Gramophone Company (U.K.)

Gramophone Company

From Wikipedia

The Gramophone Company, based in the United Kingdom, was one of the early recording companies, and was the parent organization for the famous “His Master’s Voice” (HMV) label. Although the company was merged with another in 1931 to form Electric and Musical Industries Limited (EMI), the company title as “The Gramophone Company Limited” continued in use in the UK into the 1970s, for instance on sleeves and labels of records (such as The Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd, vinyl copies of which bear the copyright notice “©1973 The Gramophone Company, Ltd.”).


The UK Gramophone Company was founded by William Barry Owen and his partner/investor Trevor Williams in 1897 as the UK partner of Emile Berliner‘s United States basedUnited States Gramophone Company, which had been founded in 1892. In December 1900, William Owen gained the manufacturing rights for the Lambert Typewriter Company and The Gramophone Company was for a few years renamed to the Gramophone & Typewriter Ltd.

The Gramophone Co. trademark as it appeared on the reverse of early single sided British Gramophone records.

An early Gramophone Co. record label showing the original Trademark

An early Gramophone Co. record label showing the HMV Trademark

In 1900, the United States branch of Gramophone lost a patent infringement suit, brought on by Columbia Records and Zonophone, and was no longer permitted to produce records in the USA. Gramophone’s talking machine manufacturer, Eldridge R. Johnson, being left with a large factory and thousands of talking machines with no records to play on them, filed suit that year to be permitted to make records himself, and won, in spite of the negative verdict against Berliner.

This victory by Johnson, which would be used in naming the new record company the Victor Talking Machine Company he would found the following year, may have been in part due to a patent-pooling handshake agreement with Columbia that allowed the latter to begin producing flat records themselves, which they began doing in 1901, (all Columbia records had previously been cylinders). Contrary to some sources, the Victor Talking Machine Company was never a branch or subsidiary of Gramophone, as Johnson’s manufactory, which had been making talking machines for Berliner, was his own company with many mechanical patents that he owned, which patents were valuable in the patent pool agreement with Columbia. Thus, Victor and Columbia began making flat records in America, with UK Gramophone and others continuing to do so outside America, leaving Edison as the only major player in the making of cylinders (Columbia still made a limited number for a few years), and Emile Berliner, the inventor of flat records, out of the business. All he was left with were the master recordings of his earlier records, which he took to Canada and reformed his Berliner label in Montreal, Nipper logo and all. Edison would soon join the flat record market with his diamond discs and their players.

A public relations triumph of 1907 involved Alfred Clark, a New York representative of the company. Clark encouraged the Paris Opera to seal and lock 24 records in two iron and lead containers in a basement storage room at the opera. These were to be opened in 100 years. 24 more records were added to the first group in two additional containers in 1912, along with a hand-crank gramophone with spare stylus needles to insure the records could be played when unsealed. In 1989, it was discovered that one of the 1912 containers had been opened and emptied and the gramophone stolen. The three remaining containers were moved to the French National Library. When opened in December 2007, some of the records were broken but copies of all the missing and broken records were located in the French National Library. EMI digitized the collection and released it on three compact discs in February 2009 as “Les Urnes de l’Opera”.

In February 1909, the company introduced new labels featuring the famous trademark known as “His Master’s Voice“, generally referred to as HMV, to distinguish them from earlier labels which featured an outline of the Recording Angel trademark. The latter had been designed by Theodore Birnbaum, an executive of the Gramophone Company pressing plant in HanoverGermany. The Gramophone Company was never known as the HMV or His Master’s Voice company. An icon of the company was to become very well known – the picture of a dog listening to an early gramophone painted in England by Francis Barraud. The painting “His Master’s Voice” was made in the 1890s with the dog listening to an Edison cylinder Phonograph, which was capable of recording as well as playing, but Thomas Edison did not buy the painting.

In 1899, Owen bought the painting from the artist, and asked him to paint over the Edison machine with a Gramophone, which he did. Technically, since Gramophones did not record, the new version of the painting makes no sense, as the dog would not have been able to listen to his master’s voice (the master being Barraud’s deceased brother). In 1902, Eldridge Johnson of Victor Talking Machine Company acquired US rights to use it as the Victor trademark, which began appearing on Victor records that year. UK rights to the logo were reserved by Gramophone. Nipper lived from 1884 to 1895 and is buried in England with a celebrated grave marker.

In March 1931 The Gramophone Company merged with Columbia Graphophone Company to form Electric and Musical Industries Ltd (EMI). The “Gramophone Company, Ltd.” name, however, continued to be used for many decades, especially for copyright notices on records. Gramophone Company of India was formed in 1946. The Gramophone Company Ltd legal entity was renamed EMI Records Ltd in 1973. For later history of the company, see EMI.


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