Cowboys and Indies

The Epic History of the Record Industry

Gareth Murphy

Thomas Dunne Books



The story begins in Paris. The tangled branches—producers, labels, and recording artists—that form the record industry’s genealogical tree can be traced back to one precise point. The year was 1853. In a little bookstore on rue Vivienne, a man was sitting in a chair, reading.

The man, a thirty-six-year-old typesetter named Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville, was proofreading a physics manuscript. He turned a page and was struck by a diagram of sound waves. Fascinated by these curling lines, he began dreaming of a machine.

After chewing over the question for years, he came to a simple but ingenious conclusion—just copy nature. His sound-writing machine would have to be a type of mechanical ear attached to a pen. A barrel-shaped receptor would capture incoming sounds, the way the outer ear directs sound into the eardrum. Two elastic membranes would reproduce the work of the eardrum; a system of levers would replicate the three minute bones in the middle ear that transmit vibrations from the air to the liquid interior. A boar’s hair attached to the end of this mechanical ear would engrave the vibrations on a glass surface blackened with soot.

On March 25, 1857, he deposited a design with the French Academy of Sciences. Later that year he was granted a patent for his phonautograph, or sound-writer, the earliest known sound-recording device.

Scott de Martinville lacked the skills to build a working prototype, so he found a craftsman, Rudolph Koenig. His atelier was located on Île Saint-Louis, the little island in the heart of Paris, within walking distance from Scott de Martinville’s bookshop. The two men met sporadically to assess progress, until on April 9, 1860, the earliest known recording of a human voice was engraved in soot on a glass surface. Prophetically, its inventor didn’t speak but sang “Au clair de la lune,” a traditional lullaby. “Under the moonlight, my dear friend, Pierrot, / Lend me your plume to write a word down. / My candle has died, I haven’t got a light. / Open your door, for the love of God.”

This was the golden age of science journals and exhibitions; ideas were circulating faster and over greater distances than ever before. In 1866, a telegraph cable was laid across the floor of the Atlantic Ocean, bringing Europe and America into a new era of instantaneous communication. For young, inquisitive minds with the genius to tap into the hidden wonders of science, the Victorian period was a time of immense opportunity.

In 1860, one such genius was a teenager in Scotland by the name of Alexander Graham Bell, Aleck to his family. He is remembered as the inventor of the telephone, but he also carried the work of the Paris pioneers across the Atlantic to the communications revolution about to explode in America. As a philanthropist and committed believer in sound innovation, he indirectly played midwife to Columbia Records, the industry’s oldest company and one of its most prolific. The sonic unit known as a bel, as in decibel, was named after him.

What makes Bell unusual is the role of deafness in motivating his tireless research. His grandfather was a respected speech therapist for deaf children. His father, Melville Bell, invented a system of phonetic notation called Visible Speech, which showed the position of lips, teeth, and tongue for each sound and was used in teaching the deaf to speak. His mother herself was deaf. From a young age, Aleck understood that deaf people suffered less from silence than from the crippling frustration of not being able to communicate. The disability landed many of them in prisons or mental asylums.

Aleck worked from the age of sixteen as an elocution teacher in London and Edinburgh. Meanwhile, Melville Bell began receiving invitations to demonstrate his Visible Speech in American universities. Increasingly intolerant of the cynicism in English scientific circles, Bell senior began to admire the spirit of curiosity and opportunity in the New World.

Then the hand of destiny struck the Bell family cruelly. In quick succession, both of Aleck’s brothers died of tuberculosis, a common illness in the Victorian era of coal furnaces and damp cities. When Aleck started to look ill from the exhausting demands of teaching and researching, his heartbroken mother and father made a fateful decision to take their last son out of Britain. In 1870, when Aleck was twenty-three, they sold their properties and sailed for the New World.

