Victrola

Joseph Mansfield

 

An American resident here, name of Spencer MacCallum, buys old houses here in Casas Grandes.   He pretty much specializes in very old houses that are in ruins.  Houses that are considered beyond rescue, houses that most buyers would pull down, clearing the lot for new construction.  Spencer restores these houses, regardless of cost, and finds a use for them.  Some are rented to visiting archaeologists.  A couple are art galleries.  One seems so far to be reserved for festive dinners attended by Spencer’s wide circle of friends.

 

Spencer also buys a lot of other things.  But whereas he goes looking for realty, the personalty comes looking for him.   Word is out that he buys old things with which to furnish his old houses.  Not much more than a week or two goes by but what someone happens in at Spencer’s house, hoping to sell him a chair, a cabinet, a box of old books, an ancient lantern, a primitive toaster.  And from the looks of his house he must buy just about everything that is offered to him.  There is never a shortage of oddities and antiquities in his house.

 

And that’s how he got the Victrola.  Somebody happened along wanting to sell Spencer a Victrola; and as somebody predicted he would, Spencer bought it.

 

Victrolas, and the records they played, were made by the Victor Talking Machine Company of Camden, New Jersey, which flourished from 1901 to 1928 under that name.  Spencer’s machine still has its original manufacturer’s label, a metal plate bearing the numbers VV-VIII 112220, apparently the model and serial numbers.  There is mention of a U.S. patent issued 1 February 1904, though the patent number is not given.  A Spanish inscription reads, M. IND. RGTRDA NOS. 4176 4180.  There are four complex ideograms which appear to be Japanese.  This label is on the main deck of the machine.  Under the lid is a second metal plate indicating that the machine was sold by Paulin’s, THE TALKING MACHINE MAN, in Santa Barbara, California.

 

The manufacturer’s plate also bears the famous picture of a dog facing the great horn of a phonograph, with the legend, HIS MASTER’S VOICE.  But this Victrola does not have the classic exterior horn.  Rather the horn is internal (an innovation first marketed by the Victor company in 1906).  The machine generates sound by passing a stylus through the groove of a record, where the many contours – bumps, hills, valleys – of the interior of the groove are an analog of the recorded sound.  From the stylus, vibrations are passed to a diaphragm, mounted in the same housing on which the stylus mechanism is mounted.  This housing, in turn, is on the end of the “tone arm”, which supports the housing and stylus and allows the stylus to swing from side to side as it follows the spiral groove.  The tone arm is hollow.  It mounts on the rear of the deck, and passes through the deck to be joined below deck with a metal horn which curves and expands toward the front of the machine.  About six inches from the front the metal horn ends, being joined to several wooden baffle plates which pass the sound out of the machine.  The acoustics are not unlike those of many wind instruments, where a vibrating wooden reed or a membrane (the player’s lip) produces an apparently weak sound that is subsequently amplified by passing through the tubular body of the instrument.  I am always amazed that the sound of the vibration of a bugler’s lip, processed through the bugle, can be heard across a battlefield.  The Victrola sound is no less amazing.  The microscopic vibrations of a stylus can fill a house with the sound of an orchestra.  Strictly speaking, there is no amplification.  There is only so much energy available in the vibration of a membrane or a stylus, and no energy is added to it as would be the case in true amplification.  The acoustical optimization of energy through a wind instrument or Victrola is little short of miraculous for its efficiency.

 

Spencer’s Victrola, for want of a few tiny parts, is not in working order.  It is very close.  Close to working, and close to me:  I  have it here on my workbench.  Spencer showed me the machine a couple of weeks ago.  He cranked it up and started the turntable turning.  And with the turning came a horrible vibration, a sound something like an electric massage pad makes, a sound a Victrola ought not to make, a shaking of the whole machine.  Upon hearing it, I suggested I take the machine home, dismantle it, find the source of the vibration, and if possible repair it.  Spencer agreed.  Last night I got around to opening the Victrola.

