Eldridge Reeves Johnson

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Eldridge Reeves Johnson


This section presents highlights and some  interesting information about the founder of the Victor Talking Machine Company, (VTMC) Eldridge Reeves Johnson (ERJ).   For in depth research and insight into the life of E. R. Johnson, be sure to visit the Johnson Victrola Museum in Dover, Delaware. For a quick on-line tour of the museum, click here

Also see the PhonoJack gallery of photos which I took while visiting the museum several years ago, a bit out of date, nonetheless good stuff for the Victor phono-enthusiast. 

Researching ERJ
The repository for ER Johnson’s Papers, for the period of 1885-1976 is located at the University of Wyoming, American Heritage Center in Laramie, WY.  These valuable papers are not yet available on-line but perhaps you can accelerate the university's Digital Initiative Program by making an on-line donation to the University’s American Heritage Center, just click here to learn more.
Incidentally, not far from Laramie is the Collaborative (formerly Colorado) Digitization Program where you can learn how to preserve your cylinder and disc phonograph and gramophone records. This document is located at the CO Digitization Program.

There are a few rare books available to research Eldridge.  They include a booklet Eldridge Reeves Johnson (1867-1945) Industrial Pioneer: Founder and President of the Victor Talking Machine Company, a biography written by Johnson’s wife, Elsie R. Fenimore Johnson.  And there's an amplification of that booklet called His Master’s Voice was Eldridge R. Johnson, updated in 1974 by Eldridge's son, E. R. Fenimore Johnson.  The author E. R. Fenimore Johnson, who calls himself 'son Fen' throughout the book should not be confused with the original author, his mother, Elsie Reeves Fenimore Johnson who published the original booklet in 1951, considered rare as only 1000 were printed.

PhonoJack's Opinion
I don't think son Fen's updated work presents an objective picture of his father Eldridge and the people with whom he worked at the VTMC.   Even the basic assumption of the book's title, His Master's Voice was Eldridge R. Johnson is not correct, as His Master's Voice was an evolution of an idea, a collection of many people and technologies and the "combination of circumstances' about which Johnson himself had written.   Whether Fen was continuing some of the business saber rattling and legal battles in which his father had engaged or if he attempted to rewrite some history to present the Johnson name in a more favorable light, I really don't know.  But as there are many glaring inaccuracies throughout son Fen's book, some of which I believe are intentional, we should triangulate information sources to validate some of son Fen's commentary.  

I believe Johnson's son Fen downplayed the role Emile Berliner and his team played in developing and launching phonograph technology and the business, specifically the VTMC and The Gramophone Companies in Europe and Canada.  Son Fen uses the unflattering term 'Berliner crowd' in describing Emile Berliner and the group that took 40% of the Johnson business. Documents and correspondence between the two confirm that Eldridge Johnson and Emile Berliner were in fact very good friends, each believing the other was a fair business partner. 

Son Fen gives little credit to and doesn't mention many key people in Johnson's organization.  For example, he provides no information about machinist Levi Montross who was the chief designer of the early clockwork motors which dramatically improved upon Berliner's designs and to whom Johnson paid royalties for each gramophone that he manufactured for Berliner.  Perhaps son Fen avoids including Montross because it was Montross who later designed the competitive "Zonophone branded" gramophone for Frank Seaman who was then sales agent for Berliner and president of the National Gramophone Company.  As noted elsewhere in the PhonoJack site, 'bad guy' Frank Seaman attempted to sell and for a while succeeded in circumventing Johnson and Berliner. Seaman won a landmark court decision which ultimately was the cause of the end of the Berliner Gramophone business in the United States.  This court decision later helped paved the way for merging the business, patents and marketing of Berliner's and Johnson's companies which became VTMC a move that was brilliantly executed Eldridge R. Johnson. 

Son Fen minimized the very real threat posed by the Zonophone Company and thus minimizes the intelligence and business skills his father used to overcome this threat.  For example, Son Fen says the Zonophone product was inferior. This is simply not true; it was well-engineered and an overall tough competitor and later a successful product line within the Gramophone family after Zonophone had been acquired.  Had The Gramophone Company not shut down the manufacturing and supply of the Zonophone line, it would have survived longer than the 5-6 years after acquisition.

The Zon-o-phone machine introduced in 1898 and Zon-o-phone brand records are highly collectable today.  I think these will dramatically increase in value as today there are very few collectors focusing on this brand. They are rarely found on eBay or at auctions.

