Sunday, June 24, 2012

Phillip Morro, the man who changed forever the recording industry.

When we talk about the history of sound recording and the phonograph, gramophone, graphophone, or victrola histories there are many names that ring out. Names such as Edison, Bell, Tainter, Berliner, Johnson, Seaman, Easton, and Jones.

 But when do we ever hear about Phillip Morro?

In fact all but a very select few of you are saying right now..."Who the hell is Phillip Morro?" Well, he was a man behind the scene, but his actions and comments made many in the recording industry either shutter or cheer.  Phillip Morrow was the main lawyer for the Columbia Phonograph Company. Columbia was lacking many things, but one thing they did have was the most brilliant lawyer. Edison always had rather lackluster lawyers and lost many cases. The Columbia Company got into many parts of the recording industry without any protective patents and exited victorious. All of this was due to Phillip Morro.  If I was the head of another recording company like let's say Edison, my first objective would be to find how I could get Morro!  He was worth his weight in litigation.

In 1894 Emile Berliner entered the sound recording market with his new Gramophone. It was a sickly looking and sounding contraption that had one massive feature going for it. It was cheap!  By 1896 with the assistance of his new head mechanic and supplier Eldridge Johnson, Berliner now had a machine that was good and sounded quite well. But advertising was needed. In 1896 Berliner entered into an agreement with Frank Seaman to be his advertising agent for a period of 15 years, or till 1911. Seaman would be the selling agent for the machines and recordings and would get a cut in all prices.

 By 1898 Berliner was doing very well and the original deal worked out in 1896 seemed very problematic. It gave Seaman a rather bad deal on all the work he was doing. The success of the Gramophone was due to Seaman's great work in advertising and pushing the product.

By 1899 Seaman was furious at Berliner for not adjusting the discount that Seaman got on Gramophones. and this is where Seaman went to the Columbia Phonograph Company and worked out a deal. He decided he would stop Berliner in his tracks because of his lack of wanting to share in the massive profits his company had made. He formed his own company called the Zon-O-Phone Gramophone Company and waited for the right time.  In early 1900 he attacked!  He announced that the Gramophone was illegal and was in direct violation of the Bell Tainter patients of the Columbia phonograph Company.   This caused a stir and quite a mess in the entire industry.

By making his move Seaman had brought about a chain reaction that would cause a great change in the industry. But why did Seaman do it?

He was under the careful tutelage of Phillip Morro who was orchestrating this whole affair. This action by Seaman allowed Columbia and Phillip Morro to remove Berliner from the scene totally. But how? This is where the mastery of Morro comes out. The original 1886 patent for the Columbia Phonograph Company stated that the needle of the machine was moved by a groove.  This was a patent for a cylinder machine and a direct gearing system of record tracking. It had nothing to do with disc records except how Morro interpreted it.

Morro took a Berliner Gramophone machine and played a Berliner record on it. He placed a new needle in the reproducer of the machine, wound it up and placed the reproducer on the record. He then stated the obvious, that the record was instrumental in making the needle move. In fact the needle was moved by a groove! This was the wording of the 1886 patent.

 With this very loose, but remarkable interpretation of the 1886 patent Morro was able to push an injunction against Berliner. Effectively putting him out of business! The Berliner Gramophone Company would go out of business in 1900 and never return to the forefront of the industry again.

 However, by this action of Phillip Morro, Eldridge Johnson would create his disc record companies. Little did Morro realize that his actions against Berliner would create the greatest recording company the world had ever seen, the Victor Talking Machine Company.

This action would cause a revolution in the entire disc industry. As of 1901 a company that had little patent protection was becoming the master of the industry and they did not even at this point make a disc record! But they had power and had a strong control of the Zon-O-Phone company.  This company was always a bit behind, but once Seaman was out of it, it was taken over by the Columbia Company. But soon after traded for some patent rights with Victor. It would after 1903 become a cheap record label for Victor and even now and then reproduced a few early recordings made in its beginnings.

Although the head of Columbia was Edward Easton, the power and clever nature of Columbia came from its lawyers. It was decided in 1901 that Columbia would get into the disc market. But it had to be done quietly as once again they had no patents to support them save for the bogus needle moved by a groove patent of 1886. Easton and his team went to Millburn, New Jersey to the Bert Company which was a place that made chess pieces and with them set up a new company called the Globe Record Company. It would be this new concern that produced a new record that was to be used with Columbia's new disc machines. The record was to be called a Climax record and was originally devoid of any info of what it was or where and for who it was made. But by September of 1901 the Climax record was in massive production and was the first type of disc record for them that just stated that patent was applied for.  It was a legal mess and Victor had a few ideas of what to do with this. There were some problems going on in Millburn N.J. with the Bert and Globe Record Company with Columbia. So after making it a very sweet deal in January 1902, Victor bought the Globe Record Company. This was done while Edward Easton was on vacation and when he returned he found that not only had the company designed to make Columbia records been bought from beneath them, but by their leading rival, the descendant of the Berliner Gramophone Company.  Much to Easton's and I am sure Morro's horror not only had Victor taken all the Climax stampers out of  Millburn, but had them all marked VTM. (Victor Talking Machine) on the disc right next the label when they returned them.

This action brought out the warring parties who each accused the other of underhandedness. Victor had the disc record patents of Berliner and control of the Globe Record Company. All of this would would have probably done some massive damage to the Columbia Company.But all this would change in Victor's discovery of the greatest legal cue of all. Joseph Jones who had been an assistant to Berliner and to some degree Johnson applied for a patent and it was granted on December 10, 1901. Jones who was short on cash, sold it to Columbia for a crisp $25.000.  This was a patent on the process of making the modern disc record on a wax blank. It was the process that Victor was using without a patent. So suddenly Columbia seemed very strong and could now force an injunction on Victor. It was at this time in the early months of 1902 that Victor and Columbia traded and pooled patents and stopped the war between them. Even Victor records were being pressed by the Bert Company in Millburn, which was owned and run by Columbia by this point/ The age of the modern record industry had arrived and started by the actions of a very shrewd Lawyer in 1900.

Morro would live until 1952 and see first hand how what he had done in 1900 had caused a revolution in the industry and  I am sure he was justly proud of it.