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American Recording Pioneers

Steve Porter, Global Entrepreneur

By Allan Sutton


Stephen Carl Porter 1 is well-known to record collectors for his prodigious output of 78s and cylinders, but his many other activities have been largely overlooked. Published accounts of Porter’s life touch only lightly on his ventures overseas and outside of the studios. Porter, however, was a far more ambitious and accomplished individual than his previous biographers might lead one to believe.

Porter began recording in or around 1895, but reportedly he was soon involved in a motion-picture company with fellow recording artist Russell Hunting. No details of that venture have been documented, and Porter continued to record prolifically. However, his Victor sessions ended abruptly in late October 1901, as he set about launching a record company of his own.

The American Phonograph Record Company of Brooklyn was incorporated in New York on April 12, 1902, with Porter, William F. Hooley, and S. H. Rous (better known to record buyers as S. H. Dudley) listed as corporate directors. 2 Porter’s idea was to produce custom recordings on demand, for sale directly to his customers, but the venture was under-funded from the start. With a meager capitalization of $10,000, the company apparently failed before producing any records.

With the American Phonograph Record Company venture behind him, Porter sailed for London at some point in 1902. He was already known in England through his Berliner recordings, some of which had been imported by the Gramophone & Typewriter Company. There is no evidence in the Gramophone Company files of Porter having recorded for G&T, however. 3 Instead, he went to work making brown-wax cylinders for Waterfield, Clifford & Company, a London dealer in phonographs and musical instruments. 4

During the spring of 1903, Porter took on a new role when he was hired as a recording engineer by the newly incorporated Nicole Record Co., Ltd., of London. Among Nicole’s incorporators was George Burt, another U.S. expatriate, who had recently been divested of his New Jersey pressing plant by Columbia. 5 Burt, along with Carl Krieger, held a British patent for pressing discs and cylinders in celluloid over a compressed cardboard base, which Nicole would utilize.

Porter did double duty for Nicole in London, acting as both a recording engineer and a studio performer. His Nicole discs, issued beginning in May 1903, were a mixture of American and English comic tunes, ballads, and old standards, and some of his masters traveled widely in later years, being recycled on Sovereign and other English labels. Porter recorded prolifically for Nicole until mid-1904, when his life would take yet another turn.

In July 1904, Porter departed for India in the company of John Watson Hawd, a former Gramophone & Typewriter engineer who had been openly critical of that company’s work in India. Having failed to convince G&T of the importance of expanding its Indian operations, Hawd resigned and in February 1904 moved to Nicole as a corporate director, after having made a substantial investment in the fledgling company.

Porter and Hawd initially set up a temporary office in the Calcutta apartment of one of Porter’s relatives, but recording did not begin until October 1904. 6 Once Nicole’s Indian operation was up and running, Hawd stayed in Calcutta to manage sales and distribution, sending Porter on recording expeditions throughout India and even into Burma. Within a matter of months, Porter was dispatching an astonishing array of Indian music to the Nicole plant. When Hawd returned to England in March 1905, Porter was left to manage the Indian operation largely on his own. After returning from a recording expedition to Rangoon, Burma, Porter tendered his resignation and began preparing to return home.

By 1906, Porter was back in the United States. He was soon busy making new records, which began to find their way into the catalogs during the summer, but his entrepreneurial spirit was undampened. On July 17, 1907, he and several others not from the phonograph trade incorporated the Southern Trading Company in New York, for the rather vague purpose of “representing corporations.” 7 Nothing more has been found concerning the company. In May 1911 Porter filed a U.S. patent application on a “sound reproducer and record.” 8 The patent specified a lateral groove of continuously decreasing depth to offset the effects of needle wear, but it failed to interest the record companies.
   

1911 Patent for a variable-depth groove, Stephen C. Porter

Cover page for Porter's 1911 patent. Note that the application shows "Stephen," the correct
spelling of his name—not "Steven," as is cited in several published biographies.
(U.S. Patent & Trademark Office)
  

Undeterred by his lack of success as an inventor and businessman, Porter finally saw his fortunes reversed in 1916, thanks to a simple acoustic hearing-aid device that he trademarked as the Port-O-Phone. Various published sources 9 have stated that Porter invented his device after leaving the recording business, but that was not the case. Although income from sales of the popular Port-O-Phone no doubt enabled Porter to scale back his recording activities, he continued to make records for another decade after its introduction.

In March 1917 the International Port-O-Phone Sales Corporation was incorporated in New York with a capitalization of $100,000 to handle sales of Porter’s device around the world, along with electric motors and other unspecified “machinery.” 10 Widely advertised, the Port-O-Phone was a success for many years. The device was sufficiently compact that it was easily misplaced, if the number of appeals seen in the New York Times’ lost-and-found section are any indication.
   

Ad for Steve Porter's Port-O-Phone, 1924

Port-O-Phone advertisement (1924)

After a decade of strong sales, the Port-O-Phone Corporation suffered a near-collapse in the Wall Street crash. On December 27, 1929, its stock was being offered at 20¢ per share. 11 The company somehow survived the Depression, only to find Porter’s device rendered increasingly obsolete by more sophisticated technology. In September 1938 the New York State Tax Commission sued the Port-O-Phone Corporation for payment of back taxes. 12 By that time, however, Porter had been dead for more than two years.


Notes

1  Porter signed his name “Stephen,” not “Steven,” on patent filings and business and legal documents.

2  “Incorporations.” New York Times (April 13, 1902), p. 16. The date of this venture has been reported incorrectly as 1899, with no source cited, in several publications — most recently, The Encyclopedia of American Recording Pioneers.

3  Kelly, Alan. The Gramophone Co. [recording file databases; multiple volumes on CD-ROM]. Sheffield, England: Published by the author (2002).

4  Kinnear, Michael. Nicole Record, p. 15. Heidelberg, Australia: Published by the author (2001).

5  George Burt produced the first Columbia discs and was at the center of a complex legal battle that at one point had his plant pressing for both Victor and Columbia before being acquired by the latter. For details, see Sutton & Nauck, American Record Labels and Companies: An Encyclopedia (1891–1943) (Mainspring Press, 2000).

6  Kinnear, op. cit., p. 17.

7  “Incorporations.” New York Times (7/18/1907), p. 11.

8  U.S. Patent #1,012,910 (Stephen C. Porter, New Jersey; filed 5/13/1911).

9  See, for example, The Encyclopedia of American Recording Pioneers (Gracyk; Haworth Publishing), which is derived largely from Jim Walsh’s earlier Hobbies articles.

10  “New Incorporations.” New York Times (March 27, 1917), p. 15.

11  “Securities at Auction.” New York Times (12/27/1929), p. 44.

12  “Judgments.” New York Times (9/15/1938), p. 44.



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