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In the 1980s, I acquired copies of the Douglass autobiography (typed, spiral-bound, unpublished).

Leon F. 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.

An 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.)

Explaining 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.

Among 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 It remains unpublished.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.


Leon 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.

In 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."

Douglass 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.

In the 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 briefly.


He 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 products.

Douglass 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."

The 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."

It is 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.

Having 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.

Thomas 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."

Douglass 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 Francisco. 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.

LATE 1890s

In 1893 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."

On 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.

On 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.

Thomas 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.


In 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 a Philadelphia office, Douglass was responsible for placing advertising in the nation's popular magazines, including McClure's, Cosmopolitan, and Munsey's.

The 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 in Camden."

The 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.


Douglass 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.")

Fred 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 generally accepted."

It is possible that Johnson picked the name "Victor" for his own reasons and Douglass was enthusiastic about the name due to its similarity to his wife's name.


Douglass 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.

On 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.

On 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."


In the 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."

He 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."

Albert 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.

On 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.


Douglass 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."

The 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 invention.

In 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 possible."


In 1921 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.

In 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.

Other 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.

Douglass' 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.




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