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Phonographic Ephemera:
The Mystery of the Universal Autophone

There is a magical quality to an old photograph for, in one brief instant, the telling detail of a bygone age is captured and documented. Old photographs can be a fascinating source of new information in many diverse fields of collecting, especially those that record unusual views of special subjects. To the collector interested in phonographic ephemera, nothing can be more captivating than an original image of an old talking machine seen in its original setting and none more so than one hitherto undocumented.

Since 1983 I have had in my possession the fascinating studio photograph, complete with painted studio back- ground, illustrated on the front cover of this issue of the newsletter. The photograph measures 5" x 8 1/4". When originally printed, the image had been toned a rich sepia- brown colour and it remains today crisp and unfaded.

I had long wondered about the curious machine depicted in this photograph. I had never seen anything like it illustrated nor was I aware of a single reference to a Universal Autophone in any of the phonographic literature. Above the phonograph, behind the drapes,is a canvas (?) banner which reads "ART STUDIO. W.C. WOLFE, ARTIST" and inscribed on a piece of wood (?) below the table cloth’s fringe are the words "W.C. WOLFE’S ELECTRIC". I had often wondered if the gentleman, seated beside the table and clutching a bowler hat, who stares without expression out at the camera was this W.C. Wolfe. This article is not the result of extensive sleuthing into the history of this unusual machine. The real research on the inventor and the invention is yet to be done. What I present here are speculations and the story of the various pieces of the puzzle which have slowly and in an entirely unconnected fashion come together to give us a beginning at unravelling the mystery of the Universal Autophone.

The Find

I acquired the photograph by chance. My wife, Betty, and I had completed an exhausting and, for the most part,fruit- less Labour Day weekend at the Clarence, New York, out- door antique market. As we headed for our car, Betty happened to mention that early that morning she had noticed for sale on one of the hundreds of tables strewn across the Clarence fairgrounds a photograph depicting an unusual phonograph. Reluctantly, I decided to turn back and have a look, on the off chance that the photograph had not already sold and that it held some interest. When we finally found the table, I was staggered to see lying out in the blazing late afternoon sun this fascinating turn-of-the-century photograph with a strange and, to me, completely unknown machine. The antique dealer could not recall where she got the photograph — how I wish now I could track her down and jog her memory — but after a brief bit of haggling I became its new owner for all of $12.00.

The Speculation

Detail

Since there was nothing in the literature about the machine depicted I could only speculate about a possible date and area of manufacture from the many details in the photo- graph. The Universal Autophone is a combination cylinder/disc machine. One can see the following cylinder box types, from left to right: Edison Gold-Moulded, Columbia Gold-Moulded, Edison Brown Wax Concert, Columbia Twentieth Century, Indestructible Phonographic Record [of Albany], and another Columbia Gold Moulded. The tapering tonearm, elbow and the panelled black tin horn all look distinctly Victor-like and one can see the Victor logo on the brass-belled horn resting on the floor to the right.

The machine is positioned to play a disc record although one cannot make out any of the disc labels in the photograph. At the end of the tonearm is a pre-Exhibition, possibly Concert, soundbox. In position on the cylinder mandrel is a 6" long Columbia Twentieth Century cylinder and on the table to the right of the cabinet are an extra mandrel for playing Concert size cylinders and two reproducers, including what looks like an Edison Model C.

With its capability of playing virtually every type of disc and cylinder available at the time, the Autophone certainly comes honestly by its designation "Universal". It also apparently was electrically-powered as it came equipped with 6 EverReady batteries seen on the floor beneath the table.

The Clues

As a possible clue to the Autophone’s city of manufacture, one can see, with a magnifying lens, the words "Philadelphia" and "Designers, Illustrators, and Engravers" on a corner of the blotter behind the cabinet.

In 1987, in my capacity as Secretary of the Society, I happened to be corresponding with Bill Klinger, CAPS member from Ohio, U.S.A. Bill researches cylinder records, their history and technology, and is especially interested in U.S. Everlasting and Lakeside cylinders. His personal cylinder patent database, at that time, contained about 800 patents relating to cylinder record technology and he offered to search this database for any information about either a Universal Autophone or a W.C. Wolfe.

