The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, at Cooper Square in Lower Manhattan, was founded in 1859 by inventor and industrialist Peter Cooper, a progressive member of New York’s Board of Aldermen.
The initiative was inspired by the state-sponsored École Polytechnique in Paris (founded in 1794). Cooper’s ideal was to create an institution that would be open to all, and independent of race, religion, sex, or social status. The history of the gramophone is associated with two of Cooper’s former students who overcame hardship through education.
In 1875, at age of twenty-eight, Thomas Alva Edison enrolled in a four year chemistry course at Manhattan’s Cooper Union. Two years later, he heard “Mary had a little lamb” emanate from a machine into which he had just spoken the lyric. The event signaled the birth of the phonograph.
The ability to recreate sound waves was received with excitement and Edison’s device took the world by storm. The inventor invited “celebrities” to his West Orange laboratories to record performances, including twelve year old piano prodigy Josef Hofmann. Hans von Bülow performed a mazurka by Chopin and, in 1889, Johannes Brahms played his first Hungarian Dance.
The earliest recorded music known to exist is an 1888 performance of Arthur Sullivan’s “The Lost Chord.” The song was composed during the composer’s visits to his dying brother, the actor Fred Sullivan, at his home on King’s Road, Fulham in southwest London. Arthur had previously tried to set Adelaide Anne Procter’s poem to music but failed. Now, grieving by Fred’s bedside, he found the proper tone. The manuscript is dated January 13th, 1877, five days before his brother’s death. The song became the biggest commercial success of any British or American song of the 1870s and 1880s.
In 1839, French engineer François Gouraud had introduced the daguerreotype technology to the United States. His son George Edward fought in the Civil War and was a decorated Captain in the 3rd New York Volunteer Cavalry. Once hostilities had ended, he was sent to London to promote Edison’s telegraph system. On August 14th, 1888, Gouraud demonstrated Edison’s “perfected” phonograph at a London press conference. The audience listened in amazement to a piano and cornet recording of “The Lost Chord.”
Gouraud represented his American employer from his residence at Beulah Hill, Upper Norwood, which he renamed Little Menlo after the Edison research facility at Menlo Park, New Jersey.
Emile [Emil] Berliner was a Hanover-born Jewish inventor who had fled conscription into the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. Having settled in New York, he made ends meet by taking on temporary work. At night, he studied physics at the Cooper Union. He then obtained a position as clean-up man in the laboratory of Russian-born chemist Constantin Fahlberg, the discoverer of saccharine. The experience of work at these premises made him decide that scientific research was to be his destiny.
Berliner showed particular interest in the new audio technology of telephone and phonograph and soon made a name for himself as an inventive genius. Having settled in Washington, he filed a patent for the “Gramophone,” using a disc rather than a cylinder. He started production in 1893. The company would establish branches in London, Berlin, and Paris. Europe’s recording industry was founded by Berliner’s representatives.
The recording of orchestral works and other instrumental music proliferated as the phonograph became technically more refined during the early 1920s. By the middle of the decade the industry began to decline, partly through the emergence of radio, and partly because of the economic depression that hit both America and Europe.
A Modernist’s Toy
Between 1888 and 1894 Edison produced readings by Tennyson and Robert Browning, establishing a tradition of literary recordings. The gramophone became the modernist’s favorite gadget. During the composition period of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” (1921/2), it was the poet’s constant companion.
Eliot was familiar with popular tunes from music hall melodies (he admired Marie Lloyd) to the words of lyricist George Michael Cohan (“the man who owned Broadway”). Their impact was evident in an early draft of the poem. These references may have been excluded in the final revision, but the work contains numerous other borrowings from contemporary music. Ragtime and jazz inspired its angular rhythms and tight rhymes.
“The Waste Land” has been described as a drama for voices which made the poem particularly suitable for recording. Eliot grasped the opportunity of reaching a wider audience. In 1946, he visited NBC Studios in New York. Working with their engineers, he was able to capture the “different voices” and make the poem’s musicality and syncopations be heard.