Choked with bereavement, the depleted Bell family bought a farm by the banks of the Grand River in Ontario. Aleck spent his first Canadian summer in a numbed state, lying on a pillow in the middle of a field, reading vacantly, for days at a time. His slow return began with curiosity about a nearby Mohawk reservation. He approached their chief, requested permission to study the Mohawk language, and was allowed to observe their school. The children’s playful company lightened his heavy heart.

Seeing that his son was in need of a fresh start, in 1874, Melville Bell used his university connections to get Aleck a job in Boston as an elocution specialist. Arriving at Boston’s train station, Aleck instantly fell in love with the city and returned to his routine of teaching and researching. It was during a school vacation back in Ontario that Bell built his own copy of Scott de Martinville’s phonautograph and began to contemplate sound machines.

Curiosity opens eyes, but there is nothing like chance encounters to open doors. As an inspirational therapist, Bell quickly made a name for himself among Boston’s deaf community. One day after a lecture, he was approached by a wealthy businessman, Gardiner Hubbard, who asked him to give private tutoring to his deaf daughter, Mabel.

While teaching Mabel Hubbard to speak, Bell began to make a lasting impression on the educated Hubbard family. A natural gentleman with impeccable manners, he measured six foot four, had greased-back jet black hair, and always dressed in a striking manner. He was also an excellent self-taught pianist who entertained his hosts with Highland ballads, Victorian waltzes, and even some Chopin sonatas he had learned by ear.

Very quickly the Hubbards adopted Bell as a member of the family. It just so happened that Gardiner Hubbard’s commercial and political energies at the time were focused on the telegraph industry. The telegraph had been the biggest communications revolution since the railway in the 1840s but had become an abusive monopoly thanks to one of America’s largest companies, Western Union. In America’s business and political lobbies, Gardiner Hubbard was a vocal campaigner for opening up the sector to competition.

While listening to Gardiner Hubbard’s views on the telegraph, Bell confessed he was developing theories about sound transmission. He felt he was close to an important breakthrough but was concerned he didn’t have a patent, or even the right to obtain an American patent, being a British citizen. Hubbard, who was an intellectual property lawyer, listened attentively and offered Bell his legal and financial support.

Hubbard wasn’t the only supporter. Thanks to his father’s connections, Bell befriended a professor in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who kept him up to date on innovations being debated in the scientific community. Bell’s new landlady, Mrs. Sanders, treated him as an adopted son and secretly redecorated an entire room in the house. For his twenty-seventh birthday, she organized a surprise party; surrounded by his deaf pupils, and weeping with happiness, Bell was given his very own laboratory.

Working eighteen-hour days, seven days a week, the pale, exhausted Bell often suffered acute migraines. He grasped the general principle for a telephone but dared not even share his ideas, rightly sensing that other inventors were on the same trail. One night while playing piano in the Hubbard drawing room, Bell stopped dead and stood up. He had realized the significance of a game he often played on his old piano in Scotland: singing any note into the piano’s sound box made its corresponding piano string vibrate harmonically. Two voices singing two different notes would vibrate the two corresponding strings. Therefore, if multiple harmonic signals could be transmitted and received through the air, they could also pass through a single wire.

Gardiner Hubbard convinced Bell to focus his efforts on a “harmonic telegraph” and used his connections to get Bell a demonstration with Western Union boss William Orton.

Two years previously, Orton had bought the patents for a system invented by a young telegraph operator, Thomas Edison, who had devised a method for four-way telegraph traffic by means of differences in current strength and polarity. Unfortunately, he had just bought the patent for a harmonic telegraph invented by a certain Elisha Gray. Smiling knowingly, the powerful telegraph mogul showed no enthusiasm for Bell’s prototype.

Although the demonstration was a disappointment, it at least showed Bell and Hubbard what the competition was doing. Bell turned his attentions to the telephone. Hubbard began combing through the Patent Office to see if Bell’s revolutionary idea had already been claimed. Seemingly it hadn’t, but Hubbard—also sensing other inventors heading the same way—began compiling all of Bell’s letters and notes in which he had mentioned a telephone.