Bill was aware of several attempts at combining the cylinder/disc playback function in a single "universal" phonograph but he could not find a single occurrence of either an Autophone or a reference to a "Wolfe" in his database. Taking a cue from the Philadelphia reference on the blotter, he searched all of the patents that stated "Philadelphia, PA" as Inventor Location. None of them described a combined cylinder/disc phonograph in any obvious manner in the Invention Name.

From the cylinder box types in the photograph, Bill concluded that the last type to appear was the Albany Indestructible, coming on the market in 1907. The particular box design here was also an early one, used for perhaps only a year or so. Also, the absence of later celluloid types like Blue Amberols or U.S. Everlastings suggested that the photo predated 1909.

Bill also observed that it looked like the words "UNIVERSAL AUTOPHONE" and "ELECTRIC" were somehow added to the photo — although they are definitely not printed on top of the image — and were not actually marked on the phonograph or on the supporting table. The curious fact that the word "AUTOPHONE" on the front of the cabinet has a period at the end would appear to support this.

Piecing Together the Puzzle

Universal Autophone, blueprint courtesy of Allen Koenigsberg

Up to this point I was still no further ahead at placing the Universal Autophone into its phonographic niche. Except for what we could glean from the photograph itself, there still appeared to be no other reference to such a machine. It always puzzled me, as well, whether the man in the photo- graph was the proud inventor or merely a bystander, and whether someone named W.C. Wolfe was the inventor of the machine or whether the photograph just happened to be taken in the studio of a W.C. Wolfe.

A major piece to the puzzle was added in 1991. Out of the blue I received a telephone call from Bill who brought to my attention an ad in the VoL IX - NO. 3 issue of Antique Phonograph Monthly. There the editor, Allen Koenigsberg, had advertised in the Phonographs Wanted section: "Does anyone own a Universal Autophone (electric), ca. 1908? Plays cylinders and discs, 2" & 5" and 20th Century, even Aretinos!" This was the first indication that I had had that anyone else had ever heard of this machine.

It turned out that Allen had found, by chance, at the Newark Phono Show about 2 1/2 years before, an original blueprint of the Universal Autophone folded inside a 78 Decca record jacket! Finally, more tangible evidence had come to light to prove the existence of this invention.

The blueprint, illustrated, verifies that W.C. Wolfe "designed, delineated and constructed" the Universal Autophone (here shown hyphenated — "AUTO-PHONE). I believe that we may now reasonably assume that it is Mr. Wolfe who is captured in the photograph. The blueprint was drawn at Lilly, PA and dated 1906. We were not far off with our attribution to Philadelphia and our speculation of a 1907-8 date for the photograph seems entirely justified. W.C. Wolfe was very much a "renaissance" man: he was an artist (from the photograph) and also a mechanical engineer, draughtsman, machinist, boiler maker and manager of Industrial Machine Works (from the blueprint). The blueprint also reveals that the Universal Autophone could also be crank-wound although a crank is not visible in the photograph.

W.C. Wolfe apparently did not patent his invention or, at least, no phonographic patent for W.C. Wolfe has been traced. With only a blueprint to show for it and with- out the evidence of the photograph, one might have assumed that not even a model was ever constructed. It is unlikely that this machine was ever commercially available. Is it too much to hope that the single example depicted in the photograph might some day surface?

There is still much work to be done into researching the background of this invention and it would clearly be fascinating and rewarding to delve into the life of W.C. Wolfe.

Acknowledgements

I am grateful to Bill Klinger for sharing his cylinder patent research in hopes of unravelling the puzzle of the photo- graph. Bill has also been the catalyst which eventually brought the photograph and blueprint together to shed whatever light has so far been possible on a remarkable invention.

I am grateful to Allen Koenigsberg for allowing me to publish the blueprint first in the newsletter of the Canadian Antique Phonograph Society.