The Mystery of the Universal Autophone
by Bill Pratt
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
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
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.
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.
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
as it came equipped with 6
EverReady batteries seen on the floor beneath the table.
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
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
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
of this invention and it would clearly be fascinating and rewarding to delve into the life of W.C. Wolfe.
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
I am grateful to Allen Koenigsberg for allowing me to
publish the blueprint first in the newsletter of the Canadian
Antique Phonograph Society.