on other languages РусскийThe failure of engineer Rebikoff
Exactly one hundred years ago the unusual shape gramophones appeared in Russian musical stores. They were made at the domestic factory of V.I. Rebikoff. This company had dared to challenge the foreign firms specialized on phonograph records and devices for their playback.
At the beginning of XX century the Russian gramophone business was well behind of the foreign industries, and it was import-oriented. In spite of the fact that Russian businessmen had quickly realized that the new business could be very profitable, the first attempt of starting up gramophones and records manufacturing ended up with total fiasco.
The news of founding Russian company by millionaires P.F.Korovin, S.N.Zaharov and engineer V.I.Rebikoff was told for the first time in 1901 by Ippolit Pavlovich Rapphof who was a musical critic and the owner of the largest in St.-Petersburg gramophone store. Like any other big enterprises, the new business required serious preparation, special knowledge and large capital investments. If succeeded, it could unite the largest Russian gramophone dealers, which were at that time in sharp competitive struggle. Rapphof himself was competing with Burchard in St.-Petersburg, Zimmerman with Muller in Moscow, Morozov with Verner in Kharkov, Bankovsky with Adler in Rostov. In such state of affairs they failed to come to unity concerning the new enterprise.
Soon after, Mr.Rapphof quitted the company. The new Association was named after Vasily Ivanovich Rebikoff. How did he manage to win the confidence of Petersburg’s businessmen that decided to undertook the venture and invest large amounts? Vasily Ivanovich was the brother of known in those years Russian composer Vladimir Ivanovich Rebikoff. Among engineers he deserved popularity as “director-technician of the Belgian Electric Illumination Society” in St.-Petersburg, then he headed different companies; had been engaged in cinema; achieved great success in kerosene illumination business. The news about invention of gramophone amazed him so much that he decided to devote himself completely to a new arising science - the acoustics. As a matter of fact, he was the "Russian Berliner" – one with irrepressible imagination, enviable energy, and absolutely absent commercial streak that finally played its fatal role.
Since rumors were spread that engineer Rebikoff had seriously engaged in business of improvement of “talking machine”, everyone who knew him as a talented technician, and who was interested in this apparatus, looked forward with a great hope at the beginning of new business. The work got into gear. The factory of the Association grew up on the Belgian power plant former site on the banks of Fontanka River. It contained the device assembly workshop, the galvanic shop, the press branch, the cabinet of voice recordings, and the inventor’s personal laboratory.
The enterprise had been planed per sample and similarity to the largest foreign companies of that time. Many machine tools and equipment, as well as 15 million needles had been bought for expensive price. An indispensable attribute of all gramophone factories - a huge pipe - ominously looked at the rising child of Russian entrepreneurship. As it always happened during startups of Russian enterprises, Rebikoff fall a victim to newspaper attacks and sneers at the beginning. Trying to withstand news dealers, he declared on the pages of “The Stock Exchange Gazette” that for him will work exclusively Russian people, and that the enterprise will function with help from neither foreign capital nor foreign workforce. However, everything was not that simple.
The preparatory works for gramophones and records production had been delayed. All that time Mr. Rebikoff with the assistance of composer Vladislav Francevich Aloise worked hard on acoustic experiments trying to gain the understanding of sound recording secrets. The most attention Rebikoff paid to the membrane since he realized that it was the most important unit of all gramophones and recording devices. He thoroughly learned membranes of the improved gramophone creator Mr. E. Jonson and noted such their shortcomings as sound harshness and “chunkiness”. By means of experiments and calculations, Mr. Rebikoff concluded that these shortcomings can be easily eliminated by modifying the design and operation of the most important membrane part – the mica. In order to neutralize harmonics sounds and overtones he thickened mica’s central area. The result was called “The Enclosed” Rebikoff’s membrane; however there was a little difference from the original Jonson design. Mr. Rebikoff also invented special needle. Thanks to its duller tip, it did not much damaged walls of records grooves and showed better tracking. Besides, it did not prick users’ fingers that positively distinguished it from the regular needles.
Rebikoff’s design innovations immediately drew attention. He had abandoned the practice of thoughtless copying from the imported devices; instead of bulky boxes with large horns he created compact device of unusual form: the body of the new gramophone had a shape of mandolin. An elegant tube with a shape resembling French horn served as a device decoration. It was portable, convenient, and did not require a lot of space. The size and the shape were refined by experiments. Rebikoff’s horn served as a prototype for ton arm – a special device that later became one of the most important improvements to the gramophone.
Inclined position of the disk on which records were put was the distinguishing feature of “V.I. Rebikoff and Co. Association” devices. By inventor’s opinion, such solution improved accuracy and cleanliness of the sounds emitted by the membrane. Since the needle made some pressing on side walls of record grooves, it more precisely followed its bends. Gramophone winding up was possible to do absolutely silently; when the spring reached the appropriate winding, a special gadget rang warning about possibility of spring breakage. Each device was equipped with brake, allowing stopping rotation of the disk, and a special rack supporting the horn.
