Rudolph Wurlitzer Company
Ad from 1954 "North Star" Yearbook , North Tonawanda High School Yearbook
Ad from 1941 North Star, the North Tonawanda High School yearbook.
The Man, The Myth, The Music
Wurlitzer came from a European family involved in the musical instrument business. All males were trained to be old-world Master Piano and Organ makers. Rudolph was the glib and natural salesman and at age 28, was sent to America to set-up an organization to sell and service the quality instruments that were made in Germany (this was in 1856). Trans-Atlantic shipping expenses and the inherent uncertainties caused Rudolph to set-up a manufacturing capability stateside (1859). He was an organizational and manufacturing genius. He was soon creating musical instruments of quality rivaling the Europeans. The expression “Gee Dad, it’s a Wurlitzer” was a well-earned accolade.
“The Name That Means Music To Millions”
When I use the term “Wurlitzer,” I may be referring to Rudolph, Farny, the Organization, the myth, the philosophy, or any number of entities. In all cases, they bear the indelible mark of Rudolph Wurlitzer. I may use the terms interchangeably, so be advised.
The good, and the bad a man may achieve, is usually reflected in the people in which he surrounds himself. His ideals and goals may change over time, as his will and loyalties are diluted, especially after the strength of the originator is eroded.
Rudolph Wurlitzer had to have been a physically strong man to endure the long trip across Europe, from Saxony to some ocean port. Perhaps “strong” could be replaced with “determined” or “dedicated”. In any case, the long trip to New York City required a strong sense of purpose and a lot of stamina. If he was exhausted or spent by the time he endured the long overland trip to Cincinnati, Ohio, it didn’t show anything of the sort. These trips were not “a little jaunt to the corner store” in the mid 1800‘s.
Transportation and shipping in those days was incredibly slow, even in the 1940's. Problems surfaced, one after another, demonstrating the difficulties of dealing with a remotely located manufacturing facility. These problems were such mundane things as inordinately long lead times, vital parts lost or damaged in shipping, miscommunication of details of one variety or another, etc. I suspect that some of the interim fixes and workarounds were of genius-quality. Each one of these little miracle fixes illustrated the need to have local manufacturing capability.
These problems led to the establishment of a limited, one-of-a-kind model shop. That, with an assembly area to ensure product quality, protected the Wurlitzer reputation of unexcelled products. This was not a Horatio Alger story; investment money from the European parent company was a crucial step in penetrating the North American market. These measures paid handsome rewards and proved the viability of the approach.
Why Wurlitzer chose North Tonawanda (Martinsville) for its main plant is unknown. It was likely some combination of the availability of the canal transportation system, the land prices, a talented German-speaking employee pool, the geography, familiar cultures, or some other factors. For whatever the reason(s), it proved to be an excellent choice.
Wurlitzer was what I call a systems manager. His approach was an inclusive one. Build an organization of experts in any given area, support a philosophy and actively support a “pecking order” of recognition via mentors with two-way responsibility. Top level, direct reports were very, very carefully hand selected. These managers were selected because they were in tune with the overall goals and plans of Wurlitzer and had proven LOYALTY.
These managers were provided the environment and the necessary resources to expand to their potential; installation of a system of rewards (consistent with Wurlitzer) that went beyond mere financial and promote a method of psychic rewards. By doing these few simple things, the bottom line would be enhanced. Reasons for success or failure were traceable to all levels of participation. Then appropriate actions could be taken to remedy or reward.
These same managers had significant inputs into the plant design and layout process. The resultant plant was a model of flow, efficiency, pride, attractiveness, with a very liberal dose of showboat and glitz.
(*Note: This was obviously a PR photo. It has been doctored to eliminate some of the “scenery” around the plant, such as the enormous coal pile, and the 5 acre dump area just across the railroad tracks.)
The facility had showrooms, customer and product training areas, public relations reception rooms, employee recreation areas, locker rooms, showers, cafeterias. In short a nearly self-contained little city.
A significant portion of the plant was an illusion. Not that it didn’t exist, it did. What you didn’t see was the hot, dirty, sweaty work areas that produced the magic. Plant visitors were baptized with pixie dust at the front entrance, then led through an endless scene of happiness, wealth, romance, power, profits, added performer fame, extra gravy, and any other thing you wanted. It was Hollywood-East! This is all about marketing and the image creation business. Create, create, create!