James Joyce was an excellent singer (with a sweet tenor voice) and an accomplished pianist. As a writer, he incorporated song in all his writings. Musical references scattered throughout Ulysses play a role in structuring its complex mode of narration. The repeated use of phrases to indicate particular characters or plot themes, is a musical technique borrowed from Richard Wagner. The song “The Bloom is on the Rye” serves as a leitmotiv throughout the “Sirens” episode.
The novelist hoped that sound recording might promote his complex novel. Sylvia Beach, owner of Shakespeare & Company, the legendary English-language bookstore on Rue de l’Odéon, and the first publisher of Ulysses, contacted the Paris branch of the Gramophone Company in late 1924 with the request of a reading. Its artistic director, Italian composer and conductor Piero Coppola, agreed to go ahead if certain conditions were met. The recording had to be produced at her own expense and would not be listed in the company’s catalogue.
Joyce chose to read John F. Taylor’s declamatory speech in defense of the study of the Irish language from the “Aeolus” episode. The result was far from perfect and it turned out to be the only recording the author made from Ulysses. Sylvia Beach ordered thirty copies of the record. Most of those were handed to Joyce who distributed them among friends.
Recorded music was a source of inspiration for many modern artists. Piet “Boogie Woogie Man” Mondrian treasured his portable red gramophone and practiced dance steps in his studio. He loved the modern dances of the 1920s and listen to the latest recordings, including the likes of Roger Wolfe Kahn, Louis Armstrong, and Ethel Waters.
His Master’s Voice
Commercial signs have a long history, but the formulation of trademark laws is a relatively recent event. Bass Brewery’s red triangle sign was the first logo to be registered under the 1875 British Trade Mark Registration Act. The first German trademark was introduced by Krupp in that same year. The oldest American mark still in use, Samson’s Rope Technologies with the design of a man wrestling a lion, was first seen in May 1884.
During the 1880s and 1890s the importance of corporate marks increased. Artists became involved in creating eye-catching labels for a competitive market. One of the most successful logos of the age (and beyond) was that of a small dog.
In July 1897 Emile Berliner sent William Barry Owen to London to set up a British arm of his business. Having met a young Welsh lawyer Trevor Lloyd Williams, these two founded the British Gramophone Company in 1899. Two years later they introduced a new label that was given the unofficial tag of His Master’s Voice (HMV). The name had originally been coined as the title of a painting depicting Nipper, a mixed-breed terrier facing a wind-up gramophone.
Its creator was Francis Barraud, a London-born painter of Huguenot descent. The dog belonged to his brother Mark. When the latter died, Francis took care of Nipper and inherited a DC-powered Edison-Bell cylinder phonograph with a recording of Mark’s voice. Moved by the dog’s response to the sound emanating from the horn, he decided to immortalize the scene in paint. He portrayed Nipper staring intently into the black horn of the machine.
Barraud presented William Barry Owen with a photograph of the painting. The latter was keen to acquire the picture, but suggested to replace the phonograph with a modern disc machine. The image first appeared on the company’s catalogue of December 1899. It was then adopted as a trademark by its American affiliate, the Victor Talking Machine Company (later RCA Victor).
Dozens of copies of His Master’s Voice were painted by Francis Barraud, several of them commissioned for executives of the Gramophone Company and Victor. In 1915, the logo was rendered in an immense circular leaded-glass window in the tower of The Victor (known as the Nipper Building) at Victor’s headquarters in Camden County, New Jersey.
Nipper himself had died of natural causes in 1895 and was buried in leafy Kingston upon Thames. In addition to the notable Albany icon, a small road near to the dog’s resting place is named Nipper Alley, commemorating its famous resident who deserves his place in the doghouse of music and technology.
Photos, from above: Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, Cooper Square, Lower Manhattan; portrait of Peter Cooper; The Lost Chord illustration; Nipper in 1920; the Nipper Building in Camden, New Jersey; and Nipper Alley, Kingston-upon-Thames, London.