Son Fen also diminishes his father's name by magnifying his father's involvement with the His Master's Voice (Nipper) logo.  Eldridge should be remembered for his brilliance in the machine shop, his engineering skills, his business acumen, legal maneuvering, integrity, generosity and vision.   As for sales and marketing skills, the first prize should be shared by key contributors including William Barry Owen founder of The Gramophone Company (now EMI) for whom I'm developing a much needed biography elsewhere on this site.  Leon Forrest Douglass, later Johnson's sales and marketing chief in the United States deserves much credit for the ultimate success of the Victor Talking Machine Company. 

Son Fen takes a many unfair shots at William Barry Owen who was hired by Berliner and later supported by Johnson at the time he was sent to England to organize, seek venture financing for and to manage the Gramophone Companies in England, Germany, France and Russia.  Son Fen gives much of the credit for the early success at the British and German Gramophone companies to managers Trevor Williams and Alfred Clark and recording engineers Fred and Will Gaisberg who no doubt were key contributors. However during the early days it was William Barry Owen who brought the much needed business (manufacturing volume and scale) from England and Europe to keep Johnson's business alive.

In the summer of summer of 1895 William Barry Owen was the largest buyer and seller of Berliner's gramophones.  It was Owen's confidence, enthusiasm and personal credibility with Johnson and Berliner that convinced them to move forward and manufacture the initial order for 500 Berliner gramophones (with Johnson's spring motor) and subsequent 3000 unit order that effectively launched the Berliner/Johnson business.  While others dreamed that a spring wound motor would succeed, it was Owen who delivered on the promise convincing thousands to buy the dream and the promise.  Son Fen says Owen made an exorbitant demands on the Gramophone Company, was fired and that he ultimately returned to America where he lived out his remaining years as a farmer on Long Island.  None of this is true.   Owen was not fired as reported, he politely resigned and requested his deputy Theodore Birnbaum be his replacement to facilitate a smooth transition and change of control at the helm in London. 

There can be no debate about whether Eldridge Reeves Johnson continued to support Emile Berliner's decision to send William Barry Owen to England and manage the Gramophone business there.  At the time he received Owen's recommendation that Birnbaum be his successor, Johnson sent a reply urging Owen to stay with the company. Johnson wrote that although Birnbaum was particularly helpful developing the company, he could never fill Owen's shoes.

For a more objective, accurate look into Johnson's Victor Talking Machine Company, I'd trust the unpublished biography of Leon Forrest Douglass who was Johnson's Vice President of Sales, General Manager and perhaps closest business associate.  This is yet another well researched article written by Tim Gracyk who has the typed, spiral-bound unpublished autobiography of Leon Forrest Douglass.

Robert W. Baumbach's Look for the Dog, an Illustrated Guide to Victor Talking Machines (the new 2005 color print, hard cover version) is a limited print edition of 200 copies presents a short history of Victor Talking Machines Company and Eldridge Reeves Johnson's role in the company.  Baumbach's work is outstanding and accurate as he uses sworn testimony and depositions that Johnson was forced to provide to the courts during VTMC's legal proceedings. The paperback version of the book Look for the Dog the VTM Companion does not include the VTMC and Johnson history. 

Another good source of information is the on line history of The Victor Talking Machine Company, in Appendix XIII, by Eldridge Reeves Johnson – A very modest  autobiography accessible by clicking here.

Published in 1991 by the General Electric Company, author Frederick O. Barnum III's work, "His Master's Voice in America" has a comprehensive history of The Victor Talking Machine Company from 1901-1929 and its founder Eldridge Reeves Johnson. Containing not previously published material about the VTMC, this well-written, historical reference is also very rare and can sometimes be found in on-line rare and out-of-print book dealers, typically priced at $300 each. From time to time, this book can be found on eBay, but usually sells at a premium.

Finally, any serious researcher should look into the EMI Archives in Hayes, West London where the team there carefully take care of years of correspondence including business letters, personal and business notes, telegrams and telexes between many of the business pioneers in the phonograph and gramophone industries.  A special thanks to Ruth Edge, now retired who carefully managed the EMI Archives and graciously gave me assistance and access to early British Gramophone and Gramophone and Typewriter (G&T) documents.

Early years

Eldridge was born on February 18th, 1867 in Wilmington, Delaware, son of Asa S. Johnson and Caroline Reeves Johnson. His mother died when Eldridge was two.  Eldridge spent most of his early childhood with his Great Aunt Elizabeth and Uncle Dan on a farm in Bethel Church (Kent County) until he turned eleven.  He then moved back with his father Asa who had remarried.  He often described these as his happiest childhood years. 