Wurlitzer knew that marketing was the mother of sales and sales made the plant run. If a market existed for what you made, polish it, hone it, make it shine and be desirable. If a market doesn’t exist, create one, or change what you make. Create an opportunity for unremarkable Eunice and dumb ol’ Wesley to become matinee idols, and George and Bertha to become extremely wealthy.
I am sure that the original plant bore little resemblance to the plant of 1940. The one common and edifying feature was the “glitzy” facade.
The following paragraphs are not necessarily in any particular chronological sequence. When looking at a man and an organization, it is difficult to put together so much information casually. This is an incidental or alternate information source, and not a serious detailed study, so relax! It is a noise level treatment, and should be considered as such. It is anecdotal, partly because so many of the projects were overlapping. So just sit back and muse the enormity of the body of work and contributions of a great collective mind like Wurlitzer (man and company). If nothing else, it is a somewhat interesting read.
While the Wurlitzer Company continued to build on its reputation of building the “Best Musical Instruments in the World”. Wurlitzer was free to pursue his favorite activity - tinkering! He was enthralled with technology. One thing Wurlitzer managed to do was to integrate new technologies at the appropriate time and remained a step ahead of any competitors. All kinds of diverse fields were constantly monitored for applicability to the music and entertainment fields. These may include such far flung areas as a better way of motor winding to innovations in materials to processes.
Beside his other obvious talents, skills, and accomplishments, Wurlitzer was a gifted inventor/innovator. He almost single-handedly transitioned the music world into the 20th century. His inventions or their derivatives were all based on tonal quality, selection, and timing (also selectable).
The electric piano (synthesizer) changed, forever, the keyboard, range of expression, and sounds available to the composer and musician. He revolutionized the music industry by creating “A Symphony in a suitcase.” Emotions and passions never before available to man were just a few switches away, including even complex syncopations.
These capabilities were exhibited in the entire spectrum, from classical, pop, country and more recently in rock, rap, and reggae. It even created an entirely new genre called “Techno”. Later, others moved into the business segment upon patent expirations.
The Nickelodeon is the generic name for a whole class of music machines that were an attempt at being an end-all of the mass entertainment world. These machines, often one-of-a-kind contraptions, are still being found in old dusty storage sheds, backrooms, warehouses, and other places where relics may be found. In many cases the owners may not even know what they are. Some models were produced in multiples, but largely they were electro-mechanical gadgets. They were often personalized with names like “Big Bertha”.
These machines had all kinds of innovative features, often real “Rube Goldberg” bad dreams. Some had animated figures, some small, some large; some comical, some realistic, some like dolls with changeable clothes/costumes. Still others had drums (bass and/or snare), some had dancing marionettes, keyed to the music; some had various thematic picture decks that dropped one-by-one. Essentially, most were whimsical and unique. They were more of a novelty item than any serious musical event. They all had player pianos or player organs as a musical element. Later attempts were made to use the Gramophone cylinder systems never amounted to much. The design and customization options seemed to be economic more than any other single factor.
Wurlitzer participated in this marketplace in a limited manner. They were produced, in sufficient quantity to test the long-range mass production feasibility. The effort was killed and the pilot plant shut down when detailed analysis showed that the life cycle costs were too high to support any additional capital investment. The limited market potential and the dynamics of emerging technologies showed the units were not really suited candidates for any kind of mass production. The demand for extensive, and hence, expensive options were too disruptive in a mass production environment. Wurlitzer relinquished this portion of the music and entertainment market to the smaller custom houses.
To continue to support the player piano and player organ business, Wurlitzer created “The Endless Roll Music Company” as a wholly-owned subsidiary. As might be guessed, they produced the punched paper rolls for the player instruments. The nickelodeon owners/manufacturers looked to Wurlitzer for these rolls, especially after it was clear that Wurlitzer was no longer in the nickelodeon business.
The “Mighty Wurlitzer” was a class of organs. They were a magnificent line of organs found literally all over the world. Places like Rockefeller Center, Lincoln Center, the Hollywood Bowl, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Metropolitan Opera Music Hall, Kleinhan’s Music Hall, were some of the better known venues that have embraced the concert grade organ.
