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MMD > Archives > August 2000 > 2000.08.29 > 03Prev  Next

Aeolian-Vocalion Phonograph
By Dan Wilson, London

Graeme Parish asked (000828 MMDigest):

> I have an Aeolian Vocalion Phonograph in a cabinet, and in good
> working order.  The name appears to have been transfered onto the
> inside of the cabinet lid in scrolled gold writing.  There is also
> a small badge that has been attached to the lid which says "The
> Pianola Company - Australia".
> The machine also has a knob that can be wound to control the amount
> of sound output from the horn.  There's a little door at the front
> which exposes the horn (which obviously is internal).  Under that
> is a cupboard for keeping 78s.
> Does anyone know anything about this machine, any history or date?
> Can anyone provide a contact point where I might find out more?
> Any help would be greatly appreciated as the subject is very new
> to me.

This machine is given a very handsome treatment by Rex Lawson in his
article, "Towards a History of the Aeolian Company," in Pianola Journal
No 11 (1998).

The Vocalion was originally a reed organ made in Worcester, Mass,
from the 1880s, and it seems that it was quietly bought up by the
Aeolian Co as a side-trading item -- in other words, something that
could be sold through agents for other large manufacturers without
anything becoming too obvious, rather as their Aeriola player-piano
and Hupfeld's Claviola push-up were.

At all events they never listed it as a reed organ, as one of their
products, but by 1909 were using the name for a church organ.  They
were agents for Victrola themselves, and in the years around 1911 were
strenuously trying to synchronise phonographs (in British parlance,
gramophones) and players without success.  The Vocalion domestic organ
seems to have faded out before then, as one would expect from the
general history of the instrument.

Then a thunderbolt struck the Aeolian headquarters, chronicled
verbatim by Rex from a huge advertisement placed in the New York Times
on Sunday, January 17th, 1915.  An inventor from Australia, F J Empson,
had, after trying all the established talking machine companies,
approached the London office of Aeolian (the Orchestrelle Co) and
persuaded them to listen to his amazing invention.

I am not going to quote the whole ad which is far too long, but from
it, one would gather that Mr Empson had invented electric recording,
stereo and Dolby all in one go.  This machine was revolutionary.  The
following telegrams ensued:-

   Tremaine, New York
   Have been offered exclusive rights for very remarkable talking
   machine, different from and superior to any machine have ever seen.
   Propose sending inventor to America to submit his instrument for
   your approval.  (Signed) Mason, London

   Mason, London
   As we are not at present considering manufacturing talking
   machines, do not see how instrument can interest us.  If you
   think it sufficiently exceptional to send under circumstances,
   do so, but secure option on invention before inventor sails.
   (Signed) Tremaine, New York

   Tremaine, New York
   Inventor with machine sailing Saturday.  Mauretania.
   (Signed) Mason, London

A lavish engraving shows Mr Empson holding the New York boardroom
spellbound.  On the table is a desk model of Mr Parish's instrument,
with doors, but Mr Empson is holding something we cannot see the
complete detail of, with a cable that runs up into the cabinet.

"This was more than two years ago," thunders the ad, now on its fourth
page in very small print of the Pianola Journal ! -

   The rest is another story in itself.  No man and no body of men
   in the world were so well equipped for the task of improving the
   phonograph as the men constituting the expert staff of the Aeolian
   Company.  Not only artists and musicians of exceptional
   capabilities, but scientific, mechanical engineers comprise this
   staff.  While in addition, the greatest authority on sound alive
   today, is a permanent consultant, and the most perfectly equipped
   laboratory in existence for photo-graphing and analysing
   sound-waves, is at this company's command.

   The result of the Aeolian Company's entrance into the field of
   phonograph manufacture might readily have been foreseen.  In the
   Aeolian-Vocalion, its new phonograph, recently announced, this
   company has produced an instrument that is not only fully up to
   the high standard of its other celebrated products, but one that
   is unquestionably the most perfect as well as most interesting
   phonograph the world has ever seen."

All right!  All right!  What was it Mr Empson had thought up?
I leave you now to Rex Lawson:

  "In retrospect it is a little amusing to reflect that all the
   copywriter's purple prose is in essence simply describing a
   volume control.  F J Empson's invention, which Aeolian named the
   'Graduola', was an application of the principle of an organ swell
   shutter mechanism to a cabinet phonograph.  The operator (who if
   Aeolian had been consistent, should have been called a Vocalist)
   simply squeezed a plunger connected to a Bowden cable, very like
   the remote cable shutter mechanism of the day."

Dan Wilson, London

(Message sent Tue 29 Aug 2000, 23:20:00 GMT, from time zone GMT+0100.)

Key Words in Subject:  Aeolian-Vocalion, Phonograph

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