 

Now I am a lover of machinery.  Other people in this ancient village are lovers of archaeological ruins; and others love fine painting and pottery and jewelry.  I am seldom moved by artifacts of that sort.  But let me see a piece of machinery.  This one is beautiful.  It is something I can sit and admire for long stretches of time.  If I am not careful this beauty will draw tears from my eyes.  If you are a machinist you may know what I mean.  The machinery is heavy, durable, solid.  Like a mediaeval cathedral, with a little care it could function reliably for literally centuries.  It is also, like the old cathedrals, a marvel of simplicity.

 

The main spring is a large coil of steel inside a protective cylinder.  This spring is quite stiff, so it can store a large quantity of energy in a small space.  The ends of the coil are attached to gears.  The wheel at the driven end is driven by a pinion on the crank shaft, so the spring can be wound up.  A ratchet assembly prevents the stored energy from escaping through this end.  The wheel and pinion combination is a step-down assembly, so that the machine is easy to wind—the crank turns easily but must be turned something over two turns to put a single turn on the spring.  Works like low gear on a car or bicycle.  Conversely, the gear on the driving end of the spring is a quite large helical-cut wheel driving a slender worm gear, which is itself the lower end of the turntable shaft.  These gears form a step-up assembly, allowing a small motion of the spring (about 18 rpm) to produce the rapid rotation (78 rpm) of the turntable.  The machine is this simple.

 

Well, almost this simple.  Something has to regulate the speed of the turntable, and that something is a governor.  The governor is a disk brake, not too different from the one on your car, except that it has a single brake pad and the disk is forced against the pad, instead of the pad against the disk.  The governor assembly is built on a spinning shaft.  This shaft is driven by a helical-cut wheel and worm assembly off the turntable shaft, just as the turntable shaft itself is driven off the spring, so that the governor shaft turns quite rapidly (about 1170 rpm, the step-up from turntable speed being about a 1 : 15 ratio).  The governor shaft has a collar pinned to it near one end and a longer collar, or sleeve, free to slide up and down the shaft at the other end.  Three leaf springs connect the collars together.  Each leaf spring has a metal weight about the size of a stack of five dimes attached to its midpoint.  At rest the spring leaves are almost straight, so when the machinery is stationary they hold the two collars apart at maximum distance.  But as the mechanism picks up speed, and the springs and weights begin to rotate around the governor shaft, centrifugal force pushes the weights outward.  The outward force flexes the springs, which brings the two collars closer together.  Now the brake disk is also mounted on the second collar, the one that is free to move, and as rotational velocity increases, the disk moves closer to its pad.  Finally it touches the pad, and friction with the pad now prevents it from turning any faster.  The brake pad itself is adjustable, can be moved closer to or further from the rest point of the disk; this adjustment is achieved by turning a screw that projects through the deck near the turntable.  Now the governor is a tiny mechanism, but it is driven, as we saw above, through two step-up gears.  As the governor seeks to limit the velocity of the turntable shaft, the same gear train effectively acts as a step-down mechanism.  The governor speed of about 1170 rpm acting against the main spring turning at about 18 rpm gives the governor a mechanical advantage of 1170 : 18, or 65 : 1, which lets the governor’s very small drag control the massive force of the spring.

 

There are four more details.  There is a speed indicator readout near the speed adjustment screw.  This involves a hand pointing to a position on a dial.  One end of a tiny feeler arm, a first class lever, mounted near the governor’s brake disk is ever so gently pushed toward the disk by a hairspring, one not nearly so strong as the one in a watch or clock.  This causes the feeler arm always to stay in contact with the disk, so the position of the arm senses the position of the disk, which in turn is an analog of the rotational speed.  The other end of the feeler arm is connected to the indicator hand.  The turntable itself is a heavy metal disk.  Its mass is such as to build momentum and ensure smooth rotation.  A turned-down flange on the turntable forms a brake drum, against which a small lever on the deck drives a shoe to shut the mechanism down.  Finally, all this machinery is mounted on a motor board set into the deck of the Victrola.  The motor board can easily be removed and laid upside down on a table.  On the bottom of the board is a diagram showing exactly how the machinery should be oiled.