It was a time of intense stress for Bell, who was being tugged in different directions by everyone around him. His father was pressuring him to concentrate on his day jobs tutoring deaf children and teaching Visible Speech at Boston University. As a financial investor, Gardiner Hubbard had lost patience with the little time Bell was spending in his laboratory. To complicate matters, Bell had fallen in love with Mabel Hubbard.

Ironically, Bell’s lectures about deafness gave him vital clues. Using the phonautograph as a tool to illustrate the malfunctions that cause deafness, he became obsessed with its mechanical membrane. Realizing that his weakness was electricity, he recruited a talented electrician, Thomas Watson, and together they stumbled on the sound-transmission possibilities of electromagnetics.

Bell’s first important breakthrough was the transmitter, a sort of proto-microphone transforming audio sounds into an electrical signal. Eventually, by 1876, Bell’s telephone was officially patented, in large part thanks to Gardiner Hubbard’s legal prowess. Bell’s crowning moment, however, was winning a gold medal at the U.S. Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876. Soon everyone in the scientific and industrial community was talking about the telephone.

Destiny or coincidence? At the Philadelphia exhibition that launched the telephone, one passing visitor viewing Bell’s contraption was Emile Berliner, the man who would later invent the disc record. Although just another face in the crowd, Berliner immediately saw the Achilles’ heel in Bell’s contraption. The mouthpiece lacked transmission power, meaning the speaker had to shout to be heard at the other end.

Emile Berliner was the least likely candidate to even attempt improving Bell’s technology. He was a poor German immigrant of Jewish origin who six years previously had arrived in America to escape enlistment in the Franco-Prussian War. Working as a janitor in a chemistry laboratory, he had no scientific education whatsoever; he had worked at various odd jobs and as a shopkeeper and traveling salesman. Since the day his ship docked in America, however, Berliner had been determined to improve his station. Not only was he attending night school, he had been carefully observing how the scientists conducted their research as he cleaned up around them.

In his rented room, Berliner began his own clumsy experiments. He eventually constructed a loose-contact transmitter, which increased the volume coming through the mouthpiece. Bell bought the patent and hired Berliner into his research unit.

There was a third man watching—Thomas Edison. Now that Bell’s telephone was poised to bring upheaval to the telegraph industry, Edison reasoned that there might be a new market for vocal telegrams, replacing the old system of textual telegrams. He tried to build a keyboard telephone, a sort of typewriter capable of playing recordings.

Like Berliner, Edison had no academic discipline. He had been home-schooled by his mother in a small town in Ohio, then started working at the age of twelve selling sweets and newspapers on the railway lines. His entry into the world of science happened by accident when one day he saved a stationmaster’s son from being killed by a runaway train. As a sign of gratitude, he was given a job as a telegraph operator for Western Union. Working the night shifts, Edison conducted his own experiments until he got fired for spilling acid that leaked through the floor onto his boss’s desk. Thanks to the sale of his Quadruplex system to Western Union in 1874, he made $10,000 before the age of thirty. With this windfall he set up a laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey, where he conducted experiments into sound, light, and wireless telegraphy simultaneously.

In the frantic months after Bell’s telephone went public, Edison stumbled on a novel idea for recording sound. Because he was partly deaf, he fixed a needle to the telephone diaphragm. As it vibrated, he could feel volume levels as pinpricks. As he tinkered with this method, he realized that if modulating sound could vibrate a needle, it could indent paper and perhaps record messages the way the telegraph punched holes in a tape. His design used a needle on a revolving cylinder to engrave the sound waves.

His stroke of genius was to realize that if you could write sound, by reversing the action, the sound would be reproduced. Nobody, including the brilliant Bell, had yet realized that the giant ear on a phonoautograph could be reversed into a sound horn.

