Leon F. Douglass:
Inventor & Victor's First Vice-President
By Tim Gracyk
In the 1980s, I acquired copies of the Douglass autobiography
(typed, spiral-bound, unpublished).
Douglass should be better remembered. Especially important was his work with
phonographs in the 1890s and then with the Victor Talking Machine Company. He
was a successful inventor in other fields, his work with color film, cigarette
lighters (manufactured by the Douglass Lighter Company), and magnetic torpedoes
used in World War I being noteworthy.
indication of his importance to the industry in the beginning of this century
was his position as Vice President and General Manager of the Victor Talking
Machine Company, holding both titles from 1901 to 1903, then
serving as Vice President from 1904 to 1905. He served as Victor's Chairman of
the Board from 1906 to 1918. (Another interesting man associated with Eldridge
R. Johnson was Belford G. Royal, about whom I give rare information at the end
of this article.)
Douglass' relative obscurity is not easy, but one must take into account
Douglass' distaste for self-promotion. As for his contributions to the Victor
Talking Machine Company, it is true that a major company's vice president is
never as well remembered as the head of that company (Eldridge R. Johnson,
president of the Victor Talking Machine, is better known). Although no book
says much about the man, various sources from decades ago establish the
importance of Douglass' work. He was highly regarded in various industries.
rare sources, an autobiographical manuscript written by Douglass towards the
end of his life is especially important. It remains unpublished. The trade
publication Talking Machine World referred often to Douglass, even for years
after he left the phonograph field.
Forrest Douglass was born on March 12, 1869, on the bank of the Nehama River, near present-day Syracuse, Nebraska.
His parents were Seymour James and Mate (nee Fuller) Douglass. His father was a
millwright and carpenter. Leon
lived with his family in a log cabin and attended grammar school in Lincoln, Nebraska,
which was the extent of his formal education. He was apprenticed to a printer
in his youth and at age 11 worked as a telegraph messenger. By the age of 17,
he was telephone exchange manager for the Nebraska Telephone Company in Seward, Nebraska.
1888 Douglass saw a phonograph for the first time. At that time, technology for
recording and playing cylinders was very crude. He recalls this first encounter
in Chapter III of his autobiography: "In 1888 I saw my first phonograph
and was fascinated with it. I made one and took it to Seward [Nebraska]
to show my old friends...I went to Omaha
to see E.A. Benson, President of Nebraska Phonograph Co., and he gave me the
agency for the western part of the State. Phonographs were rented in those
days. Men, called exhibitors, traveled around with phonographs that had
attached to them ten listening tubes made of rubber. This enabled a number of
people to listen at one time through the rubbers tubes that they held to their
ears. The exhibitors charged each person five cents to hear a record."
in 1889 invented a nickel-in-the-slot attachment for the phonograph. It was
filed for patent on April 16, 1890--#431,883, according to Allen Koenigsberg's The Patent History Of The
Phonograph (APM Press 1990). E.A. Benson paid $500 for the patent and, more
importantly, offered the inventor a job with the Chicago Central Phonograph
Company, which Benson owned in addition to being President of the Nebraska
Phonograph Co. The parent company of the Chicago
company was the North American Phonograph Company. The
job required a move to Chicago, and Douglass at first earned $100 a month.
early 1890s Douglass invented a machine for duplicating cylinders, earning him
for a brief time the nickname "Duplicate Doug." His invention was
filed for patent on March 17, 1892 (#475,490, granted on May 24, 1892). He sold
his patent to Edward Easton, director of the American Graphophone Company and
president of the Columbia Phonograph Company. Douglass was paid $2000 in
addition to a royalty and a salary of $125 a month. He moved to Washington D.C. and
worked for Easton
EXPOSITION AND PETER BACIGALUPI
returned to the Chicago Central Phonograph Company in 1892, this time as a
manager. He brought into the company Henry Babson, whom Douglass had known in Seward, Nebraska.
