When Did Marsh Laboratories Begin to
Make Electrical Recordings?

By Allan Sutton

(Updates: August 30, 2007 and September 8, 2011)

Marsh Laboratories: A History and Discography is in development for publication in 2012–2013. If you have Marsh-related materials or some of the more obscure Marsh recordings (on any label), and are interested in helping out with this project, we'd like to hear from you. You can e-mail us, or write to Mainspring Press, P.O. Box 631277, Littleton, CO 80163-1277.

It's long been known that the Marsh Laboratories of Chicago was the first company to produce and issue electrical recordings on a regular commercial basis (see Recording the 'Twenties for a detailed history). But the question of when Orlando Marsh first used his electrical system has long been subject to debate. The sound quality of Marsh's earliest records is highly variable — quite good on some of Marsh's earliest pipe-organ recordings made for several religious client labels, utterly awful on many of his studio recordings. Debate has long raged as to whether some of the earliest Marsh masters were electric or acoustic, but a consensus has long favored the latter, and so far we've found no primary-source documentary evidence that Marsh made acoustic recordings for commercial release.

Marsh was granted two U.S. patents, one in 1921 (on a 1918 filing) and the other in 1930. The first does not suggest that Marsh was experimenting with anything out of the ordinary at the time. Filed on December 9, 1918, it covered some minor improvements to a standard acoustical reproducer, and was not approved until nearly two years after filing.


Marsh's 1921 patent (filed in 1918) on an improved acoustical reproducer
(U.S. Patent and Trademark Office)


The date at which Marsh began his electrical experiments remains unknown, but recently some circumstantial evidence surfaced suggesting that Marsh might have been involved with what are believed to have been the electrically recorded cylinders used on Spoor's synchronized sound-film device of c. 1914. Marsh himself later stated that he had begun experiments with electrical recording in that year in Chicago, where Spoor was located. Details can be found in A Phonograph in Every Home.

An article published in The Billboard for January 13, 1923 strongly suggests that Marsh was making commercial electrical recordings by that time. It includes a photograph of a Marsh Labs session, showing a sound-collecting device that does not resemble the standard acoustic recording horn. Although the quality of the photo makes it impossible to see the device clearly, it appears similar to other enclosures Marsh is known to have used as sound-collectors for his carbon microphone. The wording of the text also strongly suggests a departure from the standard acoustical recording process.


Marsh Laboratoriess session showing suspected electrical recording equipment

A Marsh recording session, from The Billboard (January 13, 1923)


Assuming a lead time of several weeks for this story, and assuming the device is indeed electrical, it now seems safe to say that Marsh was making electrical recordings on a commercial basis by the autumn of 1922. Initially, these recordings appeared on client and custom labels, but Marsh finally introduced his own Autograph label in April 1924. It used electrical masters exclusively — a year before Victor or Columbia began doing so.

At some point in 1924, an unknown photographer took at least two shots of Marsh and his electrical recording rig in the Chicago Theatre, with organist Jesse Crawford. Crawford signed an exclusive Victor contract in December 1924, so the photos must pre-date that event. The first photo, which appeared in the local papers, has been widely reproduced. But an alternate version, which was used in the rare 1925 Autograph catalog contains a fascinating difference — Marsh apparently is using an ordinary old "witch's hat" horn (missing in the newspaper version) as his sound-collector! Collectors have long noted than many of Marsh's pipe-organ recordings are sonically superior to his studio recordings, so perhaps the horn was a contributing factor.


Orlando Marsh with Jesse Crawford at the Chicago Theater

Marsh Laboratories equipment in the Chicago Theater

Orlando Marsh and his electrical equipment onsite at the Chicago Theater in 1924 — (above)
in the well-known newspaper shot, sans horn; and (below) in the Autograph Records
catalog shot, with the horn (taped to dampen resonance, as was customary in
many studios) clearly visible. The organist is Jesse Crawford.


Autograph Records Catalog, 1925

By the time Marsh issued his 1925 Autograph catalog, he was promoting
his new system aggressively, while neither Victor nor Columbia had yet to
release their first electrically recorded sides

Paramount researcher Alex van der Tuuk recently discovered in the Mills Music Library (University of Wisconsin) a report of a Marsh demonstration held at Chicago's at Trianon Ball Room on March 11, 1925. According to The Trianon Topics:

“The Autograph Record Recording Company [sic] will convert the Trianon stage into a recording studio for the evening to demonstrate the recording of voice and instrumental sounds by a new electrical method. This new invention was conceived by Orlando R. Marsh and uses electricity to convey the sound waves to the wax record upon which they are recorded instead of having the person sing, speak or play directly into a horn. By using electricity control over the sound can be regulated to the desired tone. The records made before the audience will be played back immediately to demonstrate just how phonograph records are made by this new system. The Trianon Orchestra will record at the recording Artists’ Ball as well as a number of celebrities who will attend.”

On the program were Mario Rubini, Madam Belle Forbes Cutter, Eyer and Chellman, Mrs. Sheldon and Polly, the Langdon Brothers, the Joe Thomas Sax-O-Tette, featuring comedian Archie Nicholson, comedian, accordionist Harold B. Stokes, guitarist and Jack Pennewell, “and a score of other prominent Autograph recording artists.” Every one attending the evening received a free Autograph record of Lampe’s Orchestra playing "Trianon-A New Dance" coupled with “Trianon Chicago Tango.”

The article also mentioned further cooperation between the Trianon and Autograph, and reported on Marsh’s development of mobile recording equipment.

Marsh's second patent, filed in 1929 and granted in 1930, shows him moving into other fields. The patent covered a swinging microphone, enclosed an an acoustic-style recording horn, designed to track moving actors in motion pictures.


Marsh's directional recording device, patented on April 15, 1930
(U.S. Patent and Trademark Office)

For more information on Orlando Marsh, Marsh Laboratories, and Autograph Records, see American Record Labels and Companies: An Encyclopedia (revised an expanded edition coming in 2012) and Recording the 'Twenties: The Evolution of the American Recording Industry, 1920–1929.


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