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Antique Phonograph News
Canadian Antique Phonograph Society


Sep-Oct 2004

Jan-Feb Mar-Apr May-Jun Jul-Aug Sep-Oct Nov-Dec
At The Auction
by Mark Caruana

Over the last few years I have come across many phonograph related items on Ebay that are notable only in that they are strange, and sometimes rather hard to believe. I thought that this time I would show off a few of these.

Our first item is one that I know was a popular conversion made in the 70’s to take advantage of the many Victrola cabinets that were no longer useful. In order to display a modern stereo in a vintage format, people sometimes converted these Victrola cabinets to house stereos as can be seen with the one illustrated. Surprisingly (?) this phonograph failed to attract any bidders with an opening bid of $90.00 (all prices in $US).

In the same category of making use of spare Victrola parts, I came across this very well crafted wind up trawler for fishing which utilized a phonograph motor to wind in the fishing line. The case is magnificent and interested enough people to gather $76.00 in 12 bids which did not meet this items reserve.

As I am sure many readers can relate, every once in a while I am contacted by someone who has a 78 RPM Caruso record from the 20’s who is sure they have something worth a fortune. I am not too familiar with 78’s but I have seen enough of these to know that most if not all of these are quite common. After all, he was the most popular artist of his day, selling millions of records. One seller decided to put one on Ebay - Boheme-Vicchia-Zimarra with a radio program, The Voice That Lives, with Wally Butterworth on the reverse. The seller attributes its rarity to the fact that only one was made. Unfortunately, it failed to reach its opening bid of $20,000.00. Someone let me know if I missed a great deal on that one?

I don’t know how anyone could have passed on the next item, an Edison Gold Molded cylinder box with a jug of some sort forced into it. Even the low-resolution picture speaks for itself. Opening bid $125.00.

I thought that the last item I show would be something truly interesting I came across a while back but did not have the space to highlight. This very desirable item was a book I believe was put together as a gift to all those who participated in a yearly camping trip which included Thomas Edison, Harvey Firestone, Henry Ford and John Burroughs, among others for several years around 1920. This 12 ¼ by 9 ¼ inch book is ¾ inches thick and contains numerous photos among its 60 pages documenting the camping and touring trips made by this illustrious group, which sometimes included President Harding or President Coolidge. This copy, privately printed for the 1918 trip went for a modest $975.00 to one lone bidder.

Working Phonautograph
by Jean-Paul Agnard

For years I have been interested in the Phonautograph, a device invented by Leon Scott de Martinville in 1857 which was used to make tracings onto a carbon-coated drum which rotated under a bristle connected to a diaphragm. As sound was projected into a horn it was concentrated onto the diaphragm and the vibrations were etched onto the moving drum. The result was a visual display of the recorded sound waves. Surprisingly, it did not occur to Martinville that if permanent etchings of these were made, they could be played back producing the first recording/reproducing device years ahead of Thomas Edison’s tinfoil phonograph. In fact this brilliant leap was made by a Frenchman Charles Cros, who proposed a device to do just that. Unfortunately, Cros could not raise the capital to develop his device.

Several years ago I had the idea that if I could find original Phonautograph recordings, dating as far as 1857, it would be possible, with modern technology to make them talk. The prospects seemed very exciting, as we could hear voices dating as far back as 20 years before Edison’s invention of the tinfoil phonograph, which was first used in 1877.

I first contacted several European museums with Phonautographs (Teylers museum of Haarlem, Netherlands and Utrech University museum in Germany) to see if they still had in their archives any remaining such recordings. Unfortunately I was unsuccessful but I decided to pursue other avenues and not give up.

I then contacted the Musée de la Civilisation in Quebec City, Quebec, Canada, as I knew they had a Duhamel Vibroscope (the cylinder device that was later used with the Phonautograph, which was also used before its invention to take traces of diapasons). During a discussion with the curator of the museum, I was told that a strange huge funnel existed, somewhere in their storage. Later when I had the opportunity to visit, I recognized at once, the recording Phonautograph horn when they showed it to me.

The remaining problem was to find the all the parts missing at the end of the horn. My efforts to borrow the ones belonging to the Tyler museum in order to make a copy were not a success, as they refused to lend me the parts.

Back at the Musée de la Civilisation in Quebec, with a new curator, our common effort to find the missing parts during an afternoon was at last crowned with success. The Phonautograph being now complete, the last thing I had to do was to ask them to loan me the machine, in order for me to be able make new paper recordings. I felt this was the next logical step, as it seemed to me that it was going to be very difficult to acquire original old recordings.

I am pleased to say that I have been successful in making recordings onto paper and now with this important step finished I am attempting to experiment with my original goal of reproducing these recordings. Once this is done we would have proof that the idea of playing back these extremely old Phonautograph recordings was possible. The last thing left to do would be to contact museums around the world and encourage them to look under their dust piles to find such old recordings as we will now have in our hands the power to make them talk.

The Retrophone That Ate The RCA Brand
by Keith Wright

Listen-up, class. Today we have the opportunity to change our field guides due to recently reported observations in the wild. Please get out your copy of Phonograph and Talking Machine Identification and turn to the section at the back labelled False Phonos. We will now add another page after Crapophones (whose most identified species is the common Sri Lankan portablepartis cobbledyesterdayus) and Frankenphones (whose most identified species is victrolis foghornaddedus). We will call it 'Retrophones'. This is listed as a new family of False Phonos even though superficially some of them are indistinguishable from Crapophones—it's when you get closer that you see the CD player.

Enough levity. Feast your eyes on the new machines first brought to my attention by some one who spotted them at the US Consumer Electronics Show. A company called Polyconcept USA is marketing a series of machines with the RCA brand that house modern electronics within 'classic looking' (I guess) cases. Of particular interest to readers of APN are the 'Newport', 'Brenton' and 'Lawton' turntables which appear to be the modern hexagonal-box Sri Lankan outside-horn knock-offs—but which house respectively 'CD & PLL radio', 'Analog radio' and 'Analog radio and CD'. If that isn't disturbing enough, this company also markets a 3 CD jukebox, 'Cathedral TV/CD', reel-to-reel media centre (with blank reels for sale), and three models of TV that look like classic Philco Predictas. (Polyconcept also has an agreement to license products under the Philco name, but the Predictas are put under RCA…oh, nevermind.) The immediate question that sprang to my mind was how did the RCA brand come to this? So, I did a bit more digging.

"RCA", the "Dog and Gramophone" and HIS MASTER'S VOICE are trademarks of RCA Trademark Management S.A., a Thomson company, used under license to Polyconcept USA, Inc. 69 Jefferson Street, Stamford, CT 06902. So says, Polyconcept. When I traced Thomson, I discovered that it is a French company that now owns the RCA brand (as well as Technicolor). As company founders, Thomson lists David Sarnoff (!) and Elihu Thomson (1853-1937). The latter is described as, "An American scientist and inventor of the electric traction machine, [who] founded the Thomson-Houston Electric Company." They go on to describe that in "1892 General Electric was formed with the merger of Thomson-Houston and Edison General Electric Companies." Then in "1893 Compagnie Française Thomson-Houston (CFTH) was established in Paris. CFTH installed a streetcar (tram) system using overhead trolleys and lines for the first time in France in the coastal city of Le Havre." Thomson then goes on to list all of the history of Victor and RCA as its own! It confused me until I reached the punch line: "1986 - RCA acquired by GE… A year-and-a-half later [1988], General Electric sold its RCA and GE consumer electronics business to Thomson." All His Master's Voice consumer electronics now have French accents.