From the spring of 2003 until the early 2009, I researched and wrote a biography of a man named Thomas Townsend Brown, a 20th century scientist and inventor whose life is shrouded in all manner of mysteries. During the course of that research I also encountered the story of a man named Eldridge Reeves Johnson, aboard whose yacht the Caroline Brown served as a radio operator on a deep-sea research expedition in the 1930s.
What I learned in the course of that research is that that Eldridge Reeves Johnson could rightly be regarded as the man who created the modern recording industry.
Last week when somebody asked if I could identify “the grandfather of the recording industry,” I offered the name of Eldridge Reeves Johnson. The correct answer to this particular quiz was not Johnson, but a contemporary of Johnson’s named Emile Berliner. That is also a good answer, as readers will learn presently. But first, let me introduce you to the man who founded the Victor Talking Machines Company — and built that venerable firm into what might rightly be regarded as the first “media conglomerate” of the early 20th century.
The story begins with Townsend Brown arriving at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in the winter of 1933 to board the yacht Caroline…
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Except from Chapter 30: The Caroline
The “Caroline” belonged to a man named Eldridge Reeves Johnson. The yacht was named for Johnson’s mother, who died when he was a child in the 1870s — well before her son would become one of the world’s wealthiest industrialists in the two decades that spanned the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Amid the railroad tycoons, steel magnates, and oil barons of the Gilded Age, Eldridge Reeves Johnson became the era’s first great Media Mogul when he started an outfit called “The Victor Talking Machines Company.”
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Eldridge Reeves Johnson was a giant of 20th century industry whom time seems to have forgotten. History has recorded that Thomas Edison invented the “tinfoil phonograph” in 1877, but nobody did more to popularize the “talking machine” than Eldridge Johnson. Edison may have invented the first practical sound recorder, but Eldridge Johnson created the modern recording industry.