Monday, August 6, 2012

George Cheney: Recording Pioneer, Crown Point Native

What you see here is one of the most recognizable trademarks ever, a logo that has been used by many companies around the world. The dog in the image is not fictional. His name was Nipper, and a few years after his death, Nipper’s owner sold a modified painting of his dog to a recording company. The rest is history, and part of that history includes a heretofore unknown North Country native.

From humble beginnings, he became famous for his wide-ranging knowledge of recording and his ability to invent. Perhaps most important of all, he traveled the world and was the first person to record the music of a number of countries, saving it for posterity.

George K. Cheney was born on May 6, 1871, in Crown Point, New York, about seven miles north of Ticonderoga on Lake Champlain. His father, Hiram (mom was Eliza), was well known in upstate New York as a house painter, working on jobs from Syracuse to Plattsburgh, where he painted at the famed Hotel Champlain many times (it is now Clinton Community College).

George’s nickname in school was “Cush.” Without knowing its source, we can only suspect that it had something to do with taking it easy. He was known for playing hooky frequently, and when writing about him years later, an acquaintance noted that calling George a student was an overstatement. It was, he said, “perhaps more truthful to say, ‘He attended high school. … Cush never was long on studying.’ ”

He was, however, known for his remarkable proclivity to understand how things worked. Whatever interested him, George would tinker with it, take it apart, and in all likelihood make it work better.

His great mechanical ability and curiosity were the natural seeds of invention. After moving to New York City, he became involved in the fledgling recording industry, and was soon respected as a cutting-edge engineer. In 1899, when he was 28, Cheney filed a patent for an “improvement in Mechanical Movements”―specifically, it was a “noiselessly and easily controlled … rotating horizontal table.” In other words, it was a much-improved turntable for the new gramophone.

He was soon directing a studio for the Universal Talking Machine Company (it later became part of The Victor Talking Machine Company, whose name appears on the Nipper logo at the top of this page).

In 1900, George patented “an improved sound-box for talking machines,” following it in 1902 with “a method of recording with a heated stylus.” His comprehensive knowledge of recording was widely recognized, prompting the company to send him around the world to record the music of other nations. Those pioneer recordings not only preserved history, but also provided the company with a tremendous range of commercial products available to the public―if, of course, you owned a Victrola or some other playback device.

The collection accumulated by Cheney is priceless. In 1905–6, he was recording in China, Hawaii, Japan, and the Philippines. It is noted in many historical archives (and Wikipedia) that “The beginning of the Hawaiian recording industry was in 1906, when the Victor Talking Machine Company made the first 53 recordings in the state.” Those 1906 recordings were made by George Cheney.

For two decades, he pursued the music and vocal offerings of many cultures. In 1914, the Port of Spain Gazette, the capital city newspaper of Trinidad (in the southern Caribbean) reported that he and partner Charles Althouse were there to compile “a complete repertoire of Trinidadian music.” Here’s a sampling.

Following another trip to Japan in 1915, Cheney was named Universal’s Expert Recorder, working on US projects when he wasn’t overseas. To take full advantage of his skills, he was soon named Export Recorder, with the same general duties, but focusing on foreign recordings.

After a trip to Cuba later that year, Cheney and Althouse left in March 1917 for Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Peru, Uruguay, and Venezuela. It was not a trip for the weak, as noted in the memoir of David Sarnoff, legendary president of RCA and founder of NBC. “After finishing recording in Buenos Aires, they crossed the Andes Mountains to Chile, and returned by the west coast, stopping off at Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador, where they made records for the Victor Company, and then came back through the Panama Canal, returning November 24th, 1917.”

He also made at least six recording trips to Cuba between 1918 and 1923. In 1924, he was selected to handle the company’s South American operations, headquartered in Buenos Aires, where he ran a Recording Department along with manufacturing and distribution, and oversaw the construction of new facilities.

In 1925, George had a major falling-out with the Victor Company. When he returned to America, he was dismissed, after which he went home to Baldwin, Long Island. He had recently patented a new mute device for musical instruments (used to control and alter sound), but now turned his attentions elsewhere. At age 54, he became involved in designing and manufacturing fishing tackle. Always an inventor, he soon applied for a patent on a new method of employing sinkers attached to fishing line.

His long, illustrious career as a recording pioneer was over, and in September 1937, at the age of 66, Cheney passed away in the hospital at Hicksville, Long Island. Few of us will leave behind such a valued legacy―some of the earliest documentation of mankind’s musical performances from a variety of cultures―a “record” Crown Point should hold in high esteem.

Photos―Top: Nipper logo. Middle Right: George K. Cheney. Middle Left: 1914 disk of music from Trinidad. Bottom: A decade after Cheney’s historic first recording of Hawaiian music, it was a big moneymaker for the company.

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Lawrence Gooley, of Clinton County, is an award-winning author who has hiked, bushwhacked, climbed, bicycled, explored, and canoed in the Adirondack Mountains for 45 years. With a lifetime love of research, writing, and history, he has authored 22 books and more than 200 articles on the region's past, and in 2009 organized the North Country Authors in the Plattsburgh area.

His book Oliver’s War: An Adirondack Rebel Battles the Rockefeller Fortune won the Adirondack Literary Award for Best Book of Nonfiction in 2008. Another title, Terror in the Adirondacks: The True Story of Serial Killer Robert F. Garrow, was a regional best-seller for four years running.

With his partner, Jill Jones, Gooley founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004, which has published 83 titles to date. They also offer editing/proofreading services, web design, and a range of PowerPoint presentations based on Gooley's books.

Bloated Toe’s unusual business model was featured in Publishers Weekly in April 2011. The company also operates an online store to support the work of other regional folks. The North Country Store features more than 100 book titles and 60 CDs and DVDs, along with a variety of other area products.

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