Chapter 30

The Caroline

With his usual deliberate stride, Seaman First Class Townsend Brown searched the docks of the Brooklyn Navy Yard in January 1933 until he found, berthed proudly among the camouflage grey fleet, the gleaming white hull of a palatial motor yacht with the name “Caroline” emblazed across her broad stern.

At the recommendation of Venig Meinesz, Brown had been assigned to serve as a science officer aboard the Caroline, which was about to embark on an adventure called the Johnson-Smithsonian Deep Sea Expedition. From late January until early March, 1933, the Caroline would ply the waters of the tropical Atlantic. These were essentially the same waters Brown had visited the year earlier aboard the S-48 — only this time, instead of measuring gravity anomalies at a variety of depths beneath the surface, the Caroline would be dredging for samples of the flora and fauna on the very bottom of the ocean floor, in the area known as the Puerto Rican Deep. Seaman Brown was “on loan” from the Navy to serve as the expedition’s sonar technician and radio operator.

Brown ignored the icy winds whipping around Brooklyn’s Walabout Basin with some humor, knowing he would soon be basking in much more hospitable latitudes. The “Caroline” was undergoing final preparations for the planned six week voyage, which included the addition of a heavy duty winch to her after deck carried more than 6,500 feet of 3/8-inch wire rope that would lower a dredging bucket to the ocean bottom.

Apart from the special equipment furnished for this expedition, the Caroline was a far cry from the damp, cramped submarine where Seaman Brown had served his previous tour of duty. At 279 feet over all length and displacing some 2,400 tons, the Caroline boasted eight luxurious staterooms, each with its own private bath; an expansive, mahogany paneled library, a sumptuous dining room that required the service of five attending stewards, a complete laundry room, a state-of-the-art radio room, a drawing room complete with wood-burning fireplace, and an after-deck almost large enough for a tennis court. With a pair of 1,500 horsepower diesel engines capable of steaming at an impressive 15 knots, her tanks carried enough oil to cruise half-way around the world without refueling. The “Caroline” was considered the second largest private yacht in America, second only to J.P. Morgan’s “Corsair” – which was said to be a whole foot longer than the “Caroline.”

Despite his own affluent background — plying the waters of Buckeye Lake in Ohio on the “Viking” — the “Caroline” was quite unlike anything Townsend Brown had ever seen. He surely marveled at the wealth that would be required for any single individual to own a vessel of such size and grandeur that it could only be serviced in a shipyard that the Navy used to tend its frigates and destroyers.

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.”

* * *

Eldridge Reeves Johnson was a giant of 20th century industry whom time seems to have forgotten. Although history has recorded that Thomas Edison invented the “tinfoil phonograph” in 1877, perhaps 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.

Johnson was born in 1867 in Wilmington Delaware and raised by a great aunt in Dover after his mother’s death. Despite graduating from the Dover Academy at the age of 15, it was the young Johnson’s ironic good fortune to be deemed unworthy of a higher education. Instead, he was sent to serve an apprenticeship in a machine shop in Philadelphia. He proved to be an able machinist and an industrious worker, but Eldridge Johnson longed for a higher calling.

After completing four grueling, monotonous years as an apprentice in 1886, Johnson found work at the Standard Machine Shop in Camden, New Jersey. After another eight years, he had saved enough of his earnings to acquire his employer’s interest in the business, and renamed it the Eldridge R. Johnson Manufacturing Co. Two years later, Lady Fortune walked through the doors of his shop in the form of one Emile Berliner.

Berliner was a German-born inventor who had experimented with various techniques for sound recording while working on improvements for another recently introduced, new-fangled machine, the telephone. Berliner determined that the quality of sound recordings could be improved by carving the vibrations into grooves on the surface of a flat disk, rather than etching them into the surface of cylinder as Edison did with his phonograph; the result was a machine that Berliner called the “Gramophone” (for which the recording industry awards — the Grammies — are named); Berliner also developed an early technique for producing multiple copies of a recording from a single original, in effect laying the cornerstone of the modern recording industry by developing the process of mass producing copies of a recording from a single master.

Though it was cheaper and boasted better sound reproduction than Edison’s machines, the gramophone still suffered from one major drawback that limited its success in the marketplace. To spin the disk, the user had to turn a hand-crank at a continuous and steady rate of 150 turns per minute. Maintaining that kind of consistent speed — without jolting the machine and causing the needle to skip — proved to be more of a challenge than most users could endure. Berliner’s need for a more suitable means of cranking the turntable brought him to the Eldridge Johnson Manufacturing Company.

