Delaware's 23rd annual Chautauqua, “The I’s Have It: Industry, Innovation, and Invention,” Sept. 9–12, 2021 More Info
Founded in 1967, the museum details the origin of recorded music. Exhibits showcase the life and legacy of Eldridge Reeves Johnson, a pioneer in early sound recording and co-founder of the Victor Talking Machine Company.
Born in Wilmington, Delaware, E.R. Johnson was an innovator in the phonograph era of music.
Growing up in Dover, Delaware, Johnson graduated from the Wilmington Conference Academy when he was fifteen, but was considered not smart enough to go to college and was told to learn a trade.
Johnson went on to become a machinist, working in Camden, New Jersey. There he was approached by Belford G. Royal of the Berliner Gramophone Company of Philadelphia. Royal had been tasked to create a spring motor that had the potential to power a flat-disc turntable. Unable to do it himself, Royal handed the machine over to Johnson who had started to make a name for himself in the industry. Johnson’s new motor was a success. His work eliminated the need to constantly crank a gramophone by hand.
After a series of legal battles surrounding Berliner’s Gramophone, Johnson branched out on his own. By 1900, he had the ability to create his own machines, and he partnered with others from the Gramophone company to co-found the Victor Talking Machine Company in 1901. By surrounding himself with men who had extensive experience in the phonograph industry, Johnson saw Victor sales grow exponentially. The Camden factory complex eventually grew to encompass 10 city blocks, grossed millions annually, and produced some of the most famous recording artists in the world at the time.
Johnson’s innovation led to the sale of thousands of Victrolas. After nearly 30 years in the industry, Johnson retired in 1927. The Victor Talking Machine Company was later sold to RCA in 1929.
In 1985, Johnson received a Grammy Award presented posthumously.
The iconic image of a mixed fox/bull terrier named Nipper looking into a phonograph became one of the most iconic images around the world.
Nipper was a real dog who lived in England. Francis Barraud, the English artist who painted him stated that Nipper enjoyed “nipping at the backs of people’s ankles.” Barraud thought the scene would make a great painting and created Nipper listening to “His Master’s Voice” in 1898.
The painting and copyright were purchased for use as the trademark for The Gramophone Company in London. The original painting featured Nipper listening to an Edison cylinder phonograph, but was later changed to a Berliner Disc Gramophone as a condition of the purchase.
Leon F. Douglass, vice-president of the Victor Talking Machine Company, acquired the U.S. rights to the painting for Johnson from Barraud. With an agreement between Victor and Gramophone, both companies continued to use the painting in their respective territories. Johnson and Douglass launched Nipper’s image and company name throughout the U.S., making it a nationwide phenomenon. Nipper’s final resting place is in Kingston-Upon-Thames in England.