 

There is something pretty humorous about the speed indicator.  Like any mechanical measuring instrument, it needs calibrating from time to time.  The instructions given for calibrating it say to adjust the turntable speed until it is running precisely at 78 rpm, then force the speed indicator hand to point to 78 (there is a cover you remove to permit this).  Now if your speed indicator is not calibrated, pray tell how do you know when your turntable is turning at 78 rpm?  (There are ways, such as a strobe disk viewed through a tuning fork equipped with shutter blades.  But one suspects most Victrola users were not initiates of such mysteries.)

 

After giving you all this detail, I can tell you quickly what was wrong with Spencer’s machine.  First, the stylus mount was missing from the tone arm assembly.  Second, two of the three weights of the governor assembly were missing.  That put the governor out of balance and made it shake the whole machine—hence the vibration I set out to find.  I searched the inside of the case for the missing parts and did not find them.  They might have been wedged under the sound horn; I did not remove it to check.  I did find, and remove, a stylus, a three-penny finish nail, a 6/32x1” cone head screw, two unpopped kernels of popcorn, one popped kernel, two nondescript pieces of metal unrelated to the Victrola, and a fair amount of dirt.

 

Long before radio, phonographs brought recorded music into private homes.  The original records were cylindrical, used by the Edison machine, among others.  The first disc records were made by the Victor company.  By the time I was born 45 years later, the records were produced under any number of labels.  One was RCA Victor, controlling interest in the Victor Talking Machine Company having been sold (indirectly) to the Radio Corporation of America.  RCA Victor records still carried the picture of the dog and the phonograph.  Before I could read I could operate a phonograph, and being unable to read the caption on the picture, I supplied my own:  “The dog looked into the horn.”  I struggled for years to make sense of that picture before I finally realized that it was an old phonograph horn that the dog was looking into.  Even when I could read, “his master’s voice” just confused me more until I finally grasped what I was seeing.  I am slow like that sometimes.

 

At our house we had an old combination radio and record player, a console model whose make I do not remember.  As a child I had a great collection of children’s records.  They were about 7.5 inches in diameter (the full size 78s were 10 inches or occasionally 12) so a child’s small hands could manage them easily.  They were made of a plastic surface fused onto cardboard.  They would not survive nearly as many plays as the brittle grownups’ records, but they would survive many more falls.  From these records I learned musical settings of many of the popular children’s stories of the day, Cinderella being one.  And there were songs of formation and exhortation.  One sang,

 

Mother has so much to do

Her work is never done. 

You can do so much of it

To help her, little one. 

Be a helpful little kiddie. 

Help your mother every day. 

When she sends you on an errand,

Always do it right away.

 

As for the large 78s, I had access to them at my grandmother’s house, where I played them on a fairly new Truetone console machine from the Western Auto.  Some of these records sounded notes of happiness and promise.  I remember “It is no secret”, still known today, and I believe the flip side of it carried “I’ve got a mansion just over the hilltop.”  There were hilarious frivolous songs which often reached the level of slapstick—“Good night, Irene”, “Sally, let your bangs hang down,” and “Pistol-packin’ Mama”.  The risqué and the ridiculous came together full force in “She got them caught in the wringer.”  But where the religious songs sometimes gently alluded to death, the country and western songs hit it head on.  Was it Tex Ritter who sang “Blood on the saddle”?  And there was a record by someone, maybe a Mullins, of which the obverse side sang of his mother’s funeral, and the reverse of his father’s:

 

Daddy, your funeral  

Was just like Mama’s.

The loved ones and friends

Were all there. …

No, no!  When I passed by your coffin

I couldn’t believe it was you.”

 

People sang of sad things in those days.  My other grandmother sang a bedtime lullaby about “the poor little babes in the woods”.  Having wandered into the woods and gotten lost, and being unable to find their way out, at length “they laid down and died.”

 

I would cry when she sang that, just as I am weeping now over half a century later as I recall the song, and the woman who sang it.  These songs, one grandmother’s voice and the other’s records, exposed me to death well before the first actual death of anyone I knew or loved.  They struck a keynote.  For life thereafter, for the next thirty years or more, was to be one long series of deaths and funerals, finally growing less frequent only because most of those I loved had died.  Now I have a son and two grandsons.  I have lost, through death or removal and losing track of, countless ancestors, aunts, uncles, cousins.  Between that and the pitifully small number of births in the family for two or three generations, I have hardly any family left.

 

I ask myself, do people love today like they did then?  Do we mourn and carry on over our deceased loved ones like we did then?  I think not.  Nor does our music reflect it.  I say “our”; I mean in the U.S. culture.  Here in Mexico there is still a lot of sadness in the popular music, a lot of songs about death and loss, and the people still grieve without restraint at funerals.  Back in the U.S., are there very many like me, who still weep when they remember their deceased loved ones, or the sad songs of childhood?  I don’t know.  I suspect not.  If there are they don’t talk about it, don’t sing about it.

 

They say life is cheap here in Mexico.  Maybe it is.  We sure lose a lot of people in alcohol-related traffic accidents.  I have heard we lose a lot in drug wars and horseplay that gets out of hand; I have not seen that for myself like I have the traffic deaths.  But we don’t put people in nursing homes.  Old folks are cared for at home by their families, families large enough to be able to handle such care.  Maybe we have nursing homes here; I don’t know.  I have never seen one nor heard of anyone being put in one.  I have heard, though, Latinos who have gone to the U.S. and worked in nursing homes express shock at the way Americans slap their parents into nursing homes and never visit them.   Are Americans really that cold?  Or have they built a mobilized suburban system that leaves them no time for loved ones?  Is there a difference?

 

Well, an old Victrola can get a man to thinking along a lot of lines.  Another line of my thought considers what has been the social effect of recorded, and broadcast, music.  For one thing, just off the cuff it looks to me like it facilitates a few big-name musicians getting rich, whereas without it it looks to me like the market would make room for a large number of musicians to earn modest returns.  For another, recorded music means there are few places outside one’s home, if even there, where one can enjoy silence.  People have radios or CD players going all the time.  Say they can’t stand silence.  Did people who can’t stand silence even exist before recording and broadcasting?  If they did, where did they get their fix?  What kind of sickness is it that requires someone to have mechanical music or talk going all the time?

 

But all that is stuff to write about some other time.

 

A couple of weeks ago I was driving up to Arizona.  When I got to El Entronque (about 20 miles from Palomas and the border) I picked up a hitchhiker carrying nothing but a guitar and a cardboard can.  He talked faster than a machine gun fires.  What little I could get out of it was that he was going up to Palomas to try to make a buck singing in the bars.  And maybe something about being kicked out of a bus station, or maybe off a bus, for singing; but I may not have understood that at all.  He was, to put it gently, a bit “abnormal”.

 

Anyway, after about five minutes, he got started singing.  And he had a way of humming through lips stretched and almost closed that sounded quite like a saxophone.  So he played the guitar and sang, and punctuated his song with little bursts from the sax.  And he was good!  He sang about mining in the mountains of Coahuila and about lost love in Sonora and about that sorry daughter-in-law, and about a man who admitted to three vices:  he was a drunk, he was a gambler, he was in love.  This private concert went on all the way to Palomas.  We got there and he got out.  I gave him 50 pesos to get his earnings off on the right foot. 

 

I expect I will remember this event the rest of my life.  I will keep it, guard it, care for it, this little treasure that resides in my memory.  The music and the man.  His name was José.

 

If what I heard had been just recorded music, I would not have given a toot about it.  I would have turned it off.

 

© 2006 Joseph Mansfield

2006.01.13  First draft.

2006.01.18  Posted.

 

 

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