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Viva Victrola

Old Phonographs Are a Blast From the Past

August 03, 2003|MICHAEL T. JARVIS

Bruce Peterson has been on a roll since winning first prize in the eighth-grade science fair in Rowland Heights 30 years ago by demonstrating how Thomas Edison invented the phonograph. Peterson's gig as a director of engineering in the telecommunications industry may seem light years from the Edison era. But the romance of yesterday's sound is still alive in his Orange County home, which doubles as a showcase for dozens of vintage phonograph machines. "I have 34 phonographs that range from the common to the ultra rare," says Peterson, 44, who restores the machines in his spare time. "I work high tech all day so working on low tech is fun."

Peterson belongs to the California Antique Phonograph Society, whose 250 members collect pre-1929 phonographs. "Some guys started when they were 13 years old and they've been collecting for 30 years," Peterson says. "We have a member who's 84 and has been collecting since the '30s. You get the bug and you have to get another one."

Edison invented the first phonograph in 1877 and believed its best application was for business and government. "Edison didn't think about the home entertainment possibilities," Peterson says. Early phonographs used wax cylinder records and listening tubes similar to a stethoscope. The public demanded a home version after coin-operated phonographs became popular in the 1890s. Early home phonographs were labor intensive, Peterson says. "You had to hand crank it. If you stopped cranking, the turntable stopped." The phonograph spawned such expressions as "put a sock in it," meaning to muffle the sound. In 1901, the Lambert Co. replaced the wax cylinders with celluloid units that eventually morphed into flat 78-rpm records.

Peterson's foyer holds a selectable multi-cylinder phonograph--a precursor to the jukebox--built between 1905 and 1908. Another machine was designed to play 12 records, one after another. "Anybody in the recording industry owes their livelihood to all of this," says Peterson. "Songs tend to be about four minutes because the original records only played that long." His collection also has one of the only known surviving gold-plated 1906 Edison Triumph Model Bs.

Peterson's eye-pleasing oak and mahogany phonographs are detailed with elliptical grills and accented with layered or scrolled patterns. "There's a lot of inherent beauty to it," he says. "I call it functional art." His sprawling home also is filled with vintage phonograph ads, posters, stock certificates and a print of the painting "His Master's Voice," by Francis Barraud, featuring Nipper the Dog, the icon for the Victrola of the Victor Talking Machine Co., which eventually became RCA.

Though his collection includes some rare gems, Peterson says collecting phonographs is an obsession anyone can afford. "It's not a rich man's hobby," he says. "There's something for everybody. You can find Victrolas for $200." He may be running out of room, but Peterson is still trolling for phonographs. "There's another two dozen more I'd like to have."


The society's 19th annual show and sale will be held Aug. 9 and 10 at the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, 8530 Stanton Ave., Buena Park; (949) 858-8969 or (760) 242-5748.

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