The factory manufactured gramophones were of two categories: “the simple” and “the concert”, the first one had playing time 4.5 minutes per winding, the second one 6 minutes. Judging by the price, Rebikoff did not charge exorbitant price: gramophones were sold for 55 rubles, membranes for 10 rubles. Comparing to other companies, such prices were quite moderate. In a half year of the beginning of gramophone sells they started to offer the first records. They had two sizes: large (grand) for 2 rubles 50 kopeks, and medium (a little smaller than normal 7”) for 1 ruble 25 kopeks. All of them were recorded just on one side; the playback speed was 82…90 RPM. Since at that time there were no RPM standard, Rebikoff was among the first ones who began to state the RPM speed right on the label. He also printed librettos and included leaflets into sleeves of corresponding records.
In critics opinion it turned out that they were “quite successful and none the worse than the foreign ones, and in many cases are even better”. It would seem like the first Russian factory was functioning at the full force and the foreign companies would get soon a strong competitor... But suddenly it had stopped working, workers had been dismissed, machine tools came to a standstill. “My records are still too noisy” explained the inventor telling the reason for stopping the plant. Rebikoff resumed the experiments, hoping to comprehend the secrets of the best foreign factories technologies. While he tried to gain this knowledge relying on his own strength, the factory idleness brought nothing to the “Company”, but the losses. However, Rebikoff did not despair. After all, such partners as millionaires P.F.Korovin and S.N.Zakharov were able to lose hundreds thousands. By the end of 1903 the recordings at Russian factory were resumed.
Vasily Ivanovich Rebikoff was among the first ones who assessed the cultural significance of gramophone and made practical steps for expansion of Russian repertoire. He recorded soldier's marching songs performed by singers of the Lifeguards Grenadian Regiment; “Port Arthur” march performed by own orchestra. In the business of voice recordings Rebikoff had proved to be innovator. The access to his studio was opened to all interested people. For a certain fee it was possible to sing or narrate a record and receive a desired number of copies. It looked like such studio of sound recording should assist in strengthening of the Company financial position. In order to increase income from such records Rebikoff even adopted a new advanced way of record manufacturing which reduced production cycle from 14 to 4 days.
Trying to make records more available to people, Rebikoff did not exercise pricing policy flexibility that did not help economic position of the Company. A regular price of 2 rubs and 50 kops had been assigned to the records of even most famous performers that caused their evident displeasure and unwillingness for further recordings. As a result, the repertoire sung by Chaliapin and Vyaltseva had never been published. Celebrities did not want to lose in royalties, after all, the other companies paid them much more.
The “Golden” one and the last one year of the “V.I. Rebikoff and Co. Association” became 1904. The company exhibited their gramophones at “The Kids World” exhibition that took place at that time in St.-Petersburg. The Golden Medal was earned by Association for participation in cloistral works exposition with its sacred music records. Rebikoff’s gramophones had the big success at the international exhibition in London where many foreign firms showed their production. But Association’s devices were presented there under “Naturephone” name. The reason for such naming was the notarial protocol, presented by an England-Germany Joint-Stock Company. The owners of this Company demanded from other companies changing the name of “Gramophone” on something else because the said name was patented by them in all countries except Russia which did not grant the “rights” i.e. patents on names. “V.I. Rebikoff and Co. Association” was timely informed about this problem by its London representative, and made all necessary naming corrections. Soon after, the name “Naturephone” was also assigned to a new less expensive device which was “extremely solid by the design and graceful in shape”.
In July of 1904 “V.I. Rebikoff and Co. Association” announced the expansion of business and was transformed into “Joint-Stock Company of Improved Gramophones of V.I. Rebikoff” with the capital of one million rubles. It looked like the success was in their hands and the business went not so badly; however a shadow of bankruptcy already meant trouble for the enterprise. From the first days of business V.I. Rebikoff faced the competitors’ counteraction. Already at the beginning of works the “accessory manufacturers” - known French firm “Peugeot” had broken duly delivery of gramophone springs that resulted in delay of the first party of 250 devices release. He did not meet with approval from rich lenders. Partners demanded from Mr. Rebikoff manufacturing of expensive richly incrusted devices with horns made of pure silver. The high prices promised them the high profits. Mr. Rebikoff did not share this point of view, assuming that gramophone should not only be profitable to the manufacturer, but also be accessible to the buyer. The end was close...
Answering reporters’ questions that used to besiege Rebikoff, he declared that he is at the eve of a great invention in the gramophone business. “I will make a revolution. Instead of records I will use cartridges. I could enlarge them according to my activities to any size”. The reporters remained in perplexity from “the great plans” of the person who wasted not one hundred thousand of someone else money on useless inventions … Constantly experimenting, he had finished business to the bankruptcy. This, talented in general person, had shown his practical inefficiency, surrounded himself with a crowd of spongers that accurately received their salaries, but quitted the Rebikoff’s factory at the same moment as P.F.Korovin and S.N.Zaharov decided not to dump any more money into this enterprise. The talented inventor, but an unlucky businessman had shared the fate of many singles that got into the debt servitude.
One morning he read his name in the black list of bankrupts within the jurisdiction. An enormous stock of records, matrixes, machine tools and the equipment - everything were sold by auction…
This was the end of V.I. Rebikoff's attempt to begin the first Russian manufacture of gramophones and records…
Originally published in «Audio Producer», №5 2003
English translation by Yuri Bernikov.