Downscale slightly, but still in the “Mighty Wurlitzer” class, were/are thousands upon thousands of organs, found in movie theaters, arenas, churches, auditoriums, and a variety of other locations. They were powerful with a capital “P”. The precision and repeatability of the tonal quality for any pipe of a given timbre were identical. The discriminators, up and down the “Mighty Wurlitzer” line were range, power, and console. The quality was uniform. A concert organist had to have the musical skills of a Tusconini, the hands of a skilled surgeon, the presence of mind of a test pilot, and the showmanship of a Liberace.
The console was daunting and complicated. Sitting at this console had to make the organist feel like a 747 pilot or like Captain Kirk in the heat of battle.
Besides the wholly-owned companies, Wurlitzer had several joint ventures to address specific market splinters. One such operation was located at Goundry and Oliver Streets. Amusement parks, circus’, roller rink organs, amusement rides manufacturing, and midway hurdy-gurdy devices were created and assembled at that facility.
(A competitor on Payne Avenue, the North Tonawanda Musical Instrument Works on the east side of Payne across from Sommer Street. The building in later years housed a chocolate factory and Miller's Pickle Co.)
Each of these applications had unique requirements that didn’t fit into the production environment at the Martinsville plant. The in town plant had to be dynamically re-configurable, because the projects were usually one-of-a-kind, or small production numbers. All of the applications had many common requirements, such as modularization, ruggedized, all-weather operability, highly reliable in potentially hostile environment, and long, demanding duty cycle.
Some of the products were for permanent installations, some for carnivals. The circus and carnival equipment had to be easily setup and rugged.
The names of some of the players and principals associated with Wurlitzer in these joint ventures were: Allen, Armentage, Dealing, Herschell, Foster, Spillman, and Wheeler.
Thomas A. Edison is credited with “Talking Movies.” I could quarrel with that. There is a substantial body of evidence to dispute that. I know this sounds like hearsay, but it is what is so. I’ll concede that Edison did add a human voice and made crude attempts at “lip sync.” What I won’t concede is that there is any significant difference between a human voice and the “voice” of a “Mighty Wurlitzer.” The difference is emotional. People were used to hearing the organ score. But seeing lips and sound was exciting.
Wurlitzer added a track onto the film and used it to key the “Mighty Wurlitzer” (in a player mode) for a first attempt. He later refined it to carry a different signal to the amplifier section of the organ. It was just a very short step to using a different type of modulation and editing for lip sync. Too bad Wurlitzer quit and allowed Edison, the opportunist, the credits. That wasn’t sour rapes; Edison was great, but he was an opportunist (as was Wurlitzer!).
Another wholly-owned company was “American Mohawk Radio Company.” It was a niche company that combined outstanding cabinet work with a state-of-the-art radio. This radio had no domestically produced rival in performance. The product lines were called, “All-Max”, “Chieftain”, “Eagle”, “Lyric Mohawk”, “Navajo”, and “Sextette. They featured an isolated and fused (sealed) power supply and static filtering. The radio was very pricey, even in the Great Gatsby set. The cabinet work would be a compliment to any room. In the antique/collector world, any model “American Mohawk” will bring a significant amount at auction.
Now the phonograph! Where to start, where to start? Not quite “In the beginning......”, and not quite the Mad Hatter. But certainly some elements of both. This is a quick walk down the yellow brick road to Wurlitzer’s pot of gold. I don’t know of any individual who had as many gains from this invention as did Wurlitzer. Maybe ceding the movies sound invention title wasn’t so bad after all!
The first successful phonograph was called the Gramophone and was invented by Edison. It was a cylinder, covered with a soft plastic-like material. An arm with a needle-like device rested on the top. The cylinder revolved at some calculated speed. The speed of the cylinder was some function of the diameter of the cylinder. A screw feed moved the arm and the needle in a calculated, constant speed to create a perfect spiral in respect to the cylinder.
In the “record mode” the needle is pressed into the soft plastic and is held at a constant pressure against the cylinder. The needle acts like a stylus and scribes the cylinder along this calculated spiral. So far, pretty mechanical; start the machine, the cylinder turns, the screw feed turns, the pre- positioned arm and stylus etches a perfect spiral groove into the soft plastic covered cylinder.
