Zon-o-phone – The Discs That Defeated Berliner

Written by Wes Williams

In late November/early December 2016, a batch of Zon-o-phone discs came up for auction on eBay uk.

These were not the usual Zonophones issued by the Gramophone Company ( HMV) or Victor from 1904 on, or even their German made predecessors, but dated back to circa 1900/1, and were responsible for Berliner being stopped from operating in the USA, as well as the foundation of the Victor label. I was lucky enough to win three of them, so I’d like to share the recordings with you (Album: Zon-o-phone – the discs that defeated Berliner) and try to give you an insight into their history.

Number 9813-Gaskin-Vaudeville Speciality

Number 9862 – Edward Franklin – Dear Heart

Number 1503 – Spirit Of 1776

The story of how Berliner was prevented from selling discs and gramophones in the USA is a complex muddle of company names and legal actions. But to tell this story in full, we need to start with some cylinder background information.

Edison invented his ‘tin foil’ phonograph and patented it in late December 1878 . It was really only a novelty, which was not significantly developed further, and after about a year sales became very limited. But Alexander Graham Bell, his cousin Chichester Bell, and Charles Sumner Tainter continued to experiment with sound transmission, recording and replay, leading to a patent granted in May 1886. The main claims of this patent were recording on wax coated card, and a ‘floating’ replay head. These improvements were offered to Edison, but he refused, so the American Graphophone Company was formed in June 1887 to handle the Bell-Tainter patent rights. Edison then ‘improved’ his phonograph using the techniques of Bell & Tainter, but with a solid wax cylinder. It seemed that ‘phonograph wars’ might break out, but businessman Jessie Lipcott managed to license both Edison and Bell-Tainter patents and formed the North American Phonograph Company in July 1888. This company licensed franchisees to operate in various states of the USA, the most successful being the Columbia Graphophone Company who had control of sales in Delaware, Maryland and the District of Columbia.

Berliner applied for a patent for his Gramophone in September 1887. He continued to develop it in Washington, and by 1893 was ready to release it to the public, so set up the United States Gramophone Company as patent holders. Gramophone sales did not extend far outside the Washington area, so Berliner looked for for finance to extend the sales area to all of USA. But financial backing proved difficult to find, and eventually a group of investors were found in Philadelphia, and the Berliner Gramophone Company (BGC) was formed there in October 1895.

The most common form of gramophone at this time was hand-driven, and was very sensitive to the speed that the handle was wound at, although more expensive electric driven models were available. The solution was a clockwork motor. After much experiment and searching by Berliner and his associates, Eldridge Johnson was contracted to produce 200 motors in mid 1896. As has been well documented elsewhere, Johnson became fascinated with the gramophone, and went on to develop many improvements, including a better sound box and an improved method of recording using wax coated discs, rather than Berliner’s acid etched zinc discs.

The BGC setup became a three part operation with BGC controlling assembly of machines and disc production, Eldridge Johnson initially producing clockwork motors and eventually whole machines, and Frank Seaman controlling sales and marketing via his National Gramophone Company.

Seaman’s contract with BGC allowed him to suggest new machinery and improvements. He engaged Louis De Valquet to produce a gramophone, but it was rejected by BGC. But that gave him an opportunity to find independence from Berliner.

American Graphophone’s lawyer, Philip Mauro, decided that Berliner’s gramophone could be challenged under the Bell-Tainter patent as its head ‘floated’. But rather than challenge Berliner directly, he took Seaman to court in October 1898 and obtained an injunction preventing Seaman selling anything from January 1899. Seaman appealed, and managed to get the injunction suspended until the case could heard in greater detail.

Seaman then refinanced and expanded his company as the National Gramophone Corporation in March 1899, and established the Universal Talking Machine Company (UTMC) to handle sales of his machines and discs. Press announcements were made that UTMC would start selling gramophones in September. In October 1899 Seaman’s orders of goods from Berliner stopped completely, and UTMC discs and gramophones branded Zon-O-Phone started to appear. Some writers even allege that he re-branded Berliner’s discs.

In May 1900 Seaman switched sides, admitting in court that the gramophone infringed the Bell-Tainter patent. He also formed an alliance with American Graphophone/ Columbia offering them a foothold in the gramophone market via his Zon-O-Phone products in exchange for patent rights. As a final blow, in the next month he obtained an injunction against Berliner preventing him from selling any gramophone products, claiming that his UTMC held the patent rights to the gramophone!

Eldridge Johnson was threatened with a total loss of USA business -although also supplying the Gramophone Company in the UK at this time – and quickly formed the Consolidated Talking Machine Company which began advertising in Autumn 1900 citing his wax disc recording methods as a ‘Marvellous New Discovery’ in improving reproduction. Seaman also tried to persuade the courts in Philadelphia to issue an injection against Johnson, but this was rejected in March 1901, apart from an order that Johnson should not use the word ‘Gramophone’. This result led to Johnson branding his machines and records as ‘Victor’ while Berliner was force to move all his operations to Canada.

The export agents for Seaman’s National Gramophone Corporation were the Prescott brothers, and through them the Zon-O-Phone discs and machines were exported to Europe. But things did not end well for Seaman. FrederickPrescott establish the International Zonophone Company with a manufacturing facility in Berlin.
Prescott withdrew his investment in UTMC and used the cash to establish the International Zonophone Company with a manufacturing facility in Berlin, Germany. And by December 1901 UTMC were in liquidation.

Prescott’s business did not last long either, and by June 1903 International Zonophone was purchased by Deutsche Grammophon on behalf of its UK parent, now named the Gramophone and Typewriter Company (G&T). Zonophone branded records were then issued in the UK as G&T’s cheap label, and in the USA from G&T’s sister company Victor, with Victor naming their version in the original Zon-o-phone name format.

Main Sources:

  • Roland Gelatt – The Fabulous Phonograph -Cassell, London, 1977
  • Andrews-Bayly-Hayes – Zonophone (3 vols)- CLPGS 1999 and 2006
  • Andrews & Dean-Myatt – Beka Records -CLPGS 2014

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