Inspired Inventor & Community Supporter Leon F. Douglass in San Rafael
By Robert L. Harrison
Leon Forrest Douglas (1869–1940), an inspired but modest inventor, lived with his family in San Rafael for 15 years from 1906 until 1921. Locally he was known as a wealthy and generous neighbor. He contributed to many civic causes and served on the 1911 Marin County Grand Jury. While living in Marin, Douglass invented a process to make full color motion pictures. But during his life adding the color to movies was just one of his many innovations.
Douglass was born in rural Nebraska. In the 1870s his family moved to Lincoln where he attended grammar school. At age eleven he went to work to help support his family of eight. By seventeen he was the exchange manager for the Telephone Company in Seward Nebraska.
He first saw an early phonograph in 1888 and found it of great interest. Primitive phonographs were rented in those days with a fee for listening. One year later the twenty year old Douglass received his first patent for a nickel-in-the-slot device that allowed several to listen by holding rubber tubes near their ears. In the early 1890s he received a second patent for inventing a cost-effective machine to duplicate phonograph cylinders.
The 1892 Columbian Exposition in Chicago struck him as an attractive place to market phonographs. At the Exposition he sold several to Peter Bacigalupi with whom he later helped set up a phonograph business in San Francisco. The new enterprise on Market Street was called Edison’s Kinetoscope, Phonograph and Graphophone Arcade. It was through Bacigalupi he met Victoria Adams, the woman he would marry in 1897.
Douglass worked on phonographs through the 1890s. During this time he patented a spring motor to replace the battery motor used in the early models. He showed the new motor to Thomas Edison, inventor of the battery-powered phonograph. Edison initially did not want to replace his original battery motor. Douglass asked Edison if he would supply phonographs without a motor and was told he would. In response Douglass started manufacturing spring motors which soon became standard in phonographs. Edison ultimately relented and replaced his battery motor with the spring motor in all his new phonographs.
In 1900 Douglass joined with Eldridge R. Johnson to form a company manufacturing phonographs. One year later the company was incorporated as the Victor Talking Machine Company, later known as RCA Victor. The exact source of the company name is disputed but most likely it was either derived from his mother’s nickname ‘Vic’ or from his wife’s name Victoria. The world famous “Victrola” was born when a Douglass patented fine wood cabinet was added to enclose the machine-like workings of the rudimentary phonograph.
In an unpublished autobiography circa 1940 Douglass wrote:
“I told Mr. Johnson that it was my opinion that ladies did not like mechanical looking things in their parlors…the result was the Victrola, an instrument fully enclosed in a cabinet which was an attractive piece of furniture. I ordered two hundred. Mr. Johnson was afraid we would not be able to sell so many and I was a little timid myself, as they cost so much we would have to sell them at two hundred dollars each [about $6,000 in 2021 dollars]. We not only sold those but many millions more. We were obliged to use seven thousand men to make the cabinets alone.”
Douglass not only advanced the design and function of the phonograph to become the most popular home entertainment device of the early 20th century, he was also responsible for marketing the product. He developed the internationally recognized advertising symbol depicting the terrier dog “Nipper” listening to “His Master’s Voice” on the trumpet horn of an early phonograph.
An apparent nervous breakdown and other health problems caused Douglass to reduce his time at the Victor Company. In the fall of 1906 the family moved to San Rafael to enjoy its warm climate. He attempted to resign but Johnson, his partner, denied his request and continued to pay his yearly salary of $25,000 (about $725,000 in 2021 dollars). Douglass writes: “Mr. Johnson replied that if the Victor Co. paid me that amount as long as I lived they could not pay for what I had done for them.” When he left the Victor Company in 1926 it employed more than 10,000 people and had assets of $50 million (about $750 million in 2021 dollars).
The site of the Douglass home in San Rafael measured about five acres along Petaluma Avenue, today’s Lincoln Avenue. He described the home: “We…were very happy to own this, our first home. We spent a great deal of time in planning and planting a beautiful garden.” In 1912 he built a two story laboratory on the property and began experimenting with color film for motion pictures. In his circa 1940 autobiography he described his natural color film of a San Jose poppy field as, “my most important invention as it has now been in use in all the large moving picture companies for more than twenty years, under the name Technicolor.”
In 1917 Douglass produced the short “A Modern Fable”, filmed partially on his Petaluma Avenue property. The first San Rafael public showing of his early color films was described this way in the June 23, 1917 Sausalito News: “Leon F. Douglass is to give the first public exhibition of his epochal invention and discovery of color motion pictures….the practical theory of which is destined to revolutionize the art of the motion picture world….Mr. Douglas is carrying out one of the promises he made: …that he will devote the use of this film to the cause of the Red Cross, whose work for the suffering soldiers he holds as akin to divinity.” As noted in the Marin County Tocsin of July 15, 1918: “Mr. Douglass…is one of the most public spirited citizens in this county…”
In 1918 he made the movie “Cupid Angling” set at Marin’s Lake Lagunitas. It was America’s first feature length color motion picture. The movie starred Ruth Roland with cameo appearances by Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks
Local examples of the Douglass family generosity were: $25,000 for the San Rafael Baths, a municipal swimming facility; $10,000 for a baseball ground; $14,000 loan to improve the San Rafael canal; and Sponsorship of several events for children such as a frequent fete day at the Lyric Theater and an annual pet show. At the state and federal level they bought $72,600 in highway bonds and $100,000 in World War I Liberty Bonds.
By 1920 Douglass pondered moving to a location that would enable him to build a large plant to manufacture his color film innovations. In 1921 he settled on Menlo Park where he bought a palatial 52 room mansion on 50 acres he named “Victoria Manor”. The new home cost $600,000 (about $9 million in 2021 dollars). The Marin Journal in its April 15, 1920 edition described his intent to leave San Rafael: “This hint that he may decide to locate elsewhere will be heard with sincere regret by every resident of this community.”
Following his move south, Douglass continued to patent inventions. In 1920s he designed a snap cigarette lighter and an improved automatic brake for the reels on fishing rods. In 1935 as the last of his children moved away from Victoria Manor he explained: “Mother [his wife] and I found the big house lonesome so we moved down to Mizpah, a near-by cottage that Mother had planned and built within an enclosed garden.” He died in San Francisco on September 7, 1940.