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CHARLES PATHÉ AND THE
PHONOGRAPH


ONCE UPON A TIME ...

by Grahame L. Newnham B.Sc.

Once upon a time in days gone by, there were two brothers who ran a little cafe; a chance idea, some initiative, and within five years their name was (and still is) famous all over the world.

The date was 1894, the city was Paris, and their names were Emile and Charles Pathé. Their little cafe/bistro was in Rue Fontaine near the lively Place Pigalle. Only in their twenties, the enterprising brothers always had a eye for business. One day they chanced to visit the annual Vincennes fair. A travelling showman was arousing great interest as he had a new fangled Edison phonograph from America. People were actually paying to hear the device play speech and music from the wax cylinders. Emile and Charles decided that this latest craze might also be useful to attract customers to their cafe. Unable to persuade the showman to part with his phonograph, the brothers imported a similar one from England. Sure enough people did come to their cafe and no doubt partook of refreshments whilst enjoying the phonograph demonstrations.

However a problem arose: cafe customers not only listened and admired the device, they asked if they could buy one! Being entrepreneurs, the brothers Pathé decided to fill this market demand. Unable to obtain a licence and supplies of the official Edison machine, a similar model was designed (copied?) by a local engineering company in Belleville. Soon they found sufficient demand to also record their own cylinders. In fact at the end of that same year, 1894, the Pathé brothers built a small factory in the Parisian suburb of Chatou to produce recording cylinder blanks. Business was brisk and the company Pathé Frères was born.

A distinctive logo was almost immediately adopted, the famous Pathé cockerel. This 'Le Coq' trademark was used extensively on their phonographs and cylinders.

By the end of the century their Belleville factory employed over two hundred workers to meet the demand for their cheap phonograph (a copy it appears, of the Columbia 'Eagle Gramophone').

Naturally as the sales of instruments mounted, demand for cylinders rocketed. The Chatou factory employed over one hundred and fifty staff to produce wax blanks. The Pathé Frères headquarters at Rue de Richelieu doubled as a recording studio. Here many famous French stars from the nearby Opera and music halls were persuaded to record their repertoires. Originally wax cylinders were recorded individually with up to ten instruments running, so as to produce ten cylinders from the one recording session, soon Pathé arranged a duplicating process by means of a mechanical pantograph process from large diameter masters. (Later shellac discs were more suited to bulk hydraulic press production methods although Pathe continued the pantograph copying even for discs into the 1920's). By 1899 the Pathé catalogue listed 1500 titles! The Pathé cylinders were produced as 2 minute (standard) and 4 minute Celeste (extra large). Pathé appear to have been the first to record the famous Enrico Caruso via an associated Italian company.

Another money-spinner for the Pathé Frères company was the Salon du Phonographe in the Boulevard des Italiens. In this plush, up-market set-up, one could sample any of the current audio delights - for a fee of course! Rows of comfy easy chairs faced polished wood cabinets each fitted with hearing tubes, a dialling device and coin slot. A coin was inserted, the desired choice dialled and within ten seconds the tune was heard. The first juke-box? Not exactly, for underneath this opulent room was a cellar stacked with cylinders and dozens of fleet footed staff to locate and play the required tunes! The daily take was in the order of 1000 francs!

Because of Pathé Frères, the cylinder's popularity reigned supreme in Europe, especially France, even though the gramophone was gaining ground elsewhere. In 1904 Emile Pathé employed 3,200 workers, produced 1,000 phonographs and 50,000 cylinders a day, and had offices and studios in London, Milan and Moscow. Factories had been opened in London, Milan, Brussels, Amsterdam and Moscow. By now the catalogue contained 12,000 titles.





 


A Pathé phonograph in my collection - is this a Model 0 around 1905 (Diplomatic) perhaps ?

 

However by 1906 Pathé had entered the disc market, although using vertical 'hill and dale' recording standard as opposed to 'lateral', diameters of 8 1/2 and 11 inches, with centre start and a speed of 90 r.p.m. After all, Pathe always did like to do things differently! (But usually better too!). Nevertheless a Pathé adaptor was available for other gramophones and of course their discs were perfect for their own Pathéphone instrument. In England their discs were marketed at 9d (old pence) each, which was extremely competitive. 1908 saw the phasing out of the cylinders in favour of discs; technology always moves on.

In 1909 Pathé had introduced enormous 20 inch discs played at 120 r.p.m. on an instrument called the Pathéphone Majestic. An air amplified version had the dubious distinction of blaring out the National Anthem on the route of a state drive by King George V in 1911. By now annual Pathé gramophone turnover had reached $2,000,000 and was probably the second largest record company in Europe.

By this time however brother Charles had branched out into yet another lucrative market - that of the cinema. But that's another story.....

©6Aug1991/gln/pathedsk (the text of this article originally appeared in the Group 9.5 magazine)


Further notes:
The original Pathé vertical cut discs, first produced in 1906, were not pressed, but copied using large pantographs from a large master disc. They required a special sound head suitable for vertical movement, equiped with a spherical tipped saphire stylus. The discs were initially label-less, centre start and ran at speeds of 90 to 100rpm. Sizes were 8.5inch, 11inch, 14inch and 20inch. The last vertical cut discs were deleted from the catalogue around 1932. By 1920 Pathé had introduced conventional lateral cut discs, but these were still copied using pantographs; they were marketed as 'needle cut' using the name of
Actuelle.

Around 1927 when Charles Pathé was 'clearing the decks' for his retirement, the record side of the Pathé empire was sold to the UK Columbia Record Company - sale completed June 1928. In 1931 the UK EMI company was formed from various companies including HMV and Columbia, the French Pathé record company becoming Pathé-Marconi. Nowadays it still produces many French CD releases and is still owned by EMI, trading as Pathé-Marconi EMI S.A.)


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