Johnson Duplicates Disc Recordings Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Eldridge R. Johnson’s development of a method of duplicating recordings made on discs enabled the mass production of recordings of popular music.

Summary of Event

Although Thomas Alva Edison invented the phonograph Phonograph in 1877, the end of the nineteenth century marked little progress for the industry based on recorded sound. Cheap talking machines powered by spring motors were available in the 1890’s, but recordings, in both cylinder and disc format, were expensive and few in number. The problem lay in duplicating the recordings made in studios. The only method available in the nineteenth century was the pantograph system, a mechanical linkage between two recording machines that copied the spirals of sound from one recording to another. This process was time-consuming, and the recordings produced were of inferior quality. Duplication was so difficult that many companies paid musicians to make scores of recordings of the same song. Inventions;sound recording Sound recording technology Disc recordings;duplication [kw]Johnson Duplicates Disc Recordings (1902) [kw]Disc Recordings, Johnson Duplicates (1902) [kw]Recordings, Johnson Duplicates Disc (1902) Inventions;sound recording Sound recording technology Disc recordings;duplication [g]United States;1902: Johnson Duplicates Disc Recordings[00310] [c]Science and technology;1902: Johnson Duplicates Disc Recordings[00310] [c]Inventions;1902: Johnson Duplicates Disc Recordings[00310] Johnson, Eldridge R. Edison, Thomas Alva Berliner, Emile

Edison was the first to believe that the phonograph could be employed to bring popular music to the masses. He developed a simple talking machine that could play prerecorded cylinders, but he realized that there would be no market for recorded sound until companies had a means to make inexpensive copies of recordings. Subsequently, he began experimenting with record duplication in 1887. By this time, the fragile tin foil recording medium used for his first phonograph had been replaced by a more durable wax cylinder.

The hardness of the wax was an important factor in storing the signal of the sound wave in the phonograph cylinder. When sound waves vibrated the thin diaphragm of the phonograph, the recording stylus attached to the diaphragm cut a microscopic groove in the wax cylinder. This was called a hill-and-dale cut, because it was cut vertically, up and down in the groove. The vibrations of the reproducer stylus as it traveled along the groove were transmitted to the diaphragm to reproduce the original sound.

As the groove cut into the cylinder was the positive impression of the sound wave, a cast of it would make a negative that could be used to make numerous positive copies. The problem was to find a method to make good negative casts from the soft wax of the recorded cylinder. After years of experiments, Edison found that the best cast of a recorded cylinder had to be made of metal, for only metal was strong enough to mold wax duplicates. The first step was to deposit a fine layer of gold onto the recorded cylinder. This was achieved by placing the cylinder in a vacuum and spraying it with gold dust. The gold particles settled into the hills and dales of the groove and assumed the shape of the sound waves engraved into the wax. Then, layers of copper or nickel were slowly electroplated on top of the gold, forming a metal negative—a matrix—of the original. After the original cylinder was removed from the matrix, the cylindrical metal matrix was cut into two pieces to make a mold. A blank wax cylinder was placed inside this mold, and a slight increase in temperature was enough to soften the wax to receive the impression of the groove. After the matrix cooled, it was possible to free the duplicated cylinder from the matrix.

By 1899, experimenters in Edison’s laboratory had succeeded in making duplicates from metal matrices, but it took several more years to perfect the process for commercial use. Each metal matrix left a slightly raised line where the two parts of the mold met. A further problem was the poor sound quality of the duplicates, a result of the slight distortions in the grooves of the recorded cylinder caused by heating and cooling. As Edison was determined not to sacrifice any sound quality in record duplication, research work continued.

In the meantime, other inventors succeeded in making acceptable duplicates from disc records. The disc-playing machine—the gramophone Gramophone —had been invented by Emile Berliner in 1887. Berliner used a lateral cut to inscribe the signal of the sound wave into the groove, the recording stylus moving from side to side rather than up and down as in the Edison system. Berliner made his masters by recording the sound on a zinc disc covered with fatty film and then using acid to etch the sound waves marked in the film. Unfortunately, the duplicates made by this process had a fuzzy sound because the acid ate away some of the sound wave as it etched the signal into the master. The indistinct reproduction of the gramophone made its commercial future doubtful in the late 1890’s.

