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The Journey of an Edison Army and Navy Phonograph

The proud new owner taking delivery of an
Edison Army and Navy phonograph

For a number of years I have had an interest in history of the Great War and have researched extensively my grandfather`s participation in the 11th Canadian Mounted Rifles which was part of the 4th Canadian Division, Canadian Expeditionary Forces, and was deployed to Vimy Ridge. Many Canadian soldiers were lost but Edmond Jorre de St-Jorre may be considered one of the lucky ones.

As a young boy beginning phonograph and record collecting with my father in 1975, I have always targeted my collecting and had a fascination for World War 1 recordings. As early as 1983, upon visiting the Edison National Historic Site for the first time, in West Orange, N.J., my father and I saw an Edison Army and Navy (A&N) phonograph on display.

With the centenary of the beginning of the Great War fast approaching, in the past few years I had intensified my efforts to locate an Edison Army and Navy phonograph which has the special status of being the only phonograph or gramophone commercially manufactured for the First World War that could be purchased for, or sold only to servicemen.

A few Edison A&N models have appeared on e-Bay over the years but usually in varied states of disrepair and incompleteness. In fact, it is believed that many of these machines were left on the battlefields of France because it was considered too expensive to transport a 100-pound phonograph.

Jean-Paul Agnard with A&N model at
KOA Campground near Kingston, Ontario

On June 18, 2013, I received a tip from a collector friend in the Maritimes who noticed an Edison A&N phonograph being advertised on e-Bay from a seller located in St-Anne de Beaupré, QC. The collector was none other than Jean-Paul Agnard, who has his Edison Phonograph Museum there and has collected for many years.

Jean-Paul had acquired the A&N model from Cedarville, Ohio for resale. After some discussion, we arrived at an understanding and I became the proud owner of the phonograph in the summer of 2013. Jean-Paul, who attends a number of phonograph- and antiquerelated shows annually, offered to deliver the phonograph to me as far as Kingston, Ontario, in September when he would be attending an outdoor antique sale and show nearby. I was to meet him at the KOA Campground in Kingston on September 6, 2013.

Early on September 6, 2013, I set out for Perth, Ontario, to rendezvous with my good friend John Harrison, collector and fellow CAPS member, who had kindly offered to assist me in moving the Edison A&N machine to my residence in Ottawa.

Once back in Ottawa, I stored the machine on my summer porch until it could be properly cleaned up to bring inside. To a large extent, it was in its original untouched attic/cellar fresh state. One initial attempt to play the phonograph established that it required an entire overhaul and lubrication of its mechanism and spring. It was then evident that it needed to travel out again to pay a visit to Bob Nix, the Gramophone Doctor, who lives in Sarnia, Ontario, for an annual general physical and mechanical overhaul.

Discovery and the Ensuing Research

Presentation of the Edison Army
and Navy at the Edison laboratory

Meanwhile, during the general cleaning and inspection of the cabinet of the Army phonograph, I noticed at a certain time of day, when the light was reflecting off the lid, some highly faded and rather ghostly lettering was appearing which I hoped would provide some clues as to its history. After some careful forensics, including a very artful use of trace paper and penciling by my wife Lynn, it became apparent that there was a series of acronyms providing some significant clues to the machine`s military history. It was customary with those Edison A&Ns that actually went into active service, for the regiment to repaint their identification acronyms over what used to say "The New Edison – Army and Navy Model".

The first acronym, USMC, denoted the United States Marine Corps; the 2nd acronym, ACO, denoted Allied Command Operations; the 3rd acronym, 13 REG, denoted 13th Regiment, and the last acronym, AEF, denoted American Expeditionary Forces. More difficult to decipher was the lettering indicating that the machine was the property of a sergeant attached to the 13th Regiment. Unfortunately, the name of the individual soldier had mostly worn off the surface. The only clue as to the owner is that information relayed by the estate of the family in Ohio who had an ancestor who fought in WWI. Fully accurate or not, the story they told was that he was not in very good health and was assigned to keep the phonograph in his possession as the group he fought with traveled around Europe. When the war ended, he was given the phonograph to bring home. Normally, it was customary to run lotteries to determine who would get the phonographs to take home as souvenirs, so that the explanation provided that it was given to the sergeant is not beyond the realm of possibility.

Armed with this information, I then embarked to find out two things: 1) any additional information about this little-known Edison phonograph model, with the assistance of the archivist and curator at the Edison National Historic Site, and 2) any military information available that would provide insight about the phonograph`s particular travels into the arena of war.

Colonel Smedley Darlington Butler,
1st Commander of the 13 Regiment, USMC

Edison had heard that every German U-boat was well equipped with a gramophone and a good collection of records, whereas nothing was organized to entertain the Allied forces. It then became his mission to retool and produce a military phonograph that would be sold at cost in order to supply every battalion with musical entertainment overseas.