Now add an electromechanical element to the gadget. The sound to be recorded is the sound waves, from some source, vibrating a medium with an attached coil. The coil creates a magnetic field that is converted into a direct current signal (frequency to direct current conversion). The direct current is applied to a device (coil) that converts the current into magnetic forces that move the stylus back and forth, laterally, as the sound varies. The result is a perfect spiral groove with lateral squiggles superimposed in the groove. You have created a “record.” The “record” is the physical representation of the moment by moment time history of the sound, as translated by the equipment used in the process.
To playback or read the record, simply (yeah, Shure*) place the needle/stylus device in the groove, just created, at the beginning of the spiral. Turn on the machine and the needle will trace the original groove, causing movement of the needle. This movement will be translated to an electrical impulse. Amplify this signal and feed it to a coil to create an electromagnetic force that varies as the impulse. This coil is attached to a paper cone that vibrates to create sound waves. The playback is, functionally, the exact opposite of the recording process. The foregoing was a simplified functional description of a record/playback system.
(*Shure was the inventor of a dual-purpose scribe and pickup device.)
Keep in mind that this was a demonstration that proved the theoretical. It was far, far away from being a consumer-acceptable product. Many products become acceptable with some combination of novelty, price, or packaging/presentation. There was a critical mass that could not be achieved in the present condition. Solving some of the technical issues was required before much could be accomplished in the commercial world.
There were a minimum of 4 problems that had to be resolved in order to even qualify as a candidate to become a mass production product. One has to assume these issues were worked concurrently, although I have no evidence of what, when. They were: orientation, materials, speed, and basic needle operations. Packaging was an issue also, but couldn‘t be addressed until some others were resolved.
I won’t go into great details here, just a few interesting tidbits and the relationships will become clear. The recording material was too soft; very few replays were possible. The user interface had to be greatly improved. The shape of the recording medium (records) was difficult and clumsy. The needles defection orientation had to be changed from side to side to up and down because of excessive wear and re-etching. The up-down needle motion would not work unless the diameter was increased dramatically and the speed decreased. These issues were reconciled by creating a harder, flat record, similar to what we all recognize. The spiral ran from the outside rim toward the center @ 80 RPM (later standardized at 78 RPM). These new records (platters) could be recorded on both sides. The capacity was doubled, thus greater storage was possible. Also, they were easier to handle, were more user-friendly and had many, many more replays. (Maybe that material was a Durez Phenolic derivative? Stay tuned, I'll find out!)
In any event, Wurlitzer had all of the pieces available to undertake his greatest challenge to date, the famous Wurlitzer Arched Jukebox! (Section to be forthcoming.)
(Photo credits: North Tonawanda City Website, Wurlitzer Company Website, personal archives of Ken Mountain)
Copyright 2004, Ken Mountain
That’s All Folks
"Ken Mountain is a systems engineer and history buff, who takes an analytical approach to studying history and his writing style combines the historical facts he gathers with a sytems approach to logic and the possibilities of how events played out in times gone by."
Wurlitzter Concert Pedal Harps
Articles about Wurlitzer
Letters & Notes from Museum Visitors
Correspondance between George W. Cobb, Jr. and the Museum - November 28, 2005:
As a young Marine at Camp Pendleton in CA. I met the daughter of the Wurlitzer family that lived in the Los Angeles area. The family was very kind to me and the daughter would come down to Camp Pendleton on Saturday and pick me up and off we would go returning Sunday afternoon or evening. I would like to connect with her or members of her family. Can you help me?
George W. Cobb, Jr
Would love to see if we can make contact for you. May we have permission to use your email under letters & comments under the Wurlitzer information and also in several general places on the website? You may also wish to add it to the Guestbook section--or our webmaster can do that for you as well. We'll pass the word around also to our members locally.
Donna Zellner Neal, Director
North Tonawanda History Museum
Ms. Neal you indeed have my permission to use my email address under Wurlitzer letters & comments and also in other general places on your website. Also you may add to the Guestbook section.
We are in the process of changing internet providers from Aol to DSLextreme thus my new email address wilbe as follows: Cobbsweb3@dslextreme.com.
Lastly some additional info: My Wurlitzer family experience occurred in the spring of 1951, during the months of May & June. I don't remember the daughters first name. I do remember she had a Chevrolet convertible and was fond of Jazz. Her family said they had moved to California from Iowa.
George W. Cobb, Jr.
P.S. My hometown is Rochester, NY - just down the road from North Tonawanda.