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Doomed to Repeat History?

13 Jan, 2006 By: Thomas K. Arnold

I had an enlightening conversation the other day during a visit to an antique mall in Ocean Beach, Calif. I came upon a stack of pristine Edison discs for $5 each, and was eagerly sorting through them when the clerk came up and asked if I had an Edison player.

“No, I've got a 1915 Victrola,” I told him.

“Those records won't play on your machine,” he responded.

The clerk then proceeded to give me a history lesson on another format war that predates Blu-ray Disc vs. HD DVD, DVD-Audio vs. SACD, even VHS vs. Betamax by many, many years.

Thomas Alva Edison began issuing recorded music on cylinders in 1877, the same year he invented the phonograph. In the 1890s a competitor, Emile Berliner, began producing music on discs. Berliner's company was a huge success and evolved into the Victor Co.

In 1912, Edison decided to start making discs as well, but he wanted something better than the fragile, scratchy 78s. So he created thicker discs, virtually unbreakable, that only could be played with a diamond stylus, rather than a steel needle.

For nearly two decades Edison went head-to-head against the Victor Co., which had wisely chosen an “open platform” route. All sorts of companies were making records and even players compatible with Victor, while Edison stuck to his elitist guns. His Diamond Discs could not be played on Victor machines, and his machines would not play Victor discs.

Eventually, Edison made an adapter for his phonographs that allowed them to play Victor records. By 1929, he was even making records that could be played on Victor phonographs. Before the year was over Edison was out of the music business.

The phonograph format war is much more like the Betamax vs. VHS battle of the early 1980s than today's fight between Toshiba's HD DVD and Sony's Blu-ray Disc. Indeed, given the overwhelming support Blu-ray Disc is getting on both the hardware and the software fronts, it appears this may be one time in which the superior technology might actually triumph.

And yet every time there's a winner, there are two losers — the vanquished format, and the hapless consumers who either bought into it or held off buying anything at all because they were confused, thus depriving themselves of a really neat opportunity to enhance their entertainment options.

To quote George Santayana: He who does not learn from history is doomed to repeat it.

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