Thomas Edison was America's premier inventor of new technologies.
He was a genius at the work. His nearly 1,100 U.S. patents include the electric light, motion picture camera, film projector, electric vote recorder, car battery and stock ticker tape. At age 30, he invented sound recording, with the development of the tin foil phonograph in 1877. Edison was good at a lot of things, not great at others. We'll see one example while answering a What's it Worth? reader's question about her phonograph, which was part of the last gasp for Edison's record company.
Q. This phonograph was one of the first pieces of furniture my parents bought. They were married in 1920; it has been in the family ever since. It would have been purchased in either Tacoma or Spokane. I love it and played records on it for many years as I was growing up. It plays very well and uses really thick Edison records. What can you tell me about its history? -- Alice in Kennewick
A. Yours is an Edison Model W-19 Diamond Disc console record player. A hand-cranked, nonelectric player, the top flips up to reveal the turntable and there are record storage cabinets on either side. Called the "William & Mary," it was available in a number of different cabinet styles and finishes. All have the same turntable, known as the "Official Laboratory" model. Some, such as this one, have an uncommon long-play feature, allowing for both 10-inch and 12-inch discs.
Here's a quick history of Edison in the retail record and phonograph business. He invented the cylinder recorder/player and marketed records in the form of cylinders, rather than flat discs. At the same time, disc records and players were being marketed by RCA Victor and other companies.
Edison was convinced cylinder records produced better sound and he stuck with them exclusively until 1915, when -- having been out-marketed by Victor and others -- he introduced the Diamond Disc Player. It used a diamond-tipped needle and the flat records (one-quarter inch thick) could only be played on an Edison machine. The sound was great, but the machines were expensive. Alice's parents probably paid $300, which in today's dollars is $3,200.
By all accounts, Edison could be very stubborn and insisted on complete control of his commercial enterprises. That included which artists were recorded and what kind of music was released on Edison cylinders and records.
He liked "sweet" music with simple melodies, so not much jazz, ragtime or other popular music of the era came out from Edison. Collectors do find some "hot" music on the Edison label, but it's thought those releases were issued when the company's frustrated "A&R" (artist and repertoire) men went behind the boss' back.
And, yes, Edison insisted on personally approving everything himself, even though he did not read music or play an instrument, and he was deaf.
Retailers, in order to sell Edison phonographs and records, had to walk a fine line. Absolutely no discounting of prices set by the company was allowed for either phonographs or records. A store would quickly be dropped from the network if they gave customers a price break on anything Edison.
At the same time, RCA and many other companies were recording any artist they could sell and releasing any kind of music the public wanted to buy. Edison was being out-marketed and outsold at every turn.
Edison's Diamond Disc technology really did have better sound reproduction than its competitors. In fact, sales demonstrations would feature theater presentations of the music, where the actual singer would perform and the same song recorded on a diamond disc would be played.
Then, the lights would be doused, music played or performed and the audience would be asked to determine whether what they were hearing was the real singer or the recording.
The difference was indistinguishable and the demonstrations were a great sales tool. But, the superior sound quality wasn't enough to beat or even match the competition from Victor, Columbia and others.
By 1929, enough apparently became enough. Edison ended production and sales of both disc machines and the flat records. Cylinder records, which had been a long-time profit center for the company, also ended in 1929. All the diamond disc records were recalled from retailers and most were destroyed.
Diamond Disc players and records are collectible today. This phonograph would retail in the $500 range. Each record, if in good condition, would be from $5 to $25, depending mostly on the music or performer.
-- Terry Maurer, a Tri-Cities personal property appraiser, is a member of the Certified Appraisers Guild of America. Direct questions on your antiques and collectibles to What's It Worth? by e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.