Beat of Johnson’s legacy goes on in Dover

DOVER — Back in 1882, an educator told Eldridge Reeves Johnson he was “too dumb” to go to college.

Biographies of the man who went on to become a millionaire usually include an expletive between the “too” and the “dumb.”

The young man asked a lot of questions. Inquisitive and curious, apparently, didn’t equate to bright.

“Go learn a trade,” young Johnson was told at the age of 15 when he was graduating from the Dover Boys Academy.

His parents, of course, were heartbroken. His dreams were crushed.

Johnson, though, found his own way after toiling as a machinist, and he left an incredible mark on the music recording industry.

He was a peer of Henry Ford and a Thomas Edison but never received the same name recognition.

But the gramophone associated with the Grammy Awards and the little dog Nipper used in his company’s branding became iconic.

“You never heard about him because he was very low key,” said Nena Todd, site supervisor for the state’s Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs. “He didn’t take credit for a lot of things he was responsible for.”

The Johnson Victrola Museum, located on South New Street in Dover, tells his story well.

This year, the state-run museum is celebrating its 50th anniversary and the 150th anniversary of Johnson’s birth.

Ms. Todd wants local people to come in and celebrate his life.

On Saturday, as part of Dover Days, classical music will be spun on his Victrolas in the museum.

“Many of the people who come to visit are not local,” said Ms. Todd. “I think it’s a shame that Delaware people have no idea of the history of one of their native sons and what he did in the world.”

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Johnson’s father Asa, a contractor who lived in Dover, sent him to Philadelphia where he apprenticed in a machine repair shop.

Young Johnson went on to work in a machine shop in Camden that he later inherited after the misfortune of its owner.

By chance on day, he met a man named Emile Berliner whose talking machine idea needed some fine tuning.

Johnson had the answers — a way to automate the turntable and a way to control its speed.

A spring and a governor were added, and 78 rpm records were born in 1900.

So was Johnson’s Victor Talking Machine Co.

The meaning of the name Victor was never disclosed by Johnson. Music historians point to a number of things, including it being a victory for Johnson as an inventor or a victory in the patent wars of the era. There was also speculation that it came from the Victor bicycle he enjoyed riding.

From the little shop he had in Camden, the Victor Company would grow by leaps and bounds. He ended up employing thousands of people.

In the early going of the gramophone, he sent people around to homes to find out what they liked about the machines and didn’t like.

“The horns were kind of big and unsightly, and they collected a lot of dust,” said Ms. Todd during a recent tour of the museum.

And, they could get pretty loud.

“You’ve probably heard the phrase, ‘put a sock in it,’ and that’s exactly what they would do,” she said as she slipped an old pair of tube socks into the horn.

The research led to the idea of a wooden box with a lid that would close over the turntable and the horn enclosed

Eldridge Reeves Johnson

underneath it. Doors on the front could be opened to help manage the sound.

That’s when the Victrola was born in 1906.

“He sold so many talking machines that there were not enough records to keep up with it,” said Ms. Todd.

Johnson never missed an angle to grow during that time.

As Ms. Todd points out in the tour, he knew the popularity of the machine depended on recording great artists. He sought out the best in the world and signed conductor John Philip Sousa, Italian operatic tenor Enrico Caruso and the father of country music’s Jimmie Rodgers.

Johnson made sure the music was accessible to everyone, too.

He donated machines to schools and championed music as part of the curriculum.

Philanthropy became more and more important to him as his music empire grew.

Locally, the Peoples Church of Dover at Bradford and Reed streets was one of his greatest benefactors. In fact, his music lives on with the Memorial Tower Chimes he donated in memory of his father, Asa.

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The Johnson Victrola Museum opened on Dec. 14, 1967. Members of Johnson’s family, including his son Fenimore, were in attendance.

The collection of Victrolas and phonographs on display fills both floors of the museum. But, the collection there is only a small percentage of what the state has. There are tens of thousands of phonographs in the collection.

“Some of these were from 1904, 1905, 1910, and they’re still playable today,” said Ms. Todd.

You’ll also see the Grammy Award he received from The Recording Academy posthumously in 1985.

After the Dover Days event, the museum’s 50th anniversary will include First Saturday events A Dog’s Tale, Diva’s Tale and Grammy’s Tale, Ms. Todd said.

On July 14-15, the museum will celebrate the 100th anniversary of jazz.

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In addition to the machines, Nipper is a star in the museum.

You’ll see one of Francis James Barraud’s original paintings of “His Master’s Voice” and learn how it became the unmistakable icon of the Victor company. The terrier’s turned head appears to be marveling at the sound coming from the gramophone’s horn.

“The little dog took on a life of his own,” said Ms. Todd. “He was recognized all over the world.”

There is a great display of Nipper collectibles on the second floor.

“They made all this Nipper paraphernalia,” said Ms. Todd. “They had salt and pepper shakers, belt buckles, ties, pins and even a Nipper hood ornament for your car.”

When RCA purchased the Victor Company in 1929, they also gained rights to the “His Master’s Voice” logo.

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Ms. Todd said she especially appreciates the opportunity to tell Johnson’s story to young people. Many of the state’s fourth-graders visit there annually.

The takeaway, she hopes, is what Johnson overcame and achieved.

“Just because when you’re little and you have ideas, they don’t put a lot of stock in you, and they don’t think your ideas are great,” she said, “It has nothing to do with the fact that you’re destined to do great things.”

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