Babson began as a cashier at a salary of $15 a week. He would later be
important as a major seller of Edison
indicates that Chicago
was a good place for a phonograph dealer at this time. He writes, "The
Columbian Exposition was to be opened in 1892 so everything was booming in Chicago. I was elected
Vice President and Treasurer of the company, and I believed that a concession
at the Fair for one hundred slots phonographs would be a paying investment. I
succeeded in arranging a contract with the Fair directors, paying them
one-third of the income."
Fair was also profitable for Douglass in new business relationships. He writes,
"Peter Bacigalupi of Lima,
Peru visited the Chicago
Fair and I sold him several phonographs and shipped them to Peru. Don, as I
always called him, was to play a great part in my life."
through Peter Bacigalupi that Douglass met his future
wife--Peter's step-sister. With the help of Douglass, Peter set up a phonograph
business in San Francisco,
as I will explain in detail later.
established a friendship with Peter in the early 1890s, Douglass traveled to California and met the
large Bacigalupi family. It consisted of many
children from three marriages. Peter had been born in New York City on January 6, 1855. At some
point Peter's mother died, and the father married the widow of Daniel Elias
Adams (a descendant of the two U.S.
Presidents), who already was raising four children from her previous marriage.
The eldest daughter, Victoria Adams, married Douglass within a few years.
Peter Bacigalupi spent part of his time in San
Francisco, where the
family was settled, and in Peru,
where he had a business. The family had evidently established a business in Lima by 1881 since Peter in that year married Rosa
Fournier in Peru.
As we see later, Douglass played a great part in Bacigalupi's
life since Peter and his brothers, encouraged by Douglass, would become the
West Coast's largest Edison jobber.
Edison was refining his kinetoscope in this period
and Edison's business manager, A.O. Tate,
persuaded Douglass to take charge of its exhibition at the Fair. Douglass
traveled to Orange, New Jersey to learn more about the kinetoscope. He then contacted the Fair directors to make
arrangements for showing moving pictures at the Columbian Exposition. Douglass
writes, "The Fair directors were very pleased that the moving pictures
would be shown for the first time at the Fair. The contracts were a printed
form to be filled in. All contracts printed called for a bond of $2,500
guaranteeing that the exhibition would be set up before the Fair opened (few
were there on time). When Mr. Edison read that part of the contract he was
furious and told me to tell the directors to go to Hell. He would put up no
bond. I told him that I was sure it was just a matter of form and that they
would eliminate the bond, which they did, but nothing would appease him. He
said he would not exhibit and therefore this first moving picture machine was
not shown at the Fair."
later purchased from the Chicago Central Phonograph Co. all slot machines used
at the Fair and sent them to the Midwinter Fair in San Francisco
after receiving a concession from the fair's president, M.H. de Young. Henry
Babson took charge of this concession and while in San Francisco
Babson opened a slot machine parlor on Market Street. When Babson was later
ready to return to Chicago, he sold the
Midwinter Fair phonograph concession for $6,000 to Peter Bacigalupi,
who was visiting San Francisco because his
parents lived there. He had planned on returning to Peru but this business opportunity
was evidently too good to pass up. Douglass states in his autobiography that he
urged Bacigalupi to buy the concession and accepted a
note for much of the asking price.
Peter Bacigalupi was 40 at the time he operated in 1895 a shop
called Edison's Kinetoscope, Phonograph and
Graphophone Arcade at 946 Market
St. in San
A Bacigalupi advertising card of 1920 states
"Established 1893," an allusion to the Midwinter Fair phonograph
concession. Ray Philips reports in The Journal of The American Phonograph
Society (April 1975) that the first listing in the San Francisco
City Directory of a shop run by Bacigalupi is the
1895 edition. A salesroom for his Edison Phonograph Agency was at 933 Market St. Some
collectors own Bacigalupi cylinder boxes but Ray
Philips reports he has never known a collector who owns a Bacigalupi
cylinder. Bacigalupi recorded artists on the
premises, including Billy Murray in 1897.
