Victrolas: Wind-up vs. Electric Motors

By Tim Gracyk

Victrola

Many people think the word "Victrola" is synonymous with "crank phonograph," but not all machines with cranks are Victrolas, and not all Victrolas have cranks. Some have electric motors, which can add value to a machine or cause headaches for an owner.

Victrolas are products of the Victor Talking Machine Company. The company did not manufacture Victrolas at first. In early years it produced only "gramophones" designed to sit upon a stand or table--the M (for Monarch), the Royal, the early Roman Numerals (I through VI), others. The term "gramophone" was used by the company for only a short time. A judge ruled on March 1, 1901, that the name was a Berliner trademark, which jeopardized the Victor company for complex legal reasons. The term "talking machine" was adopted at this point for these machines.

By 1906 Victor engineers recognized a demand for elegant cabinet machines, or at least machines which concealed horns, so the Victor-Victrola was introduced. Pre-1906 "outside horn" machines, or early gramophones, are the most sought after among collectors today, but wealthy classes long ago evidently viewed them as eyesores.

Advantages of a full cabinet model include beautiful woodwork that adds to the machine's elegance, lids that protect the delicate reproducer and tonearm, shelves for storing records and their special "albums" (brown binders), space for needles and accessories. Wiping dust from a cabinet is easier than from a horn machine.

Using the elegant Victrola key, one can even lock a Victrola's lid and doors. The company never explained when a Victrola should be locked. Obviously children cannot break expensive Melba 78s if doors are locked, but I suspect machines were locked so servants would not entertain themselves with fox-trots or Billy Murray records.

The Victor-Victrola came in many models. Look for a machine's identification plate. "VV-XVI" can be translated as "Victor-Victrola, Model Number 16"--one of Victor's finest machines!

Okeh

Most Victrolas have spring-driven motors. Customers could buy machines with one, two, three, or four spring motors. If you have a one-spring motor, you can crank the machine and play one side of a 12-inch disc--let's say Joseph C. Smith's "Ching-A-Ling's Jazz Bazaar." Or play sides from two 10-inch discs--let's say Paul Whiteman's "Whispering" and then "Wang Wang Blues." Then crank again. It is not powerful.

The more springs, the more power. Robert Baumbach reports in his book Look for the Dog that the double-spring motor ran ten minutes on a full winding. Of course, springs today may not perform quite as well as when they were new decades ago.

If you fail to wind enough, the pitch of the music will lower before a song ends, forcing one to run to the machine to wind some more. Turning the crank while a record plays will hurt neither machine nor record. Incidentally, a disc should spin at full speed as you place the needle down. If you put the needle down and then begin the motor, you may damage the opening grooves.

Victor Visual

Replacing a broken spring is not easy. A spring can fly out its barrel, which can be dangerous, and grease makes a mess. I recommend that a Victrola expert tackle the job.

When done playing a wind-up machine, you may walk away and let it wind down until it stops on its own. Some collectors say a little tension should remain in the spring as a machine sits for long periods, but enough tension will remain when the motor stops on its own. Don't leave a machine tightly wound between playing sessions.

Although some collectors say winding gets tedious, most view winding a machine like tying shoelaces or buying milk at the market--it is a part of life that you accept, never thinking much about it.

I often listen to 78s with my baby daughter slowly falling asleep on my shoulders. At such moments I view winding as onerous, so I rely on my Credenza model (in a beautiful walnut cabinet) since it is equipped with an electric motor. Of course, when my neighborhood suffers power outages, I rely on my crank phonographs. If your own power goes out, don't sit in silence. Invite neighbors over for a Victrola party. Put early "jass" 78s on the turntable, take turns at cranking, and have fun as you wait for the power company to restore electricity! Your neighbors will love dancing to Joseph C. Smith!

Decades ago Victrola customers could pay more to have an electric motor installed. Ordering one of two different electric motors would cost from $35 to $65 extra. As machines increased in cost, so did these motors. Many who invested in, say, a VV-XVI (an expensive model) could afford the extra for an electric motor. If one bought in 1926 the Orthophonic model titled the Consolette, one had the choice of a two-spring motor (turn the crank), an Induction Disc motor (extra $35), or a Universal motor (extra $55). No portable or table-top Victrolas were equipped with electric motors.

Machines with electric motors are worth collecting, but the Induction Disc motor was better than the more expensive Universal motor. The Universal motor was needed in the early part of the century because a dual electrical system existed in the U.S. for a brief period. Edison had developed a D.C. power system--direct current. Around 1914 rival Nikola Tesla developed the superior A.C. system--alternating current. The Universal ran on A.C. or D.C. whereas the Induction Disc was strictly A.C.

People with D.C. wiring in the home bought the Universal motor. I avoid machines with Universal motors since their inefficient performance can try a owner's patience. I asked Ron Pendergraft, who has written on motors, about his experiences with the Universal. He reports that if the commutator and brushes are not cleaned regularly, the motor slows down. This happens because brushes deposit carbon on the commutator. It can also be very noisy due to friction of brushes on the commutator. Years ago, if someone turned on a vacuum cleaner elsewhere in the house, the motor could actually slow down!

By 1925 the Induction Disc motor became the more common electric motor in Victrolas. Pendergraft reports that even this motor has a 60 cycle hum, so it was not completely quiet. But this was an improvement over the Universal.

When buying a Victrola, consider overall condition of the machine, rarity of the model, presence of original parts. If it is equipped with an electric motor, think of a machine with an Induction disc motor as worth more than one with a Universal motor. Examine the identification plate inside the turntable compartment. A "VE" on the plate indicates a Universal motor (it means "Victor Electric"), and until 1925 people could only get this. An "x" indicates an Induction Disc motor. Robert Baumbach reports that when Victor Electrolas with electrical amplification were introduced in 1926, an "E" suffix was added to the ID plate.

Some of Victor's competitors installed electric motors. In fact, a few of the earliest phonographs ran on electric power. In 1887-1888 Thomas Edison worked on a two-minute wax cylinder electric phonograph. Edison eventually concluded that battery cells were not practical. These Edison Class M and Class E machines are highly collectible today. They really belong in museums!

Victor had many other competitors--Columbia, Brunswick, Sonora, Delpheon, Busy Bee, Pathe, Cheney, Kalamazoo. I will soon identify which companies put out (along with Victor) first-rate machines, and which put out second- and third-rate machines. For now, I recommend that you avoid cabinet machines made by obscure manufacturers unless price is irresistible. I avoid cabinet machines made by obscure manufacturers since sound is poor. The big companies held the patents for technology that produced the best sound. Also, broken or missing parts from oddball machines are difficult to replace.

Motor Book

Do you have a question about a machine's history? One of the nation's experts on machines--when they were introduced, where manufactured--is R.J. Wakeman.