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E. R. Johnson as Innovator

A Life of Innovation Makes Small-Town Boy Into Millionaire




 

"The Victor Company is now in possession of many patents and secret processes, but our greatest secret process is this -

WE SEEK TO IMPROVE EVERYTHING WE DO EVERY DAY."

- Eldridge R. Johnson

Eldridge Johnson always had a keen interest in the working of mechanical objects, and even more so in the idea of discovery. Family members recall him following behind the plows on the family farm, looking for arrowheads and other artifacts. Though he did not excel in his studies, he demonstrated an intense desire for knowledge, which was often unappeased by stick-wielding, unimaginative instructors in his youth. He desired a college education, but was condemned to a life of manual labor by the director of the Dover Academy, who, according to Eldridge Reeves Fenimore Johnson (ERJ's son), told him "You are too (expletive) dumb to go to college. Go and learn a trade."

Like Thomas Edison, whose Phonograph changed Johson's life, and David Sarnoff (RCA), whose innovations in radio signaled the demise of Johnson's "Talking Machine" empire, Eldridge would have to rely on his talent and dedication, rather than his education or social position, to make his fortune.

Johnson demonstrated his qualities as an apprentice, making his own tools to better perform his work, and showing a keen mechanical skill. When he took a position at the Scull Machine Shop in Camden, NJ, in 1886, he was given the task of completing a book-binding device left unfinished after the death of the owner's young son. He completed the machine, receiving his first patent, and after a brief foray to the West in search of adventure and opportunity (finding little of either), he returned to Camden and soon purchased Scull's interest in the machine shop.

It was quite by accident that he was introduced to Emile Berliner's Gramophone in 1896, but the "little wheezy instrument" would provide exactly the opportunity Johnson needed to fully develop and implement his mechanical talents. He immediately improved the machine with the development of a spring-loading motor, and received the patent for the "Gramophone and Actuating Device Therefor" in 1898.

The development made the Berliner's disc machine a success, which would lead to the demise of the cylinder machines (Edison's Phonograph and the Bell/Tainter Graphophone) and pave the way for today's recording industry.

During the tenure of the Victor Company, Johnson received dozens of patents, continuing to push the envelope in every aspect of the Talking Machine business for the duration of his career. Improvements to the record-cutting, reproducing, and labeling process, the size, style and design of cabinets, and the quality and style of tone-arms, sound boxes and recording and playback horns were frequent. For every development he, or one of his competitors made, Johnson soon found a way to improve it.

Like the ever-expanding Victor complex, Johnson's machines and secret processes evolved constantly, and were instrumental in the company's monumental success. Johnson always thanked Berliner for introducing him to the machine that would make him a millionaire.


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