Douglass worked on a spring-motor phonograph. Edison
at this time designed machines powered by storage batteries, which were heavy,
tended to leak, and needed regular recharging. Douglass demonstrated the spring
motor to Edison. He writes that Edison "was not interested because he did not
believe it would be satisfactory in production. I asked him if he would sell me
phonographs without electric motors. He said he would, so I started
manufacturing phonograph motors. Phonograph dealers laughed at my spring motor
and called me the hand-organ man, but in about two years Mr. Edison said 'the
tail was wagging the dog' and took up the spring motor."
February 10, 1897, Douglass married Victoria Adams. It was a happy marriage
that produced six children: Leon Forrest, Dorothy Victoria, Earl Seymour,
Eldridge Adams, Ena Lucile, and Florence Carol.
Douglass would later claim the name of his wife, Victoria, inspired the name of
the nation's largest phonograph company but that claim has been contested, as
we shall see.
February 14, 1898, Douglass filed a patent for polyphone talking machine
reproducers. The patent was assigned to C. Dickinson. A similar patent was
filed on May 11, 1899, the patent again assigned to Dickinson.
Parvin, president of the Berliner Gramophone Co.,
brought Douglass from Chicago to Philadelphia around 1900.
Douglass worked for Berliner for only a brief time due to Frank Seaman securing
an injunction that put an end to Berliner's business operation.
A COMPANY WITH ELDRIDGE R. JOHNSON
August, 1900, Douglass met with Eldridge R. Johnson at Philadelphia's Walton Hotel to discuss a
business proposition. Johnson owned a small machine shop in Camden, New Jersey
and had produced machines for the Berliner Gram-O-Phone Co. Emile Berliner was
unable to continue with his company as before, but Johnson was free to start
his own business. Johnson told Douglass that the shop and record plant was
worth about $60,000 and Johnson had $5,000 in cash. Inexperienced at selling
goods, Johnson urged Douglass to serve as sales manager of a new business. From
office, Douglass was responsible for placing advertising in the nation's
popular magazines, including McClure's, Cosmopolitan, and Munsey's.
company was formed in September 1900 and was originally named The Consolidated
Talking Machine Company. Douglass writes, "In the beginning Mr. Johnson
left everything pertaining to sales, advertising, and recording to me. Mr.
Johnson came over to Philadelphia
every day and for many years we lunched together. At that time he was a shy man
but had the most brilliant mind I have ever known.... When we first started the
business, I had only one helper, Oliver Jones. For $15 a week he kept the books
and wrote my letters...When we received an order we rushed into the shed that
we used as a packing room, packed the goods, rushed back to the office, billed
and did other office work. The next month we rented a small office in Philadelphia in the Stephen Girard
Building, Room #1313 on
the 13th floor. We employed a stenographer, Miss Alice Hargraves,
who stayed with us 25 years. We also hired a man as shipping clerk for the shed
company's recording logs go back to June 28, 1900, since Johnson had begun a
log starting with number A-1 three days after Frank Seaman secured an
injunction preventing Berliner from selling to anyone else (Johnson had no
company in June but was evidently looking ahead--later, in April 1903, a matrix
numbering system was begun). The problem with the company's original name was
that Emile Berliner had earlier set up a holding company with the name
Consolidated Talking Machine Company of America. Johnson soon changed the
name to "Eldridge Johnson, Manufacturing Machinist." The name
"Victor" was first used in December, 1900. It was registered as a
brand name on March 12, 1901. The Victor Talking Machine Company was
incorporated on October 3, 1901.
NAMED FOR VICTORIA?
gives this account of how the company was named: "The second year our profits
were over a half million dollars...Up to this time the business had been run
under the name Eldridge R. Johnson. He asked me to suggest a name. I suggested
'The Victor Talking Machine Company.' The word 'Victor' was taken from Mother's
name as I often called her 'Vic,' the 'Victor.'" (Throughout the
autobiography Douglass refers to his wife as "Mother.")
