Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The Phonograph: A Talking Machine

We have a new object on display! We recently added a working 1927 Cecilian Melophonic phonograph to our hands-on education collection. So, I thought I would tell you all the fascinating history of the early phonograph.  The early twentieth century marked a time of new inventions, big inventions. Within the century automobiles became commonplace, photography strengthened, phones developed and picture and sound recordings became possible. Within these inventions, the phonograph found a place and brought a wide variety of music into the home. By the 1920s, the  “talking machine”, or the phonograph had revolutionized entertainment in the American home, as well as abroad, and allowed the average American to enjoy the upbeat tones of the roaring twenties from their own parlor.
Thomas Edison with his early talking machine
Image available through Library of Congress
Thomas Edison created the phonograph in 1877, originally developed as a side project to his telephone experimentation. He recorded the first spoken words on August 12, 1877, as he recited the children’s song “Mary had a Little Lamb.”  Following Edison’s patent for the phonograph in 1878, Alexander Graham Bell and fellow scientists began to experiment with this idea, though Edison claims to have “perfected” the phonograph over the next twenty years. 
Edison shared his new “perfected” phonograph in 1916 in Carnegie Hall, with a “musical recital.”  In the center of the room stood a Chippendale Diamond Disc Phonograph, and beside the phonograph stood well known singer Mme Rappold. The next day the New York Tribune described the event:
Then Mme. Rappold stepped forward, and leaning one arm affectionately on the phonograph began to sing an air from “Tosca.” The phonograph also began to sing “Vissi d'Arte, Vissi d'Amore” at the top of its mechanical lungs,with exactly the same accent and intonation, even stopping to take a breath in unison with the prima donna. Occasionally the singer would stop and the phonograph carried on the air alone. When the mechanical voice ended Mme. Rappold sang.  The fascination for the audience lay in guessing whether Mme. Rappold or the phonograph was at work, or whether they were singing together.
Edison vocal test advertisement. Who's singing, the woman or the machine? 
This phenomenon thrilled people, who all tried to distinguish who was singing, the singer or the machine.  Edison used this technique frequently as he toured the country with his new “perfected” phonograph.
Edison Re-Creation records
This assurance that the musical quality of the phonograph was just as good as a real singer standing in your parlor, spawned Edison’s new terminology for his phonograph records. Instead of calling them “records” or “discs”, Edison referred to them as “Re-Creations” because it perfectly recreated the musical quality. And, the music was not limited to purely operatic singers. The new sounds of the roaring twenties could be heard through the horn of the phonograph as well.  The Jazz Age was in full swing, and Edison’s phonograph allowed listeners of all economic fields to enjoy those bluesy notes and high swinging sounds. From New York City to Junction City, everyone could experience the same music.
Victor Victrola advertisement.
 The phonograph brings the theater to you. 
The wide variety of music then available to the general public allowed the average American to be more attune to “good music”, something that had apparently been lacking prior to the phonographic era.  In 1911, classical music, and general knowledge of classical music was a sign of true good breeding.  With the introduction of the phonograph, and the many record, or re-creation, variations available, the average American family, regardless of how remote they lived, was able to be familiar with all the classical music necessary to be considered a genteel and well-bred person.
Stop into the Geary County Historical Society and ask our docent to play some "re-creations” on our 1927 phonograph. Open Tuesday-Sunday, 1pm-4pm.