Len Spencer Arrested (1897)

Russell Hunting wasn’t the only recording-industry pioneer to be arrested in the 1890s. In March 1897, Len Spencer and two of the Emerson brothers were taken into custody in Newark, New Jersey, charged with stealing cylinders from the United States Phonograph Company.

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Len Spencer’s Phonoscope biography, 1898

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The trouble began in early 1897, after Spencer and the Emersons (Victor H., George E., and Clyde D.) resigned from United States Phonograph to work for the American Graphophone Company (Columbia).

According to the charges, Spencer, George Emerson, and Clyde Emerson took a substantial number of records from U.S. Phonograph, which they allegedly sold to a “rival concern.” The company was not identified in the press reports, but quite likely it was Columbia, which had a history of copying other companies’ cylinders and marketing them as their own (see, for example, American Graphophone Co. v. United States Phonograph Co., et al., U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey, In Equity No. 4005, an 1898 case in which Calvin Child confirmed the practice).

Victor Emerson was not charged. Details of the arrest were reported by the New York Sun on March 9, 1897:

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But unlike Hunting, who went to jail for three months for making and peddling “obscene” records, Spencer and the two Emersons  escaped unscathed. On March 25, 1897, the prosecutor declared that the state had no case, and defendants were discharged.

A few weeks later, Spencer formally announced his employment by Columbia:

 

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Spencer didn’t remain exclusive to Columbia for long, and by the early 1900s he had reclaimed his former status as one of the most prolific studio free-lancers. Victor Emerson went on to serve long and well as Columbia’s chief recording engineer before resigning in 1914 to launch his own label.

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The Record Marconi Didn’t Invent: The True Story Behind the “Marconi” Velvet Tone Record (1906–1908)

(This is an expanded version of an article that originally appeared in 2011 on the Mainspring Press website. © 2016 by Allan Sutton)

 

By 1905 the lateral-cut disc record had assumed the basic form that it would take for the next four decades. Brittle shellac-based thermoplastic compounds — basically unchanged since their first use in Berliner’s discs in the 1890s — remained the standard pressing material. The notable exception in the United States was the Marconi Velvet Tone disc, a semi-flexible laminated celluloid disc produced by the American Graphophone Company (Columbia).

 

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Ten-inch Marconi issues (left) used their own catalog numbers, which don’t correspond to Columbia’s. Twelve-inch issues (right) used Columbia’s catalog numbers; this example also shows Marconi’s receding hairline, which was retouched (left)
on later printings.

 

Capitalizing on Guglielmo Marconi’s reputation as the inventor of radio, Columbia offered him a position as “consulting physicist” in 1906. 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. Upon arrival, the inventor was treated to a whirlwind tour of Columbia’s Bridgeport, Connecticut plant, then was shuttled to a lavish banquet at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel as Columbia’s guest of honor. Edward Easton, Victor H. Emerson, and other Columbia officials spoke briefly, vaguely alluding to Marconi’s experimental radio work without mentioning how it might possibly relate to phonograph records.

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. Little more was heard of the alliance until February 1907, when Columbia dealers received advance copies of the first Marconi Velvet Tone Record catalog. The records, bearing Marconi’s portrait and facsimile signature, were advertised as “Wonderful as Wireless,” although they used ordinary acoustically recorded Columbia masters.

Marconi, however, apparently had no hand in developing the discs that bore his name. His sole contribution appears to have been allowing Columbia to license 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, on July 9, 1906 — nearly six weeks before Marconi’s brief visit to the States — Columbia’s chief engineer, Thomas H. Macdonald, had filed a patent application on a flexible, lightweight laminated disc with a celluloid playing surface:

 

marconi-patent
Thomas Macdonald’s patent on the “Marconi” disc 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)

 

Macdonald’s patent wasn’t approved until August 6, 1907, by which time the Marconi discs had already been in production for six months. In the meantime, Columbia’s chief recording engineer, Victor Emerson, had filed his own patent on a disc pressed from a shellac–celluloid compound, which he promptly assigned to American Graphophone. Although it’s certainly possible that this or a similar mixture, rather than pure celluloid, was employed in the Marconi discs, chemical testing would be required to determine if that was the case:

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Victor Emerson’s 1906 patent for a hybrid celluloid-shellac disc. Emerson also patented a laminated shellac disc, which Macdonald then refined and patented himself. Assigned to American Graphophone, it became the basis for the familiar Columbia laminated pressings.

 

Macdonald’s patent specifications were exactly those that would come to be embodied in the “Marconi” discs. 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.

 

MSP_marconi_notices

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

The surface quality of the celluloid Marconi Velvet Tone Record was indeed exceptional for its day, especially when compared with Columbia’s standard, rather gritty shellac pressings. Columbia was soon manufacturing Marconi-style records for export as well as domestic sales, and even produced some double-sided issues and a few pressings from imported Fonotipia masters.

Sales lagged, however. The records were more expensive than the ordinary Columbia pressings they duplicated, and the surfaces could be badly damaged if played with ordinary steel needles. They tended to slip on the turntable despite the textured reverse sides. Production was discontinued in 1908, and by 1910 the discs were being remaindered by a New York department store for 17¢ each, and a packet of the once-pricey gold-plated needles was given free with larger purchases.

Columbia Twentieth Century (BC “Half-Foot”) Cylinder Record List

Click here for a basic listing — catalog numbers / artists / titles — of Columbia’s very scarce and collectible Twentieth Century cylinders, which the company called “Half-Foot Long Records” in their advertising. (You’ll need Acrobat or Acrobat reader to open the file.) Like their smaller XP siblings, these usually lack artist credits on the rims. A much more detailed listing is in the works for The Columbia Cylinderography, which is being developed for publication by Mainspring Press.

The photo, from our recent Denver warehouse haul, shows the two basic box types. Our initial fear on seeing the “Plain Jane” boxes (which we’d not seen before) was that they might contain dictation cylinders; happily, they held real BC’s, and the matching numbered lids turned up at the bottom of the crate. The “Half Foot Long” ad below is from 1906. The records (which required the purchase of a new machine) never caught on and were discontinued in 1908.

DENVER-LOT_col-BC_group1COLUMBIA_BC-cyl-ad