “Am more than anxious to take care of the loan you were good enough to give me just as soon as I can… As to Speakeophone — Say Uncle Freddy, why pick on me?” [33]

On September 14, 1931, Emerson authorized sale of his Remsen stock through Widmann. [34] Speak-O-Phone would go on to flourish for a time in the 1930s, especially after finally getting into the dictation-machine market, although its bare-aluminum discs would be rendered obsolete by the Presto Recording Corporation’s superior lacquer-coated recording blanks. Speak-O-Phone’s later history will be the subject of a future posting.

 

The Sound of Speak-O-Phone

As many collectors have learned from disappointing purchases, surviving Speak-O-Phone discs are only rarely of any musical or historical interest. Here are two interesting exceptions. The first is by Martha Wilkins, a professional radio and concert performer who also sang occasional minor roles at the Metropolitan Opera. Her collection of personal records and air-checks from 1930 through 1948 now resides in the Mainspring collection.

The second (courtesy of David Giovannoni) is an excerpt from a 44-minute talk, extending over multiples discs, on the rosy future of dirigibles. The craft mentioned suggest the recording was made in 1933 or thereabouts. If any of you aviation-history buffs out there know who this might be, we would love to hear from you.

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MARTHA WILKINS: Indian Love Call
Norfolk, VA: May 22, 1930

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UNKNOWN SPEAKER: Talk on lighter-than-air aircraft (excerpt)
Unknown location: c. 1933

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Notes

 

[1] “New Incorporations.” New York Times (Mar 22, 1922), p. 23.

[2] Wadsworth, H. L. “Sound Recording and Reproducing Machine.” U.S. Patent #1,312,461 (filed Mar 7, 1917; granted Aug 5, 1919).

[3] Memorandum of Agreement Between the Metal Disc Recording Company, Inc., and Henry L. Wadsworth (May 11, 1922.

[4] Emerson, Victor H. “Record for Talking Machines and Method of Making the Same.” U.S. Patent #1,444,960 (filed April 25, 1921; granted February 13, 1923).

[5] “Kodisk Placed on Market.” Talking Machine World (May 1922), p. 33.

[6] Cooke, Douglas H. Unpublished manuscript, c. 1930.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Emerson Foundation Co., Inc. Stock certificate issued to A. T. Emerson (Mar 10, 1927).

[9] Emerson Foundation Co., Inc. Letter to Frederick H. Sanborn (Aug 14, 1929).

[10] Memorandum of Agreement Between the Metal Recording Disc Company, Inc., and Frederick H. Sanborn (September 21, 1927).

[11] Blevins, Jacques E. Letter to A. T. Emerson (Jan 31, 1931).

[12] Certificate of Incorporation of Speakeophone Incorporated (Dec 30, 1927).

[13] Speak-O-Phone Corporation. U.S. trademark filings #268,321 (Aug 28, 1928) and #268,322 (Oct 10, 1928).

[14] “Tomorrow in Our Economy Basement” (ad). Philadelphia Inquirer (Sep 2, 1928).

[15] Famous-Barr Co. (advertisement). St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Sep 18, 1928).

[16] Speak-O-Phone Corp. List of Contracts (c. April 1930).

[17] Ibid.

[18] Emerson Foundation Co., Inc. Letter to Sanborn, op. cit.

[19] Agreement Between Speakeophone, Incorporated, and Speak-O-Phone Corporation of America (Aug 28, 1929).

[20] Agreement Between Emerson Foundation Company, Inc., and Speakeophone, Incorporated (Oct 5, 1929).

[21] Emerson, A. T. Memorandum for Mr. Matters (Feb 17, 1930).

[22] Blevins, Jacques E. Letter to E. A. Widmann (April 8, 1930).

[23] Sanborn, Fredrick H. Latter to E. A. Widmann (April 8, 1930).

[24] Emerson, A. T. Letter to E. A. Widmann (April 11, 1930).

[25] Blevins, Jacques E. Letter to A. T, Emerson (Jan 31, 1931).

[26] Emerson, A. T. Letter to Harriman National Bank and Trust Company (Jan 20, 1931).

[27] Agreement Between Metal Disc Recording Co, Inc., and Speakeophone Incorporated (Jan 16, 1931; amended Mar 28, 1931).

[28] Emerson Foundation Company, Inc. Resolution (Jan 22, 1931).

[29] Cooke, op. cit. Cooke and a group of associates invented what he called the Chromatron recorder in the winter of 1927, which he claimed in the document was “developed quite independently of anything of the Remsen Corporation.” It is unclear whether this was the recording device that Remsen marketed.

[30] Sanborn, Frederick H. Letter to E. A. Widmann (Oct 28, 1930).

[31] Emerson, A. T. Memorandum to E. A. Widmann (Aug 18, 1931); Widmann, E. A. Memorandum to A. T. Emerson (Aug 20, 1931).

[32] Sanborn, Frederick H. Letter to A. T. Emerson (Aug 10, 1931).

[33] Emerson, A. T. Letter to Frederick H. Sanborn (Aug 17, 1931).

[34] Emerson, A. T. Memorandum to E. A. Widmann (Sep 14, 1931).


Our thanks to Doreen Wakeman (A. T. Emerson’s grand-daughter, and Victor’s great grand-daughter) for providing the source documents and many of the graphics used in this article.


 

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