Skip to content

The Zonophone caused all the trouble

1898 zonophone

You’ve heard the name RCA Victor. It grew out of the Victor Talking Machine Company. The man behind Victor Talking Machine was not named Victor, however. So where’d the name come from?

Before Victor, there is Emile Berliner. First person to bring to market Thomas Edison’s phonograph invention on a wide scale.

Emile Berliner organizes the United States Gramophone Company in 1893, and begins commercial development of machines and discs for the American market. The first discs on the E. Berliner’s Gramophone label are offered for sale in November 1894. In 1895, he organizes the Berliner Gramophone Company, which operates recording studios in Washington, New York and Philadelphia.

Emile Berliner’s shop assistant in Philadelphia sees an ad for a clockwork sewing machine motor in a Camden, NJ newspaper. He thinks such a motor might work to power a gramophone, and tracks down its inventor, at the Scull Bicycle Repair, to commission said motor. 

The design doesn’t work. But the mechanic in charge of the repair shop, Eldridge Johnson, takes an interest in the problem, sees what is needed, and submits his own idea for a motor. And that one works. Johnson’s motor is in fact better than any other phonograph motors of the day.

Johnson leaves behind bicycle repair to sign on with Berliner Gramophone and take charge of building the gramophone players. 

On the marketing side of things, Emile Berliner has signed on National Gramophone as its exclusive US distributor. Things go along fine for a few years. But then Frank Seaman, president of National Gramophone, gets involved as a backer of a separate company, Universal Talking Machine, which in March 1898 markets the Zonophone (an “improved gramophone,” it announces in its ads). Emile Berliner is furious over this obvious conflict of interest, and refuses to continue supplying National Gramophone.

Emile Berliner with one of his 1890s gram-o-phones.
Emile Berliner with one of his 1890s gram-o-phones.

Seaman sues Berliner Gramophone for breach of contract. Emile Berliner counters by folding Berliner Gramophone assets into his United States Gramophone to shield the former from Seaman. Seaman seeks an injunction to block merger of those two. 

Emile Berliner counters by assigning his company patents to Eldridge Johnson’s newly formed (July 1900) Consolidated Talking Machine, on the assumption that Berliner will maintain a controlling interest in the new entity, with Johnson as CEO. Johnson, meanwhile, has his own plans. He had taken out a permit to build a factory in Camden, NJ in June 1899.

On Oct 8, 1900 Judge John J. Jackson grants an injunction in Frank Seaman vs. United States Gramophone Co. to prevent United States and Berliner Gramophone from uniting under the name of Consolidated Talking Machine Company.

“Seaman alleges he has a contract with Berliner,” states the judge, “to purchase its entire output and to have exclusive control of it; that he has made purchases of over half a million dollars and has ordered many hundred machines, which Berliner refuses to supply, because the United States Gramophone Company has obtained control of it and wishes to break the contract.”

Eldridge R. Johnson
Eldridge R. Johnson

The alliance opposing Seaman is crumbling behind the scenes. Eldridge Johnson has no desire to remain under Emile Berliner’s thumb. Even as the Seaman lawsuit challenges the two of them, Berliner Gramophone and the board of Consolidated Talking Machine Co. file bills of equity in court against Johnson “asking to have defendant restrained from the making of certain advertisements alleged to encroach on their rights.”

The Seaman lawsuit grinds on for several more months. Then, in February 1901, Seaman’s attorney files a motion to dismiss the case ‘under Rule 16’ (a technicality that says ‘the record was not filed in 30 days after the prayer of appeal was made in open court.’)

Seaman tries again, this time in a different circuit court (Philadelphia). On March, 2 1901 he files an injunction not against Berliner, but against Eldridge Johnson directly. On May 16 a Judge McPherson denies the motion for an injunction for Seaman; and the following day the court rules in favor of Johnson. Case dismissed. This is the last time Seaman presents any serious roadblock to Eldridge Johnson or Emile Berliner.

In late 1901 Johnson reorganizes the Consolidated Talking Machine as the Victor Talking Machine Co. and breaks with Berliner permanently. He moves ahead building the factory he’d secured a permit for two years prior, not in Philadelphia, which might subject him to possible ongoing Pennsylvania legal threats, but in Camden, NJ. New state, new entity with no legal back history.

Victor. Not a name at all. A synonym for ‘Winner.’ 

In perhaps a satisfying twist of fate, Eldridge Johnson in 1904 purchases Frank Seaman’s Universal Talking Machine Company assets, as that company’s Zonophone utterly fails on the open market.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *