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.”
* * *
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
Care to disscuss this chapter?
visit the forums