Barnum gives various possible origins of the "Victor" name. He writes
in "His Master's Voice" In America,
"One story claims that Johnson considered his first improved Gramophone to
be both a scientific and business 'victory.' A second account is that Johnson
emerged as the 'Victor' from the lengthy and costly patent litigations
involving Berliner and Seaman. A third story is that Johnson's partner..., Leon
Douglass, derived the word from his wife's name 'Victoria.' Finally, a fourth story is that
Johnson took the name from the popular 'Victor' bicycle, which he had admired
for its superior engineering. Of these four accounts the first two are the most
possible that Johnson picked the name "Victor" for his own reasons
and Douglass was enthusiastic about the name due to its similarity to his
DOUGLASS' WORK AT
was responsible for the success of "His Master's Voice" as an
advertisement or trademark in the sense that, as Sales Manager, he was in a
position to popularize through magazine advertising the image of Nipper
listening to a horn machine. The image was painted by Francis Barraud in England
in late 1898 or early 1899. Barraud filed an
Application for Memorandum of Assignment of Copyright on February 11, 1899. The
artist at first showed the terrier listening to a cylinder machine--a disk
gramophone appeared in a painting around September 1899. In America, Emile
Berliner had registered the image along with the phrase "His Master's
Voice" as a trademark on July 10, 1900. On the formal declaration of the
trademark, Berliner wrote, "This trade-mark I have used continuously in my
business since May 24, 1900." Douglass helped popularize the trademark but
others before him recognized its value as a trademark.
March 19, 1903, Douglass filed a patent for a rubber collar on a sound-box,
with the patent assigned to the Victor Talking Machine Company. Another
sound-box refinement was patented on April 20, 1905.
September 21, 1903, Douglass filed for patents for a semi-cabinet to cover the
phonograph so the machine had the appearance of a piece of furniture. A year later on December 2, 1904, while in California, he filed again for a stand and
record cabinet. These were crucial to the development of the Victrola,
introduced to the public in 1906. Douglass writes, "I told Mr. Johnson
that it was my opinion that ladies did not like mechanical looking things in
their parlors Mr. Johnson improved on my cabinet and the result was the
Victrola, an instrument fully enclosed in a cabinet which was an attractive
piece of furniture. I ordered two hundred. Mr. Johnson was afraid we would not
be able to sell so many and I was a little timid myself, as they cost so much
that we would have to sell them at two hundred dollars each. We not only sold
those but many millions more. We were obliged to use seven thousand men to make
the cabinets alone."
PROBLEMS: LEAVING VICTOR
fall of 1906, a few months after the birth of son Eldridge (obviously named
after Eldridge R. Johnson), Douglass moved his family from Philadelphia
to San Rafael, California. A nervous breakdown and
subsequent health problems forced him to reduce his work load. He writes,
"I was not able to work for nearly two years....Finally, being convinced
that I would not be able to take up regular work, I urged Mr. Johnson to accept
my resignation. He refused and I was then elected to the office of the Chairman
of the Board of Directors. I also urged Mr. Johnson to stop my salary of
$25,000.00 per year, which they had kept up all during my illness, but Mr.
Johnson replied that if the Victor Co. paid me that amount as long as I lived
they could not pay for what I had done for them. Twice, in the early days, by
my action alone, I had saved the Victor Co. from going out of business."
remained closely associated with the Victor Talking Machine Company, visiting Camden once a year. He
filed patents related to sound-boxes and record holders as late as 1909. The
March 15, 1920 issue of The Talking Machine World mentions Douglass in an
article about changes in the company's executive body: "Leon F. Douglass
and Albert C. Middleton, two of the original incorporators and directors,
resigned as directors and accepted appointment on the newly organized Advisory
Committee, by whom important matters of policy and operation are discussed
before consideration and decision by the Board of Directors. It will be recalled
that Mr. Douglass, who for several years past has been chairman of the board
and will continue as chairman of the Advisory Committee, was the Victor Co.'s
first vice-president and general manager...During the past ten years or more
Mr. Douglass has not enjoyed good health and has necessarily been less active
in the company's affairs."
C. Middleton was, like Douglass, one of Victor's incorporators and original
directors. Replacing Douglass and Middleton on the board were Calvin G. Child
and Edward E. Shumaker. Child is best remembered today for his work with Red
Seal artists. Shumaker rose to his position as a
Victor purchasing agent, responsible for procuring raw materials and
supplies--no easy job during the war years that immediately preceded Shumaker's
election to the board.
