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Victrola: The Story Behind The Name

It was in 1901 when Eldridge Johnson officially founded the Victor Talking Machine Company. The path to its establishment was one of several brilliant and creative minds who innovated again and again to create what became one of the most timeless brands in the US and abroad.

The Late 1880s

The story behind the founding of the Victor Talking Machine Company started in the late 1880s when Emile Berliner, a creative entrepreneur, invented the flat phonograph record. While it’s true that the cylinder phonograph was invented in 1877 by Edison, mass-duplicating cylinders in a practical way was not possible during that time. Berliner’s flat-designed phonograph allowed mass production of copies that was akin to a printing press.

In line with his invention, Berliner thought about developing and manufacturing an inexpensive spring wound motor. He asked Eldridge Johnson, a small machine shop owner in Camden, New Jersey, for assistance in his project.

Johnson And The Phonograph

When Johnson was introduced to Berliner and his existing gramophone we was  immediately entranced by it, but wanted to improve the sound quality. Johnson made a number of improvements to the phonograph, including a tapered tonearm, enhanced soundboxes, and spring motors that were quieter and improved stability.

Johnson also began experimenting with how to improve the sound quality of the Berliner flat-designed phonograph disk. By 1901 Johnson had his improvements and was ready to enter the phonograph market and registered the trademark of the Victor Talking Machine Company.

A Novel Idea

After surviving a litany of lawsuits, Victor had to sustain a strong profit amidst the fierce competition. During that period, most phonographs were deemed similar in terms of function and appearance. Around 1905, Victor concocted the idea of making the phonograph more convenient and acceptable by folding the horn downward into a large cabinet that was designed to stand on the floor. The horn opening was found below the turntable and was covered with two doors. The latter acted like a “volume control” accessory which allowed the sound to be loud while the doors are open and at a reduced volume when the doors are closed.

Victor quickly gained a patent for the idea, and the new invention was given the copyrighted name “Victrola.”

The Phonograph Market

By 1903 the phonograph market was ready to explode. Victor created a process that increased flat record production well beyond previous levels. Victor also brilliantly marketed their recordings of famous performers of the age, even if they asked for a royalty, something that was unheard of at the time. The Victor brand took risks that paid off in their celebrity performers, getting exclusives where they could. The brand recorded stars from opera, concert stages and famous musicians. They also recorded the first blues song and helped establish jazz as popular music by recording The Original Dixieland Jazz Band and their song ‘Livery Stable Blues”.

Growing Competition In The Phonograph Market

The first decade of the 20th century was marked with a constant battle in the phonograph industry. By the 1920's there were new challenges, primarily due to the increasing popularity of radio. Not only was music now free over the air-waves, but it sounded great! 

Needing to innovate once again, Victor switched from its original acoustic method of recording to an electrical system in 1925. However in order to liquidate their stocks of their existing style of recordings, Victor and its rival Columbia agreed to secretly hold this new knowledge and products from the public while they exhausted their stock and built up a new library of the new recordings.

Then with a large advertising campaign, they successfully launched but basics of what became the mainstay of musical recordings into the end of that century.


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