Eldridge R. Johnson.

(Library of Congress)

Eldridge R. Johnson, proprietor of a small machine shop in Camden, New Jersey, advanced the technology of sound reproduction and made Berliner’s machine the leading form of recorded sound in the twentieth century. Like many other mechanics of the nineteenth century, Johnson considered himself an inventor, and he obtained several valuable patents. After winning a contract to manufacture spring motors for the Berliner gramophone, Johnson made some significant mechanical improvements to the machine. Concerned with the poor sound reproduction of the gramophone, he started to experiment with the process of duplicating recordings. In 1897, he obtained some test masters from Berliner and carefully examined the microscopic grooves made by the sound waves. His experiments convinced him that the way to make a better recording was to engrave the sound wave into the master rather than to etch it as Berliner had done. Instead of the steel needle Berliner used to record the sound, Johnson designed a miniature cutting tool much like the kind used on the lathes in his shop. A deeper cut meant more distinct sound reproduction and a more resilient impression to endure the wear and tear of the duplicating process.

Johnson replaced the zinc disc covered with fatty film with a solid wax disc. He took great care to ensure that the surface of the master was perfectly flat. Where others had used ordinary gramophones to record, merely shouting into the amplifying horn to vibrate the recording stylus, Johnson designed a special recording machine that had a rubber hose connecting the recording assembly with the horn used to pick up the sound. A carefully governed electric motor maintained the disc’s revolution at an exact speed, ensuring that the recording was made at an even pitch; even the slightest change in the speed of the disc affected the pitch of the reproduced sound.

Once an acceptable master recording had been made, Johnson faced the problem of making a matrix from the wax master—the same problem that Edison had confronted earlier. After more than two years of experiments, Johnson came up with much the same solution. His masters were first covered with a fine layer of metal dust, and then more metal was electroplated onto the primary layer to make the negative matrix. The matrix was then used to stamp the duplicate onto soft wax blanks.

The resulting duplicates had none of the surface noise that spoiled the Berliner discs and much louder reproduction than the Edison cylinders. Johnson’s achievement was to transfer the technique that Edison had perfected for the cylinder to the disc. He borrowed from Edison’s prior experiments and used Edison equipment and wax in his duplicating process.

By 1900, Johnson had edged ahead of Edison in the race to mass-produce sound recordings. Johnson quickly formed the Victor Talking Machine Company Victor Talking Machine Company in 1901 based on his patents and those of Berliner. The company began the manufacture of a line of gramophones and the mass duplication of recorded discs. The advantage of using the disc format was that it was much easier and cheaper to stamp out duplicates than to form them in cylindrical molds. Johnson found it easy to set up the equipment to duplicate thousands of discs a day. Within a short time, Johnson designed machines to stamp out the duplicates automatically. By 1902, the Victor Company had successfully established a large plant to duplicate recordings. It produced more than one million duplicates of recorded discs in that year.


The experiments that Edison and Johnson carried out produced a significant advance in the understanding of sound waves and the various elements in the spectrum of sound. Johnson’s innovation, however, marked no advance in the theory of sound or its reproduction; his approach, like Edison’s, was strictly empirical. Although both men used the scientific method in their research and took advantage of the latest equipment, especially microscopes and measuring instruments, their experiments were directed at commercial goals. They did not publish the results of their research, and Johnson did not patent his duplicating process, preferring to keep it a trade secret. The effects of his innovation are to be found in Western society and culture: He opened the way for the masses to enjoy recorded sound.