January 6, 1927, Douglass disposed of his stockholdings in the company, as did
Johnson, to the Wall Street firms of J. & W. Seligman and Speyer & Co.
The founders of the Victor Talking Machine Company were now very wealthy men.
WORK WITH COLOR FILM
applied his engineering skills to technical problems outside the phonograph
field. In 1912 Douglass began experimental work on motion picture in natural
color, inspired by an Ives Komoscope he purchased in
1898. In 1916 he patented the first successful process for making color movies.
This was the forerunner of Technicolor. Prior to this time, "color"
movies had been hand-tinted frame by frame. He writes, "My first moving
picture camera made twin negatives, one of red value and the other of green.
These two negatives were printed on a double coated positive, on one side of
which the tone image was green and on the other side red. When the film was
projected it gave the natural colors on the screen....The first showing of any
pictures taken with this camera was on May 15, 1917."
Talking Machine World was enthusiastic about Douglass' success with film,
reporting in the October 15, 1917 issue reports that "he has succeeded in
reproducing in a new form the views of the Grand Canyon of the Arizona, the Yosemite Valley and the Yellowstone Park
in all of their natural colors." In the April 15, 1918 issue, the trade
journal reported, "The Douglas [sic] pictures have been shown in various
sections of the country recently and with much success, and when offered at the
Eighty-first Street Theatre served to attract much attention not only from the
public but from members of the motion picture trade...Mr. Douglas' device
consists of an inexpensive attachment that may be affixed to any motion picture
camera and which permits of the production of a film containing a series of
images so colored as to give, when projected, a moving picture in natural
colors, without the use of the rotary colored shutter usually required." Oliver
Jones, who worked in the earliest days at Victor, now represented Douglass' new
1918 he produced what may be the first American feature length color film.
Titled Cupid Angling, it starred Ruth Roland, with Mary Pickford and Douglas
Fairbanks making guest appearances. The Talking Machine World in March 1921
discusses Douglass' experiments with color film in Hawaii: "Hawaii's
wondrous rainbow-hued fishes will be photographed in their natural colors by
Leon F. Douglass...[He was] accompanied by Robert
Carson, a camera man who has 'shot' films for Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks
and other movie stars...Heretofore the best French color motion picture machine
could not take pictures faster than one second for each section of film
exposed. Mr. Douglass, after twenty years of experimentation and study...has
produced a process by which color photographs can be taken with an exposure of
1-100 of a second. This makes regular motion picture features in color
Douglass and his family moved to Menlo
Park (now Atherton) where he bought a 52- room mansion
located on a 55 acre estate. This Italian villa-type house was built from 1906
to 1910 by Theodore Payne, a San Francisco hardware
manufacturer. Douglass named his new home Victoria Manor, in honor of his wife.
In its basement he installed a workshop with lathes, milling machines, and
drill presses. The home's mezzanine featured a moving picture laboratory.
During World War II the mansion was a convalescent home for veterans from Dibble Hospital
and when acquired in 1945 by the Menlo
School and College it was
renamed Douglass Hall.
1924 he invented a new type of snap cigarette lighter. This was a trigger
released spring-controlled device which actuated the flint and steel, igniting
the wick. One of Douglass' sons left his position with the Victor Talking
Machine Company to start the new Douglass Lighter Company in San Francisco.
inventions credited to Douglass were the submarine camera, the zoom camera
lens, the underwater movie camera, and various visual effects for motion
pictures. He developed a special effects movie camera that could shrink an
actor's image, seemingly engulf actors in flames, and dissolve scenes into one
another to eliminate the jerkiness of films.
final years were sad ones due to the deaths of two daughters. One died while
delivering a child; another died in an automobile accident. He left Victoria
Manor for a much smaller home nearby and a simpler lifestyle. He died in San Francisco
on September 7, 1940.
Note:† This article was written by Tim Gracyk of the Victor 78 Journal.† The original document is located on Timís
site at http://www.gracyk.com/leon.shtml
Please do not
modify any of Timís work and links to his site.