Columbia Graphophone


On hearing of Edisons invention of the phonograph in 1877, telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell was stunned because he realised how close he had been - without knowing it - to himself inventing a process to record sound. This was an opportunity that had slipped through his fingers. In the 1880's Edison was distracted from the phonograph, being pre-occupied with discovering how to make electric lighting.

In 1880 Alexander Graham Bell was awarded the Volta Prize of $20,000, from the government of France. Bell used the funds to set up a research laboratory in Washington, D.C, headed by his cousin Chichester Bell and Charles Sumner Tainter. Chichester Bell and physicist Charles Sumner Tainter worked on improving the phonograph. They dubbed their version the "Graphophone" and designed it to play 6" long records consisting of a cardboard tube with a thin ozocerite wax coating. Edison's phonograph had employed a strip of tin foil that could only be used as long as it was not removed from the phpnpgraph. With the new Graphophone cylinder, the record fit between plungers at each end. The recording could be removed and stored and reheard at a later date.

Edison was outraged at this appropriation of his invention. Bell and Tainter patented some of their inventions and then went to Edison with a proposal to merge their forces. Edison turned them down. Edison then began to work again perfecting his phonograph, resulting in the Class M, in 1888.

The early history of the Columbia Graphophone company is also characterised by some bad decisions. In 1888 Jessee Lippincott, a Pittsburgh businessman who had made his money in the glass business, sought to create a monopoly of the phonographic trade by analogy to the telephone system. Regional territories were to be created and rights sold. Lippincott bought out Edison and Columbia. By 1894 6this venture, the North American Phonograph Company was a failure, ans it was clear that the telephone system was not the proper business model for the phonograph. Edison threw the North American Phonograph Company into bankruptcy and reclaimed his patents. For legal reasons there was a two year period during which Edison's manufacturing of phonographs was stifled. This allowed Columbia Graphophone to expand into the market. Graphophone, thanks to their brilliant lawyer Philip Mauro, swamped Edison with litigation and tried to sow doubt about the validity of the Edison patents. The end result of this was a cross-licensing of patents.

Graphophones however remained accoustically inferior to Edison machines. The best selling cylinder Graphophones were the opemworks machines; Model B for $10, called the "Eagle" as the $10 coin depicted an Eagle, and the Model Q, which sold for $5 without lid. Both these machines provided the inspiration to many European phonograph manufacturers who manufactured machines based on these 2 models.

By 1902 it was becomming apparent to Columbia Graphophone management that that the long term prognosis of the cylinder phonograph was not healthy. Berliner's Gramophone, which had evolved into the Victor Talking Machine, was undermining sales from the cylinder machines. In 1902 Columbia introduced its first Disc Graphophones.

ROMFI initiative for Columbia Graphophone Phonographs

Link to ROMFI
ROMFI ( is a system that is collecting data on all historical manufactured items so that future generations have a bank of knowledge about past technology. ROMFI also allows people who own specific items to add them to a list of surviving items. Edison Phonographs lend themselves very well to such a census as each Graphophone has a model name as well as a serial number, making each phonograph uniquely identifyable.

To have this kind of data available to researchers would be a huge help. We would highly recommend that Edison owners enter details of their machines there. It can also be a boon for finding owners other rare, especially for restoration purposes.

Literature on Columbia Graphophone Phonographs

Columbia Phonograph Companion, Vol I,
Howard Hazelcorn

As with the Guide to Edison phonographs, Mr Hazelcorn's book is an excellent guide to Columbia Graphophone phonographs. Each model is described in detail.

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