Asa was a successful carpenter and home builder. Many 'Johnson' homes still survive in the Dover Delaware area.  I’ve not found much information about Eldridge and his relationship with his father Asa as he lived with his father for only a few years while growing up. But in 1923, Eldridge made a sizeable contribution for the construction of the People’s Church of Dover (UCC) and an impressive Memorial Chimes Tower in memory of his father Asa. 

Eldridge moved 'home' to attend Wesley Conference Academy, then a preparatory school (now Wesley College) founded in 1873 from where he graduated in 1882 at the age of 16.  It’s ironic that like Thomas Edison, Eldridge’s family too was discouraged by a childhood teacher from sending him on to higher education. There are several written accounts that describe the meeting at which teenager, Eldridge was told he was "too stupid" to move on to college.  At that time as it was customary after graduating from high school to begin working as an apprentice, he secured his first job at the Jacob Lodge and Company which manufactured press equipment. Eldridge began ‘learning a metal trade’ working in various jobber and fix-it shops in the Camden NJ area and across the river in Philadelphia PA.

Education and apprenticeship
1882-1886 While in Philadelphia, Eldridge took night classes at the Spring Garden Institute, then a trade school, now a four-year college. The workshops in the 'mechanical school' one of three schools at the institute were actually fully outfitted machine shops that operated a full eight-hour work day 'at the bench' or a four-hour night class.  A brochure from that period describ
es the institute as follows:  "The result of our system is that boys become highly skilled mechanics (without commercial speed) in the course of two years.  They become so intelligent (without being taught to do anything but work) that they readily acquire theoretical knowledge by the reading of books".  Several historical accounts describe this 'apprentice period' in Philadelphia as monotonous and extremely hard work.  Some documents provide evidence that as an apprentice, Eldridge spent much time working in the school's foundry thus "he was motivated to get out of hell into the machine shop as quickly as possible."

After completing his apprenticeship in 1886, Eldridge got a job at the Standard Machine Shop, Camden NJ.   Ardent researcher and collector, Tim Gracyk recently wrote an interesting twist in history that he learned first hand from Belford G. Royal’s great granddaughter.  In 1886, Royal who was a shop foreman, hired the then 19 year old Johnson to work at the Standard Machine Shop.  Ten years later when Royal was then working for Johnson, he introduced Johnson to Emile Berliner.  Gracyk writes, “It was through Royal that Johnson worked on --and improved—Berliner’s gramophone, which evolved into the Victor machine and later Victrola.  As I have done some independent research on this topic, I believe there is sufficient evidence to support Royal’s great granddaughter’s claim.

In 1901, at the age of 34, Johnson became president of the Victor Talking Machine Company.  His factory in Camden began supplying a huge selection of styles of his record player on a worldwide basis.

The quiet philanthropist
In 1903 he, his wife Elsie and their only child, Fenimore moved to Merion at the Baird estate. By 1919 Johnson had become one of the richest men in America, owner of the elegant yacht Caroline and benefactor of the University Museum in Philadelphia where he was board chairman.  Later he established the Johnson Foundation for Research in Medical Physics at the University of Pennsylvania, gave to the Free Library and Deaconess Home in Camden, the Community church in Dover, and the Merion War Tribute House in Merion.  In October 1923, an "unknown donor" offered what eventually became $250,000 to build a community center in Moorestown, NJ now called the Moorestown Community House. It was later learned that the unknown donor was Eldridge Reeves Johnson.

In 1926 Johnson sold his interest in Victor to Investment Banking firm J. W. Seligman who later sold the company to RCA Corporation.  He quietly became one of America's most generous philanthropists requesting that no attention be drawn to himself.  It's no secret that Eldridge Reeves Johnson suffered from severe depression (then called melancholy) as his term came to an end at VTMC.   He told his son Fen to bring him any offer that came forth to acquire the Victor Company.    At that time, Eldridge was no longer 'mentally fit' to work at the office; so he was minimally active in the company's business while worked from home. 

On January 6th, 1927 the sale of the Victor Talking Machine Company of Camden NJ, its subsidiaries in Canada, South America and Japan and its 50% ownership in the British Gramophone Company was completed. A couple of years later, these companies were acquired by RCA Corporation, later known as RCA Victor.

By 1929, Johnson arranged to have several, well-funded, permanent charitable foundations and trusts set up so that most of his remaining financial resources would be used to fund and conduct research that would directly benefit man.   One of the most successful of those foundations is the Eldridge Reeves Johnson Foundation at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.

Eldridge Reeves Johnson died at his home on November 14, 1945 Moorestown, NJ at the age 78 from a heart attack.


Boston, MA  USA