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The Perfect Portable Gramophone

Ever drag an upright gramophone up a flight of stairs? How about a very long turn-of-the-century institutional flight? Did you do it for 'fun' and drag it back down a couple of hours later? I did it once for my very first school demonstration where I lugged my 'The Duke' model Phonola up to the back of the second floor library where they had a perfect space for me. Right then and there I decided I wouldnít do that again and made sure every subsequent piece of hardware representing the decades of recorded sound would be more portable. (At the moment I keep mentally wrestling with why Iím literally wrestling with a VV-IX. The second floor has turned into the rule and not the exception. Ever go up a couple of flights with one of those?)

Thatís how I became a little more in tune with portables. (Ok, my first was many years earlier but I got it because of the novelty that it was made by the manufacturer of my 'serious' turntable.) Then I saw my first HMV portable. The long, thin shiny tone arm and the dimensions of the black case struck me as more elegant than any other Iíd encountered. When I eventually learned the trick about taking off the platter I discovered it was a model 101. Ever hear an HMV 102? It is the product of 'orthophonic' technology and is absolutely astounding for its size. I was hookedÖagain.

As I continued to learn, it struck me that the portable was one thing that HMV did better than itís separated-by-surgery Siamese twin, Victor. The Victor Victrola 35 was the archetype for most subsequent HMV portables but except for the obvious example of the VV-50 and the VV-35 look-alike, VV 1-5, Victor in my eyes churned out a lot of ugly metal portables. But where do you go to learn more about HMV? Sure, Mr. Baumbach put out a great field guide for Victor, but youíre not going to find anything about your HMV 102 in there.

Question: The HMV 101 was made from 1925 to 1931, when it was replaced by the HMV 102. What was the last year the HMV 102 was officially available? The answer is at the end.

In 1999 Barry A. Williamson compiled and introduced the book, H.M.V. Gramophones 1921 to 1936. This slim volume was aimed, "to provide sufficient details, for most owners to determine the model number and dates when their H.M.V. gramophone was extant." It was essentially a compilation of illustrations from catalogues. I certainly found it useful after Iíd ordered it through Phonoservice in Liverpool, England. However, because of its nature and origins, the small 158 page, black and white volume did not supply everything I wanted about my portables. To be fair, though, its mandate is ALL machines between the dates in question.

You have to admit that the entire universe of knowledge regarding portable wind-up gramophones made by HMV seems a little light to produce a coffee table book such as those we get from Messerís Fabrizio and Paul. However, in 2003 I picked up The Perfect Portable Gramophone, by Dave Cooper and was surprised at how close it got. This 124 page volume, chock full of 290 colour illustrations is a worthy companion to the Williamson volume in that Cooper weaves a story between the copious pictures of machines, period advertising and other materials while concentrating on portables. Okay, it was more an end-table book. In it, there is a chapter on the 'Beginnings of a New Industry', chapters devoted to each of the major machines, a short chapter on 'The Merger of Two Giants' (Columbia and His Masterís Voice to form EMI) plus some collectorís tips including cleaning and repairs. It is an attractive volume and it was certainly a steal when I bought it online.

As an added bonus the book includes a CD of 'typical' music from the era. The transfers may not be able to compete with others and I have read some criticism of the choice of tracks which include: Armstrong with his Hot Five and Duke Ellington with his Cotton Club Orchestra; Noel Coward; Ray Noble; and Ambrose and his Orchestra. It is a slice of 1929 to 1940 with most tracks dating from 1929 to 1932. Negatives aside, between the sound of the CD and the sides it includes, I felt like I was writing this while listening through my fatherís ears 60 years ago. There is a uniform 'elegance' to whole thing. The CD 'changed the wallpaper' if you know what I mean.

I think I scored a real bargain.

Oh, and the last year the HMV 102 was available? It was 1960! A forty-year run! Just imagine that happening today. It makes sense, because electricity didnít make it everywhere ó and someone had to be buying machines to play those Beatles 78s. Unfortunately, some of the motors from those machines now end up in the ubiquitous outside-horn knock-offs (okay, I didnít want to type 'crapophone' again). They are conspicuous by the angle at which the handle sticks out. Come to think of it, theyíre easy to lug up the stairsóbut they wonít sound like a 102.