Johnson came up with a spring motor that, once cranked, would spin the turntable at a uniform speed long enough to play an entire record. Freeing the user from the need to hand-crank the turntable was the critical component that made the earliest gramophones practical enough to begin finding a place in millions of American parlors. Johnson’s company formed a partnership with Berliner to serve as the new machines’ primary manufacturer.

In October of 1901, Johnson formed the Victor Talking Machines Corporation in Camden, New Jersey. In addition a line of gramophones, the company introduced one of the most famous and successful advertising campaigns ever devised: The image of Nipper, the white terrier, poised in front of the horn of a gramophone, head cocked, listening intently to “His Master’s Voice.” In 1906, Johnson’s company added a new word to the lexicon when a new, smaller model of the gramophone with a built in speaker horn was introduced as the “Victrola” —the first brand name to become synonymous with its product, like Xerox or Kleenex today.


The new Victrolas, with myriad improvements and innovations devised by Johnson and his associates, was an instant hit in the marketplace. Eldridge Johnson had the further presence of mind to recognize that it was going to take more than machines to make his company fabulously successful. He recognized early on that his ultimate success would depend not only in selling the machines, but in selling what people played on them.

To this end, Johnson turned his attention on the process by which records were manufactured. Beginning with the Berliner process, Johnson devised a process by which multiple “sub-masters” could be produced from the original master recording; In effect, Johnson’s Victor Company devised the means by which a virtually infinite number of copies of a recording could be mass-produced and sold to the public.

Johnson’s prowess as an engineer and inventor was matched by the commercial marketing skills of the Victor Company’s General Manager, Leon Douglass. Together, Johnson and Douglass created the first truly international ‘pop star’ when they signed Enrico Caruso, the Italian tenor, to a contract and began releasing his records by the millions to a public eager for something new to play on their new Victrolas. Eventually other, more established artists were signed to similar contracts, and Johnson and Douglass devised the concept of paying a “royalty” to the artists for each record they sold.

With their combined engineering, manufacturing, and marketing prowess, Johnson and Leon Douglass laid the technical and legal foundations for the modern recording industry, establishing business models that are still employed by the industry more than a century later.

Over the ensuing decades, sales of Victrolas — and the records played on them — soared into the millions of units, making the Victor Talking Machines Company one of the most successful enterprises in the world, and making both Eldridge Johnson and Leon Douglass fabulously wealthy in the process

Equally significant — and pertinent to the story a certain seaman who would soon be drawn into their circle — the Victor Talking Machine Companies were global in scope, with wholly-owned subsidiary operations in Canada, South America, and Japan, and a 50% stake in the Gramophone Co. Ltd of England. The growth of Johnson and Douglass’s empire reached literally around the world, bringing into their orbits the most influential and prominent gentleman at the very highest levels of business, finance, and international politics. Particularly in the fast-growing field of electrical communications, Eldridge Johnson and Leon Douglass were two of the most well connected men in the world.

Johnson and Douglass also had the foresight to realize that the vagaries of commerce did not assure that their good fortune would last forever. In the decade after World War I, as the new art called “radio” began to find favor in the marketplace, Johnson made a momentous decision: In January, 1927, he and Douglass sold their interests in the Victor Talking Machines Company to a group of investment bankers, who in turn sold the company to the burgeoning new Radio Corporation of America, which would eventually form the RCA/Victor Company.

Johnson himself walked away from the deal with a fortune estimated at somewhere in the neighborhood of $25-million dollars. Now retired from business, Johnson decided he should have himself a proper yacht. The boat's keel was laid at the Bath Iron Works in Maine in August, 1930, and the vessel he would call “Caroline” was launched on the 18th of July, 1931. The cost of construction was quoted at $1,567,410.90.

The yacht was not Mr. Johnson’s only indulgence. A biography of Eldridge Johnson, His Master’s Voice Was Eldridge R. Johnson, describes how “by the spring of 1927…he was ripe for the picking by art dealers.” Not all of Johnson’s acquisitions were entirely satisfying, and Johnson may have let himself be conned by one unscrupulous Philadelphia dealer to whom he shelled out $75,000 for a Rembrandt that was not really a Rembrandt.