The most immediate effect of Johnson’s innovation was that the trickle of recorded sound in the nineteenth century became a torrent in the twentieth. Once Edison had perfected his duplicating process in 1903, popular music was available in both disc and cylinder formats and at a price that most could afford. Recordings that had once sold for more than a dollar each could now be purchased for fifty cents, and the price continued to drop in the years leading up to World War I, when records could be purchased for twenty-five cents. The drop in price made this technology more accessible. A talking machine, with its library of recordings, became as commonplace in the home as the electric light and the telephone.

Both Edison and Johnson were concerned with the quality of recorded sound, for they deemed this to be the critical part of the public’s acceptance of the new technology. The excellent sound reproduction of Johnson’s duplicates enlarged the scope of recorded sound. Classical music made by great artists could now be captured on wax. Recorded sound was no longer the preserve of vaudeville artists and minstrel acts. In 1903, the great tenor Enrico Caruso Caruso, Enrico made a series of historic recordings for Victor. Music lovers who had previously spurned the gramophone now rushed to buy one. Caruso was the first performer to sell a million recordings, making a fortune for himself and the Victor Company in the process.

The disc-duplicating process was quickly diffused to Europe through Victor’s subsidiary companies. It was copied by the company’s competitors but not improved upon significantly. Johnson’s process was used throughout the industry until the late 1920’s, when electric recording and new record compounds brought changes in the ways sound was recorded and records were duplicated. Yet the basic method of coating the master with a thin layer of metal and then electroplating it to form a matrix remained unchanged. In the early twenty-first century, the matrix was still used to stamp out thousands of duplicates. After 1902, the technology of recorded sound advanced continuously, providing microgrooved, long-playing records made of vinyl, yet the method of duplication remained essentially the same as the one that Johnson devised in 1902. Inventions;sound recording Sound recording technology Disc recordings;duplication

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chanan, Michael. Repeated Takes: A Short History of Recording and Its Effects on Music. London: Verso, 1995. Discusses the influence of audio recording on Western society, culture, and economy, and particularly on people’s relationships with music. Includes a brief history of the art of recording sound.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fagan, Ted, and William R. Moran, comps. The Encyclopedic Discography of Victor Recordings. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1983. This reference work contains a reproduction of B. L. Aldridge’s history of the Victor Company.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Johnson, E. R. Fenimore. His Master’s Voice Was Eldridge Reeves Johnson. Milford, Del.: State Media, 1974. Written by Johnson’s son, this account draws heavily on primary sources and personal recollection. Although less than critical of Johnson, the accounts of his experimental and business activities are detailed and accurate.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Josephson, Matthew. Edison: A Biography. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1959. A classic account of the life and work of Thomas Alva Edison. It is the best of the many biographies of Edison, avoiding the excessive praise and harsh criticism that mar other books. Gives a clear account of the duplication experiments.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Millard, Andre. America on Record: A History of Recorded Sound. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995. Covers everything from Edison’s invention of the phonograph to radios and the evolution of stereo systems, tracing the scientific and social developments that have influenced the progress of recorded music.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Edison and the Business of Innovation. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990. This study of Edison’s business activities centers on the phonograph industry and Edison’s struggle with Johnson’s Victor Company. Compares the achievements of the two men.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Vanderbilt, Byron. Thomas Edison, Chemist. Washington, D.C.: American Chemical Society, 1971. One of the best books written about work in Edison’s laboratory, this volume is much more than an assessment of Edison’s chemical experiments. Provides an insightful and detailed account of the duplication experiments.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Welch, Walter L., and Leah Brodbeck Stenzel Burt. From Tinfoil to Stereo: The Acoustic Years of the Recording Industry, 1877-1929. Rev. ed. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1994. Profusely illustrated and entertaining volume covers the history of the talking machine from Edison’s invention to the development of stereo.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Yorke, Dane. “The Rise and Fall of the Phonograph.” American Mercury 27 (September, 1932): 1-12. An amusing and well-written account of the early years of the phonograph business as seen by a contemporary. This article relates the general story of this technology in condensed form.

Caruso Records for the Gramophone and Typewriter Company

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Categories: History