Edison’s Phonographic Voice and the Aural Culture of Imitation

In the year 2000, Congress established the National Recording Registry “for the purpose of maintaining and preserving sound recordings that are culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.”[1]  It was modeled on the older National Film Registry in an effort to put phonograms and films on a more equal footing, but its entries—the earliest ones, at least—still lack a comparable critical tradition.  The emerging field of sound culture studies has shown a strong commitment to the history of sound media in general, but it’s still uncommon for scholars to attempt to “read” early phonograms with the same attention cinema historians routinely devote to early films.  Consider what was for eight years the oldest phonogram on the registry, Around the World on the Phonograph (1888), included in the inaugural annual list for 2002.[2]  To the best of my knowledge, no major scholarly publication on the history of recorded sound has ever so much as mentioned it.  This might signal a troubling disconnect between historical scholarship on sound media and the actual “stuff” of early recorded sound—try to imagine an analogous film studies in which nobody had ever written about, say, The Great Train Robbery.  Alternatively, it could indicate that Around the World simply doesn’t tell us anything interesting, and that it’s significant only as a tangible milestone in a history we would understand just as well without it.

In fact, Around the World has significant insights to offer.  These aren’t immediately or effortlessly apparent from listening to it, any more than the critical insights associated with The Great Train Robbery are obvious to casual viewers.   However, unpacking this phonogram’s text in a historically and contextually informed way and comparing it with other (lost) phonograms sheds light on its nature and purpose and enables us to relate it to broader trajectories in early American phonographic practice centered on the tension between imitation and authenticity.  Given a sufficient hearing, Around the World tells us a great deal about the auditory culture that created it, which I believe it not only reflects but takes to an unsuspected extreme.

The title Around the World on the Phonograph is actually a recent interpolation.  The cylinder itself was found at Edison National Historic Site (now Thomas Edison National Historical Park) in West Orange, New Jersey, with a paper title slip dating from around 1900 tucked inside reading “Thomas A. Edison talking from N.Y. to Buffalo Buffalo to Chicago Etc. Etc.  Made in 1888.”

around-the-world-title-slipIt was transferred to tape in August 1995, the first time it had been played in living memory; as curator Jerry Fabris observed, “We weren’t sure we had what we had until we heard it.”[3]  The sound file itself has been widely disseminated (click here to listen), and I offer the following transcription for reference:

Uh—now, Mister Blaine, as you’ve been nearly around the world, I’ll take you—round the world on the phonograph, I’ll not charge you anything.  I’ll take you on the steamer, a—Cunard steamer to Liverpool, and from Liverpool to London, from London on the London and Brighton Railroad to—Brighton, and from Brighton, we’ll go on those little two-cent steamers across the English Channel to Calais, and from Calais we’ll go on the chemin du fer du nord.  I can’t give you the exact Parisian pronunciation of this railroad, but I guess you’ll understand it.  We’ll get into Paree—and make for the, uh—Grand Hotel.  Then, then in the morning we’ll go to our bankers and get a little money on our letters of credit.  Then we’ll go and stay around Paree for about two weeks, go to Berlin.  After we’ve stayed in—’bout, ah, two, three days in Berlin and got the blues, why, we’ll go to St. Petersburg, and St. Petersburg we’ll go to Moscow, and from Moscow back by the same route to Berlin, and from Berlin we’ll go to Vienna, and from Vienna to Budapest, and—to see the Hungarians, and then most people would go to Monte Carlo, but we’ll not go to Monte Carlo, we’ll go to Munich, or Munken [München], I believe they call it Munken, but that’s not a very nice name to me.  I, uh, I like to call it Munich.  Well, then from Munich we’ll go to—Milan.  Milan—we’ll go to, uh, Rome.  Rome we’ll go across the Mediterranean Sea, I don’t know but what I’m a little out in my geography.  We’ll go to—Alexandria, Alexandria to—through the Suez Canal to the Red Sea, into the Bay of Bengal, and then to—uh, Bombay.  Bombay we’ll prob’ly get the, uh, choleree and stay at the hospital two, three months and have lots of fun, and then we’ll go to Calcutta, Calcutta to Singapore on the Malay archipelago, and then to uh, Hong Ko—uh, to Hong Kong (cough).  Hong Kong to Tokyo, Tokyo on the—Pacific Mail Steamship Company to San Francisco, San Francisco to, uh, Ogden, Ogden to, uh, Laramie, Laramie to Cheyenne, Cheyenne to Omaha, Omaha to Chicago, Chicago—to Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, Philadelphia, New York.  Now, Mr. Blaine, won’t you say a few words on another cylinder, so my young man can bring it over to the laboratory.  I want to put it through a process to get—uh, several hundred duplicate cylinders, so other people can hear what you’ve said.  Uh, goodbye.  Edison.[4]

The addressee appears to be the politician James Blaine, who had indeed returned to the United States after a year of travel abroad in August 1888, but it’s the speaker’s self-identification as “Edison” that caused a stir.  The oldest previously known recording of Thomas Edison’s voice had been a comic story about a liver cure he had recited to the phonograph privately for Walter Miller, the long-time manager of his recording department; on its public release several years after Edison’s death, Miller had dated it to 1906.[5]  Around the World is dated eighteen years earlier, and according to the historical park’s website it “is believed to be the oldest surviving recording of Thomas Edison’s voice.”[6]

One other salient detail is that Around the World was found in a small glass display case labeled “Three Records Made By The First Perfected Phonograph In 1888/9,” accompanied by two other cylinders: a vocal solo by soprano Effie Stewart announced as recorded on February 25, 1889, and a brass band selection dated March 1889.[7]  These latter two items are the oldest known surviving wax cylinders of music recorded in the United States, and all three cylinders were placed on the National Recording Registry as a group.

edis475displaycaseWalter Miller had the same case and cylinders on display in his office in 1913, when a reporter offered an explanation for Around the World:

One of the records was made by Thomas A. Edison himself in 1888 to test the new phonograph, and is in the nature of “Travel Talk.”

