Centuries of Sound
Centuries of Sound


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Is this a new century? Difficult to get agreement on this one, but it’s certainly a new decade, and changes are very much in the air; changes that haven’t quite filtered through entirely to the mix you’re about to hear, but which are about to turn everything upside-down – the beginning of a “music business” or “music industry” in terms which are much more familiar to us than anything seem so far – all due to the kind of duplicitous shenanigans which will also seem typical of the business in the 20th century.

The story of the technology so far was a friendly-ish war of two competing standards – Edison’s wax cylinders (still the dominant form) and Emile Berliner’s flat discs. Born in Hanover in 1851, Berliner emigrated to the USA in 1870 to avoid being drafted for the Franco-Prussian War, and found work for the sometime Edison-affiliated Bell Telephone after inventing an improved telephone transmitter. In the 1880s he developed his disc recording system, which produced playable discs by (probably even earlier than) 1889, when he went into business with Kammer & Reinhardt, a German toy-maker with whom he made 5-inch hard rubber discs, though this venture did not last long.

In the early 1890s, Berliner tried to start his first companies – The American Gramophone Company, which failed before issuing a single machine or disc, and the United States Gramophone Company in 1894, which had a slightly more success selling machines and 7-inch hard rubber discs. These were replaced in 1895 by shellac discs, which remained the standard until the 1930s. Through the next few years, production slowly increased, until on September 29th, 1897, his mastering plant in Washington, D.C., burned down, destroying his record manufacturing equipment and masters of recordings.

This wasn’t the end, though – Berliner managed to resume production within a few months, but in 1898 he was beset by further problems as various companies began to copy his invention. He had already shut down two of these operations when he found that one of his agents, Frank Seaman in New York, was manufacturing identical copies of his Gramophone labelled the ‘Zonophone’. He immediately cut off all supplies to the city, but was hit by a lawsuit for breach of contract from Seaman, and in 1900 an injunction was granted, ceasing all operations for the United States Gramophone Company. All attempts to have this injunction lifted were fruitless, and Berlinner eventually quit the business entirely, transferring his assets to Eldridge Johnson, who then launched the hugely successful Victor Talking Machine Company.
In 1900, the Gramophone’s patent being unenforced, recorded sound is effectively in modern terms “open source” – anyone could open a record company, and many did. In the coming years we will hear recordings from all manner of labels around the world, and when we get to the 1910s the hegemony of the Edison Cylinder and the conservatism it brings with it will be truly cracked open.

There are also another couple of interesting developments taking place in 1900. To open the mix we have a recording of Emperor Franz Josef of Austria made on Valdemar Poulsen’s telegraphone, a device which recorded sound magnetically on a thin piece of steel wire. The sound produced is remarkably different to the cylinder and disc recordings, and despite being neglected for nearly half a century, magnetic recording will become vitally important after the second world war. Another item to note here is the excerpt from a 1900 production of Cyrano de Bergerac, which is the earliest bit of film dialogue I’m able to use. But more about that soon.


Emperor Franz Joseph – Oldest Magnetic Recording On Poulsen 0:00
Edison Concert Band – Champaign Gallop 0:09
Film Soundtrack – Cyrano de Bergerac 2:11
Edison Grand Concert Band – Mr. Thomas Cat 2:36
Arthur W Haddon – Brown Wax Home Recording Of Talking 4:41
Vess L Ossman – A Coon Band Contest 5:03
Sousa’s Band – A Coon Band Contest 7:18
American Quartet – A Night Trip To Buffalo (Excerpt 1) 9:05
Arthur Collins – The Mick Who Threw The Brick 9:26
American Quartet – A Night Trip To Buffalo (Excerpt 2) 10:31
Charles P. Lowe – Brilliant Gallop 11.08
Len Spencer & George Schweinfest – The Arkansaw Traveler (Excerpt 1) 13:15
Will F. Denny – Doing His Duty-Ooty 13:27
Len Spencer & George Schweinfest – The Arkansaw Traveler (Excerpt 2) 15:41
George Schweinfest – Robin Adair 15:54
Len Spencer & George Schweinfest – The Arkansaw Traveler (Excerpt 3) 17:12
Charles D’ Almaine – Polish National Dance 17:28
Aumonier – Le Cor 19:36
Paul Daraux – Les Myrtes Sont Fletries 22:01
Choir with Alessandro Moreschi – Tui Sunt Coeli 23:26
William Jennings Bryan – Imperialism Speech (Excerpt) 25:48
Peter Dawson – The Miner’s Dream Of Home 26:10
Cal Stewart – Uncle Josh In A Chinese Laundry 29:54
Oppakekepei – Kawakami Noburo Isao 31:04
Siam Theater Ensemble (Berlin) – Kham Hom 32:30
Harry Spencer – The Absent-Minded Beggar (Kipling) 34:22
Edison Male Quartet – Vesper Service 35:30
William F. Hooley – A Record For The Children 36:38
Arthur Collins – Mandy Lee 37:18
Frank Kennedy – Schultz At The Paris Exposition 40:51
Peerless Orchestra – Hail To The Spirit Of Liberty 41:26
Wilson Gabo, Cora Gabo And Unidentified Accompanists – Brown Wax Home Recording Of Harmonica Solo Talking 43:40
Vess L Ossman – The Old Folks At Home 45:04
Performer Not Given – Brown Wax Home Recording 47:27

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