In late 1877, Edison shouted a nursery rhyme into his phonograph prototype. To his utter amazement, it played back the first time. Coincidentally, on April 30 a French poet by the name of Charles Cros, deposited a design for a sound reproduction device with the Science Academy in Paris, six months before Edison applied for his patent in America. It’s reasonable to assume that the idea of sound reproduction was in the air. The two designs were, however, fundamentally different. The Frenchman’s idea was for a revolving disc containing a spiral of laterally cut sound engravings.

The Cros design, also called a phonograph, remained unopened in an archive in Paris while Edison was developing his own machine. In December, Cros demanded that his sealed letter be opened and publicly read, suggesting that news of Edison’s invention had reached Paris very quickly.

In that winter of 1877, American newspapers were reporting Edison’s discovery of a talking machine, the popular moniker for all future record players. When he was invited to the White House to show his invention to President Rutherford B. Hayes, speculation began that the gadget might be a hoax. One day Edison got a surprise visit from the influential Bishop John Heyl Vincent, who shouted a flood of obscure biblical references into the trumpet. When the phonograph played back the crazy recording, the bishop declared, “I am satisfied, now. There isn’t a man in the United States who could recite those names with the same rapidity.”

Despite the curiosity it aroused, Edison’s talking machine did not attract any investors. Fortunately for Edison, his electric lightbulb flicked on a few months later. Backed by J. P. Morgan and members of the Vanderbilt family, he formed the Edison Electric Light Company and predicted, “We will make electricity so cheap that only the rich will burn candles.”

Seeing that Edison had turned his attention to electric lighting, Alexander Graham Bell stepped back into the race, financing secret research to radically improve Edison’s promising invention. Bell’s life had changed profoundly since the telephone had become the great industrial success story of the day. In 1880, the French government awarded Bell the $10,000 Volta Prize. Not needing the money, Bell decided to set up the Volta Laboratory for his cousin Chichester Bell and another talented scientist, Charles Sumner Tainter, as his associates.

After four years of research, Bell’s team completed a vastly improved variation of Edison’s talking machine: the Graphophone, complete with waxy cylinders, a floating stylus, and stethoscope tubes for clearer listening. Shopping their patents around town, their first port of call was Thomas Edison, who, feeling distracted by problems in his flourishing lightbulb industry, declined. The young man who bought the Graphophone patents, Edward Easton, would prove to be the record industry’s first record producer. It was with the sale of the Graphophone patent that, symbolically at least, the record business was born.

Easton was the founding father of Columbia, the record company that would produce hits for over a hundred years. Sharp-eyed and ambitious, he was a former courtroom stenographer who sold his story of the trial of President James A. Garfield’s assassin for $25,000. Having gone back to college to study law, Easton, at the age of twenty-nine, was wealthy and seeking opportunity.

His short-lived partner in the venture was the older Colonel James Payne, a Civil War veteran. In 1887, the Volta Laboratory transferred its patents to Easton and Payne’s new company, the American Graphophone Company. Easton and Payne’s idea was to sell the Graphophone as a dictating machine to all the government offices in the Washington, D.C., area. To manufacture the machines, they rented a wing of a struggling sewing machine plant in Bridgeport, Connecticut.

It was at this crossroads that a tycoon finally stepped in—Jesse Lippincott, the record business’s first casualty. Lippincott, another Civil War veteran, had made his fortune in the glassware trade. Following his wife’s death in 1884, he moved into the Waldorf Astoria and became a familiar face in Manhattan high society. The New York press called him “the Pittsburgh Millionaire.” Inspired by Bell’s telephone, Lippincott was convinced the talking machine would be the next big thing.

He sold his glassware stock for a million dollars and convinced Edison to sell him both his phonograph patent and a majority of the stock in the Edison Phonograph Company for $500,000. Lippincott then turned his attention to Easton and Payne. With great prescience, Easton refused to sell his patent but instead suggested that Lippincott license the exclusive national sales rights for $200,000. In addition, Easton also negotiated an exemption for one sales territory: his home market of Washington, D.C., in which he set up Columbia Phonograph to sell talking machines directly to the federal administration.