However, one of Johnson’s more gratifying pastimes was his pursuit of memorabilia connected to the book Alice In Wonderland. Johnson became practically obsessed with the story of the young girl and her surreal, convoluted world, and acquired numerous first editions of the volume. He even went to the trouble of having himself photographed in England with the elderly Alice Liddell Hargreaves, who, when she was a child, had been Carroll’s inspiration for Alice’s adventures. His quest for all things "Alice" culminated with the purchase of the one item that “really did render him the enjoyment which was proportional to its cost” — the original manuscript of Alice’s Adventures Underground, written in the hand of its author Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, who wrote under the pen-name of “Lewis Carroll.”

On one occasion, President Calvin Coolidge invited Johnson to display the manuscript at the White House. Johnson so treasured the original Alice that he had it housed in a steel cabinet, constructed to look like “a fine mahogany cabinet… with unbreakable glass” so that he could keep the manuscript with him and share it with his guests whenever he went aboard his yacht.

* * *

In his retirement, Eldridge Johnson became one of the nation’s most generous philanthropists. Among his most generous gifts, in 1929 he pledged an endowment of $800,000 to the University of Pennsylvania to establish the E.R. Johnson Foundation for Research and Medical Physics, which is now the school’s Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics and host to the ongoing Eldridge Reeves Johnson Professorship.

In October 1932, as part of his ongoing philanthropies, Eldridge Johnson offered the use of his yacht to the Smithsonian Institution for marine exploration of the tropical Atlantic.

The science portion of the Johnson-Smithsonian Expedition was directed by the Smithsonian’s Dr. Paul Bartsch, the curator of the Institute’s Division of Mollusks and Cenzoic Invertebrates (the dredges would be mostly looking for pelagic crustaceans). In addition to Seaman Brown, who was listed in the crew manifest as a Physicist from the Naval Research Laboratory assigned to operate the ship’s radios and sonar gear, Dr. Bartsch’s staff included: Dr. C.W. Price, a zoologist from the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture; his assistant Charles Weber, from the Smithsonian; G.R. Goergens, a photographer from the Dept. of Agriculture; Elie Cheverlange, an artist from the Smithsonian, and John W. Mills, the ‘dredging master,’ from the Carnegie Institution of Washington;and Anthony Wilding, from the Smithsonian, who served as the Expedition’s recording secretary.

Further, in addition to providing the use of his enormous yacht with all of its 42-man crew and up to $50,000 to fund the actual Expedition, Mr. Johnson reserved the right to bring aboard a number of distinguished guests —his family, his colleagues and their families — who would occupy the first class quarters on the vessel and essentially use the Expedition as their excuse to spend the winter months in the warm climes of the Caribbean region of the West Atlantic.

Mr. Johnson’s guest list included his son, Eldridge Reeves Fenimore Johnson, referred to in the literature as “son Fen.” Fenimore had been responsible for much of the pre-voyage preparations, including the extensive modifications necessary to make a luxury yacht like the Caroline suitable for such a rigorous scientific mission. In fact, Fenimore was something an oceanographer himself, and had developed one of the world’s first underwater cameras which he brought along on the Caroline voyage.

Also on the guest list were Johnson’s former business partner in the Victor Company, Leon Douglass, his wife, and their two very eligible and attractive daughters, Miss Ena Douglass and Miss Florence Douglass, as well as two personal friends: Dr. George Darby, a dentist from Merion Park Pennsylvania and Walter J. Kennedy, from Camden New Jersey, an engineer who maintained son Fen’s yacht, the Elsie Fenimore.

With Dr. Bartsch, Seaman Brown and the other members of the scientific staff as well as Mr. Johnson and his guests all on board, the Caroline slipped from her moorings at the Brooklyn Naval Yard at 9:00 AM on January 23, 1933. After spending a day testing her instruments and adjusting her compasses in the harbor, ship and crew set sail under fair skies over calm seas for the lower latitudes.

The Caroline’s first stop was in Miami, where Mr. Douglass and his family joined the guests already on board. After spending a day in Miami, the Caroline steamed east into the Atlantic.

The following night another distinguished guest came on board to spend the evening dining with the Johnsons and the Douglasses amid the nautical splendor of the palatial Yacht Caroline — while she was docked at Nassau, in the Bahamas.


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