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The Format Wars

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Those of us over a “certain age” have seen format wars come and go: VHS vs. Betamax; 8-track vs. cassette; Apple Mac vs. IBM DOS; Blue-Ray vs. High-Definition video. Each of these technologies served the consumer in a similar way. Each format required compatible hardware in order to make its “software” work; Betamax tapes couldn’t be played on a VHS player, and vice-versa. Eventually, in each case, one format won out over the other, leaving some consumers with obsolete technology and eBay sellers with another collectible to hawk.

Inventor Emile Berliner to invent a flat-disc hard-rubber playback format (a gramophone or “record”) that could be stamped-out in large quantities and played back on a cheap play back device (a gramophone or “record” player), paving the way for the demise of Thomas Edison’s vertical cylinder recordings.
Inventor Emile Berliner invented a flat-disc hard-rubber playback format (a gramophone or “record”) that could be stamped-out in large quantities and played back on a cheap play back device (a gramophone or “record” player), paving the way for the demise of Thomas Edison’s vertical cylinder recordings.

The above format wars pale in comparison to the first media format war, the grand-daddy of all format wars: the contest between disc and cylinder recordings. As with other competing formats, product compatibility was required in order for a format to operate. The first format war foreshadowed those to come, and the story is instructive to both collectors and technology buffs.

In 1877, Thomas Edison was trying to bring a stenography product to market. His intended audience was businessmen, attorneys, court reporters and others for whom the ability to record conversations and compose letters would be valuable. His device used a tin foil (then wax, then blue celluloid Amberol) cylinder. Users would speak into a reversed megaphone-like horn; the sound waves would move a diaphragm and activate a needle that would inscribe the cylinder vertically. Edison’s machine had the ability to both record and playback sound.

Edison called his device a “phonograph.” A competing stenographic recording device was Columbia’s graphophone. Like Edison’s device, the graphophone captured sound in a vertical groove on a spinning cylinder.

.About 1899, an entrepreneur was inspired to record music on Edison’s cylinders and install them as coin-operated novelties in arcades. The public was captivated by the new entertainment product. Stenographic phonograph companies began to produce music cylinders and scaled-down playback-only phonographs designed for home use. Edison’s phonographs and cylinders became the “hot new entertainment products” for American homes.

Getting it on the Record
The demand for music-only cylinders outpaced the supply; manufacturers simply couldn’t produce them fast enough. The idea of mass-producing records was what inspired inventor Emile Berliner to invent a flat-disc hard-rubber playback format (a gramophone or “record”) that could be stamped-out in large quantities and played back on a cheap play back device (a gramophone or “record” player). Rather than positioning the recording stylus vertically, as with Edison’s phonograph, Berliner’s device had a stylus that moved laterally and cut into a flat disc (hence the phrase “cut a record”).

In 1896 Berliner teamed up with machinist Eldridge Johnson to create a new, cheaper, more-reliable playback system. They dubbed their new company the Victor Talking Machine Company. In the early part of the 20th Century, Victor became the largest distributor of gramophones and records in the world, with subsidiaries in Europe and Japan. Victor’s logo of Nipper the dog perched in front of a Gramophone horn and the motto “His Master’s Voice” became one of the most widely recognized trademarks in the world.

Along the way, Victor changed its disc material from hard rubber to shellac. Shellac discs sounded better than rubber discs, and much better than Edison’s wax cylinders. So much better, in fact, Edison’s rival Columbia sought and received a license to produce discs and players using Victor’s patents. Eventually, Edison “caved” as well and began to produce flat-disc shellac records. Now, there were three major players in the recorded music business: Edison, Victor and Columbia.

Because the Big Three controlled the patents and the technology, they controlled which artists got recorded, what music the artists played, and where records were distributed. It was very difficult for small, independent record companies to make a profit because they had to pay royalties to the patent holders.

In 1919, Gennett Record Company of Indiana began to produce laterally-cut records using Victor’s technology without paying Victor for the privilege. Victor sued, and court battles raged for the next three years. It was Victor vs. Gennett, who was supported (in spirit, if not financially) by most of the country’s small record labels. Gennett also had the resources of their parent company, the Starr Piano Company of Richmond, Ind. Starr was one of the largest piano manufacturers in the Midwest, and in 1919 it had pockets deep enough to take on Victor.

In 1922, the courts decided that Victor had not invented lateral recording technology after all, and voided their patent. Suddenly, the most desirable recording technology was in the public domain, and small record labels began popping up all over America. Because the Big Three still had recording contracts with the day’s most popular entertainers, the smaller labels found niche markets in rural blues, hillbilly, jazz and ethnic music. Today, small regional record labels like Gennett, Paramount, Okeh and Vocalion are among those labels most sought-after by collectors.

Victor’s failure to maintain control over its format caused a boom in the music business and brought relatively cheap music (and some of the most historically significant music ever recorded) into America’s homes. Flat, laterally recorded discs became the dominant format for recorded music as a direct result of Victor’s courtroom failure.

Format War Will be Televised
Fast forward 53 years: the recorded music industry saw various formats come and go, but the new format war in 1975 was on the video front. The major contenders in this battle were Sony and JVC, both Japanese companies. Sony was the creator of the Betamax system, and JVC created the VHS (Video Home System). We all know how that battle turned out: For a couple of decades, VHS was the dominant format and Betamax was relegated to yard sale piles.

It seems that JVC or Japan Victor Corporation (Victor Corporation of Japan) had learned a lesson about protecting one’s format 53 years earlier when its then-parent company, the Victor Talking Machine Company, lost a formatting war with an upstart record label.

Previously published on WorthPoint.com 

Originally posted 2015-09-07 16:11:00.

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