Lippincott signed the various checks and created the first and only record industry monopoly. Copying Bell’s business model, he divided America into distribution zones, leasing the machines at $40 per year to licensed dealers, who in turn would lease the machines to users.

Despite a moderately promising start, Lippincott’s company and all of its affiliated distributors began hemorrhaging money. Wisely, Edward Easton went out to investigate what was happening on the ground. Throughout March 1890, in what would be the first nationwide study of the nascent record industry, Easton traveled coast to coast, visiting thirty-one of Lippincott’s regional branches.

To his amazement, Easton observed something nobody saw coming. A San Francisco distributor had transformed the phonograph into “pay to play” jukeboxes. Custom-built, in beautifully decorated wooden cases and fitted with coin slots, they were placed in arcades, saloons, drugstores, and various strategic places of passage. The fashion spread from California to other cities. Although the average take for most of these nickel phonographs was about $50 a week, the most popular jukebox was believed to be in a drugstore in New Orleans. It averaged $500 a month.

Within a year, Lippincott’s monopoly began to collapse. Cash-strapped local distributors began reneging on their rental bills; Edison and Easton were locked in disputes over their respective manufacturing quotas; a hundred creditors were knocking on Lippincott’s door. By autumn 1890, Lippincott was reported to have fallen into a state of “despondent paralysis.” Although he probably suffered a stroke, newspapers reported Edison’s claim that Lippincott had “become insane when he lost all his money.”

Edward Easton was the quickest to adapt. Jukebox operators found local entertainers to record two-minute routines, generally funny caricatures: yokel-alee, minstrelsy, operetta, fiddlers, unbelievable whistlers, exaggerated accents. Marching bands were popular in the Victorian age, and being very loud they were well suited to the limitations of phonographs. By hooking up ten machines to the same trumpet, a marching band could record ten cylinders simultaneously. Singers with powerful lungs could at best record three cylinders at a time.

Columbia signed an exclusive contract with the iconic U.S. Marine Band and began wholesaling their recordings to dealers. A taste of things to come, Columbia’s ten-page music catalog was divided into genre categories: Sentimental, Topical, Comic, Negro, Irish, Shakespearean recitals. Soon Columbia was producing 300 to 500 cylinders a day, sold mainly by mail order.

The first nationwide smash hit of the 1890s came from a black vaudeville performer by the name of George Johnson. Born a slave, Johnson made a living whistling and singing for coins in the ferry terminals on the Hudson, until in early 1890 he was spotted by local talking-machine dealers. Repeating the same routine over and over was a typical day’s work for the ferryboat singer, and between 1890 and 1895 he churned out 50,000 copies of his two hits, “The Whistling Coon” and “The Laughing Song.”

Another popular genre on jukeboxes was Irish satire, in particular a caricature called Casey played by a Bostonian actor, Russell Hunting. For example, “Casey as a Judge” consisted of rapid back-and-forth legal banter between a judge and an accused Irishman speaking in a thick Irish brogue. Another actor, Dan Kelly, invented Pat Brady, who also made hilarious pleas in courtrooms, canvassed for election, and described visiting the World’s Fair.

With Columbia racing ahead, Edison had to concede the talking machine’s future lay in entertainment, not utility. He forced the crippled remains of Lippincott’s company into receivership and initiated a legal battle to regain his patents. With Edison locked in a long dispute, Edward Easton reorganized and refinanced his group as its sole president, then overhauled the Graphophone with a steady-playing clockwork motor.

Intentionally making the better-known phonograph obsolete while Edison was stuck in two years of court procedures, Columbia released its new-generation Graphophone Type G Baby Grand in 1894 at a retail price of $75. Armed with his impressive catalog of music and comedy, the wily Edward Easton sensed the time had come to market talking machines to domestic audiences.


Copyright © 2014 by Gareth Murphy