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Eldridge Johnson

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Eldridge Johnson

Eldridge R. Johnson
Born Eldridge Reeves Johnson
(1867-02-06)February 6, 1867
Wilmington, Delaware
Died November 14, 1945(1945-11-14)
Moorestown Township, New Jersey
Spouse(s) Elsie Reeves Fenimore Johnson
Children Fen Johnson

Eldridge Reeves Johnson (February 6, 1867 in Wilmington, Delaware[1] – November 14, 1945 in Moorestown Township, New Jersey[2][3]) co-created the Victor Talking Machine Company alongside Emile Berliner, a United States corporation, and built it into the leading American producer of phonographs and phonograph records and one of the leading phonograph companies in the world at the time.


Early life

Johnson was born in Wilmington, Delaware on February 18, 1867 to Asa S. Johnson and Caroline Reeves Johnson. Upon his mother’s death in 1869 he was sent to live with his mother’s sister and her husband on their farm in the northern Kent County near Smyrna.

Asa remarried, and at age ten young Johnson moved to Dover to live with his father and stepmother. Johnson attended the Delaware Academy with the hopes of attending college. However, he was a poor student and upon his graduation in 1882 at fifteen, the Academy’s director told him “you are too God damned dumb to go to college. Go and learn a trade.” [4]

Thus, in 1883 Johnson was apprenticed to J. Lodge & Son, a machine repair shop in Philadelphia. In 1888, his apprenticeship was completed and Johnson became a machinist at the recently established Scull Machine Shop in Camden, New Jersey. John Warwick Scull had graduated from Lehigh University the previous year with a degree in Mechanical Engineering,[5] and his father Andrew financed the purchase of the building at 108 N. Front Street in Camden for his son to set up shop in.[4]

Later that year, John W. Scull died suddenly. Johnson became foreman and manager, while the father continued on as owner. At the time of his death, John W. Scull had been working on the development of a bookbinding machine. Johnson completed the design of the machine but shortly thereafter decided to head west to seek his fortune. While he ultimately made it as far west as Washington state, the work Johnson found in the west was of the manual labor variety. Thus, by 1891 he had returned to Philadelphia.

Eldridge R. Johnson Manufacturing Company

During Johnson’s absence, Scull had been unable to successfully market the bookbinding machine. Upon Johnson’s return east, Scull proposed a partnership. In 1894, Johnson bought out Scull’s share of the company and the Eldridge R. Johnson Manufacturing Company was born.

In addition to the manufacture of wire stitching and bookbinding machines, Johnson’s shop executed a variety of smaller jobs involving steam models and machine alterations. A customer named Henry Whitaker brought a manually driven, hand-cranked Berliner Gramophone into Johnson’s shop and asked Johnson to design a spring driven motor for it. Johnson did so, but Whitaker found the result unsatisfactory.

Of his initial introduction to the gramophone Johnson later wrote that “the little instrument was badly designed. It sounded much like a partially educated parrot with a sore throat and a cold in the head. But the little wheezy instrument caught my attention and held it fast and hard. I became interested in it as I had never been interested before in anything. It was exactly what I was looking for.”[6]

In the summer of 1895, Johnson was recommended to the Berliner Gramophone company as a potential developer of a spring-driven motor. While cylinder phonographs had been equipped with clockwork motors for some time, the disc playing gramophone presented a number of design challenges in this regard. Foremost was the drag that the needle and soundbox created when applied to the outer edge of the disc. This required that the motor provide sufficient torque at start up while retaining a constant speed. Representatives of the Berliner company were satisfied with Johnson’s design, and within a year Johnson had begun producing motors for Berliner.

Johnson continued to refine the motor during this period, externalizing the motor and leveraging a triple ball based centrifugal governor design to maintain a constant rate of speed. Johnson also spent a winter in Philadelphia collaborating on various gramophone refinements with Alfred C. Clark; the most significant of these was a vastly improved soundbox. Along with Johnson’s new motor, the Clark-Johnson soundbox became the foundation for Berliner’s Improved Gramophone of 1897.

Consolidated Talking Machine Company

At about this time, Johnson began experimenting with recording and disc duplicating technologies under a cloud of secrecy. Berliner’s process for creating master records involved covering a zinc disc with an acid-resistant fatty coating and then scratching the coating away a recording stylus. Berliner would then submerse the disc in acid to create deeper grooves. From this master, stampers could easily be made for mass production—a definitive advantage over the difficult to duplicate wax cylinders of the Edison phonograph.

Examining the Berliner discs under a microscope, Johnson recognized that the acid etching process was creating random jagged grooves in the records which manifested themselves as noise or “scratch” during playback. Johnson began experimenting with melted down Edison cylinders in an attempt to bring the sonic benefits of the Bell-Tainter method of wax engraving to lateral-cut gramophone discs.

Johnson was successful in developing a satisfactory process of recording, but mass production proved challenging. Whereas Berliner’s zinc masters were easily electroplated to facilitate the creation stampers, Johnson’s wax masters were not. Johnson contacted C.K. Haddon, an associate from his J. Lodge and Son days who had access to electropating machinery. Johnson provided Haddon with a fragment of a gramophone disc, ostensibly to obfuscate the direction of his research.

After two years and $50,000 of investment, in 1900 Johnson was prepared to enter the gramophone record market. He incorporated as the Consolidated Talking Machine Company, Inc. and began selling records as well as a variety of gramophone models under this moniker. This brought Johnson directly into into the Seaman-Berliner legal dispute. Seaman sued in early 1901 and requested an injunction prohibiting Johnson from selling gramophones. The manufacturing injunction was denied, but Johnson was temporarily enjoined from using variations on the word gramophone. On March 12, less than two weeks after the court decision, Johnson registered the Victor trademark.

Victor Talking Machine Company


He established the Johnson Foundation for Research in Medical Physics at the University of Pennsylvania in 1929.[7] The foundation, now called the Eldridge Reeves Johnson Foundation, is associated with the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.[8]

Johnson died at the age of 78 on November 14, 1945, at his home in Moorestown Township, New Jersey after suffering a stroke days earlier.[9]

On February 26, 1985, Johnson posthumously received the 1984 Grammy Trustee Award, given to persons who made a significant contribution in the field of recording.[10] This award is on display at the Johnson Victrola Museum located in Dover, Delaware.[11] Johnson is buried in West Laurel Hill Cemetery, Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania.


External links

  • Time magazine article from December 20, 1926
  • The Marvelous Talking machine - Eldridge R. Johnson
  • Johnson Victrola Museum,
  • Eldridge Reeves Johnson Foundation, University of Pennsylvania
  • Biography-West Laurel Hill Cemetery web site
  • "HOW A MAN WITH AN IDEA MADE MILLIONS IN TWELVE YEARS", New York Times Magazine, August 28, 1910, p9
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