The information in the George L. Frow book entitled "The Edison Disc Phonographs and the Diamond Discs", although informative, does not provide extensive information about the Edison A&N model and little about this machine has survived. A consultation with Leonard DeGraaf, archivist at the Edison National Historic Site, confirmed that there is not much information available on the model . Recently in their cataloguing efforts, however, they had discovered a very interesting 1917 picture of a presentation of an Edison A&N model to a military group, presided over by a young Charles Edison at the age of 27 years. Further research in The New York Times uncovered the occasion to be on July 19, 1917, when Charles Edison presented an Edison Army and Navy phonograph to the 5th New Jersey Infantry as part of their promotion of the launch of the new Edison Army Navy model.

Also mentioned in the NY Times article was that the phonograph had been field tested in open air and could be distinctly heard for 200 yards. Helpful to achieving this feat is that the phonograph sports a Model 250-size horn – the same as the Official Laboratory Model. As well, there were a number of machines that were presented to the U.S. Military during the debut of the model`s launch, including the presentation of two machines purchased by Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt, who obtained the first one produced for her husband, the Colonel of the 22nd New York Engineers, and a second one for the Royal Horse Guards of London. There was also a debut presentation of the Edison Army and Navy phonograph at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City.

Brigadier General Eli K. Cole,
Commander of the Fifth Brigade, USMC

The second related discussion with the Edison curators entailed theories as to the number of phonograph units that may have been produced and where in the Edison Phonograph Division`s system of serial numbering the A&N Model designations began. The consensus of Jean-Paul Agnard, Jerry Fabris at the Edison Historic Site and myself seems to suggest that production likely began at serial #1000 or #1001 for the Army Navy model. My particular Edison Army Phonograph’s number is #1862, but among the two army machines that reside at the Edison West Orange Lab, the highest serial number is #3280. So thus far, with the absence of any surviving production figures in the Edison Archives to make our work easier and using a very small sample, we may surmise that there were close to 2,500 units produced over an 18 month period, from July 1917 to November 1918, when the model was discontinued at the close of the war.

The Story of Old #1862

I now turn to the second part of my research relating to #1862’s military service in France. The 13th Regiment was activated on July 3, 1916 under the command of Colonel Smedley D. Butler, as part of the Fifth Marine Brigade formed by the United States Marine Corps, and the regiment arrived in France near the end of the war to carry out a variety of non-combat duties. To provide the greater context of American mobilisation, American troops started arriving in France in June 1917. President Woodrow Wilson had required that every U.S. man, regardless of citizenship, be registered for the draft. By the end of World War I, about 24 million men had been registered, of which 2.8 million entered active service. The largest wave of U.S. troops was sent overseas by early 1918 to assist in the Allied defence against the Germans’ "Operation Michel", their final attempt to break the stalemate in the trenches.

The USS HENDERSON at the Philadelphia Navy Yard
on June 9, 1917, preparing for her trial trip

Upon the cession of hostilities, the Fifth Marine Regiment was deactivated on September 1, 1919. On September 5, 1918, Brigadier General Eli K. Cole was designated as commander of the Fifth Brigade, which was composed of the 11th and 13th Regiments and the Fifth Machine Gun Battalion.

On September 13, 1918, the 13th Regiment left the Overseas Depot at Quantico, Virginia for Hoboken, New Jersey. Once in Hoboken, the Thirteenth Regiment sailed on board the USS Henderson for Brest, France. The USS Henderson had space for 1,500 men and 24 mules and travelled to France eight times to provide much needed troops and supplies for the Allies. She also established two large base hospitals in France in 1917.

Also sailing with the USS Henderson for Brest was the Von Steuben, which transported Commander General Eli Cole and the Fifth Brigade staff. Brest, a port city in the Bretagne Region of France, was the debarkation point for U.S. troops during World War 1.

Given the above information, and that the owner of the phonograph was a Sergeant of the 13th Regiment, one can surmise that the Edison Army Navy #1862 therefore travelled on USS Henderson with the 13th Regiment to France. The last mile in the Edison A&N Phonograph’s journey concluded in January 2014, when it returned from Bob Nix via John Harrison from the CAPS meeting in Toronto. With a couple of additional tracking adjustments and a brand new old-stock reproducer, the phonograph sounds just as good as the day it left the assembly line in West Orange, N.J.

The reason for my acquiring an Army Navy Phonograph was to promote awareness of the centennial of the Great War. It was my privilege on July 1, 2014, to be invited to participate as part of a special exhibit commemorating the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the war at the Billings Estate National Historic Site in Ottawa, Ontario. The theme of the exhibit was viewing the war from the home front, presenting many of the activities undertaken to support the mission of the Canadian Expeditionary Forces. This story included Thomas Edison’s efforts to encourage his jobbers to “do their bit” by pushing the sale of Army and Navy Phonographs to soldiers and as well as to civilians who were welcome to purchase them for the battalions embarking for France. As part of this story, Old #1862 had its opportunity to play once more for the public and did not disappoint.

The Edison A&N phonograph at the July 1st World War I Display, Billings Estate National Historic Site, Ottawa, Ontario