At the time the record was made, owing to lack of experience on the part of recorders and recording artists and the imperfection of the mechanism, it was impossible to reproduce ordinary conversation so that it would be thoroughly understandable.  The result was that in testing records the names of cities were used frequently, as, for instance, the recorder would say: “We will now go from New York to Albany, from Albany to Syracuse, from Syracuse to Buffalo, from Buffalo to Chicago, etc.,” the idea being that if the name of the city was spoken twice in succession the listener was bound to hear it and thereby be impressed with the wonders of the machine.[8]

Miller himself was presumably the source of the information about the city-name test, which resembled the use of nursery rhymes and other conventionalized forms in that it “helped listeners help the machine reproduce speech,” in Jonathan Sterne’s apt phrase.[9]  It dates back to 1878, when a reporter overheard Edison speaking into one of his first tinfoil phonographs:

“How far is it from New York to Albany, from Albany to Syracuse, from Syracuse to Buffalo, from Buffalo to Cleveland, from Cleveland to Columbus, from Columbus to Cincinnati, from Cincinnati to Louisville, from Louisville to Nashville, from Nashville to—” and so on ad infinitum till we were beyond hearing.[10]

The same test was revived at the dawn of the wax cylinder era.  In December 1887, we find Edison demonstrating the intelligibility of “a long list of geographical names of the different points connected by a certain electric table,”[11] and he played a similar recitation for a reporter the following spring:

Can you tell me how far it is from New York to Liverpool, from Liverpool to Havre, from Havre to Marseilles, from Marseilles to Cairo, from Cairo to Aden, from Aden, to Bombay, from Bombay to Madras, from Madras to Singapore, from Singapore to Hong Kong, to Yokohama, from Yokahama [sic] to Honolula [sic], from Honolula to San Francisco to New York?[12]

Finally, the following anecdote was published about the first exhibition of the new phonograph outside Edison’s laboratory, at the Electrical Club in New York City on May 12, 1888:

“I don’t like this prepared talk,” said General [William T.] Sherman.  “Let’s have some of our own.”  So he, with Colonel [Robert] Ingersoll and Mr. Edison, repaired to an instrument.  The latter asked, in the speaking tube attached to it:—

“How far is it from New York to Liverpool, from there to Paris, to Constantinople, to Yokohama, to San Francisco.”

The General then answered that he didn’t exactly remember.  He was more interested in hearing the conversation reproduced than in having the question answered. “However,” he concluded, “here’s Ingersoll; he can tell us.”

Colonel Ingersoll admitted his inability to answer Edison’s query.  Then the receiving tube was inserted and each gentleman had the pleasure of hearing the question and answer over again.[13]

Witnesses to Edison’s test at the Electrical Club found some humor in a discrepancy they perceived between its surface form as a question and its real purpose as a speech sample for demonstrating playback.  “How far is it from New York to Liverpool?” was, in fact, one of the many questions Edison was later reported as posing to prospective employees for real as a test of mental aptitude.[14]  But when Edison spoke these words into a phonograph by way of test or demonstration, or when the words later came back out again, it didn’t function as a question but instead constituted a test utterance—a speech act of a different and distinctive kind, coupling the trivial content of a phatic utterance with the focus on form for its own sake of a poetic one.

There is much similarity between the city-name test and Around the World, but there’s also a crucial difference.  Consistent with Miller’s explanation, the test recitations—as quoted—generally consist of bare strings of city names each repeated twice, following the pattern “from X to Y, from Y to Z”; the occasional absence of the repetitions can likely be chalked up to abridgments on the part of reporters who hadn’t understood the governing logic.  By contrast, Around the World elaborates on the same framework with numerous asides about what will happen during the journey.  If the rationale behind the city-name test was to ensure that listeners heard difficult words twice in a row as an aid to comprehension, as Miller claimed, then frequent unrepeated comments would have thwarted its purpose.  Because of its formal characteristics, Around the World can’t be regarded as a straightforward example of the city-name test, much as it seems to be modeled on that test.

Meanwhile, the distinctive combination of three phonograms found in the display case also turns up historically in one other context.  On October 25, 1888, Edison’s representative Cornelius “Con” E. Nestor exhibited a phonograph during a benefit fair at the Third Battalion Armory in Orange, New Jersey, about which we read:

The cylinders that were exhibited had on them a brass band selection, a piano solo, an imitation of the insane ravings of John McCullough, Mr. Edison’s account of his trip around the world, a soprano solo by Miss Effie Stewart and the song, “It’s English, You Know.”[15]

Of the six selections identified here, three match cylinders found in the display case: “a brass band selection,” “Mr. Edison’s account of his trip around the world,” and “a soprano solo by Miss Effie Stewart.”  Thus, it appears that all three display-case cylinders—including Around the World—are of types once used together for public exhibition, anticipating the variety of spoken and musical content exhibitors favored in the 1890s.  The brass band and soprano cylinders we have today date from early 1889, so they can’t be the actual cylinders used in October 1888, but the same combination of subject matter may have been recorded anew for exhibition purposes on a regular basis, or a single demonstration set might have been replenished as individual cylinders wore out.  On this basis, the National Recording Registry calls the three display-case cylinders “Edison exhibition recordings” and characterizes them as “selected by Edison contemporaries to represent the birth of commercial sound recording.”[16]

The identification of Around the World with a category of phonogram used for public exhibition is complicated by the detail that it is addressed to a specific person, apparently James Blaine.  Its closing words, taken at face value, imply that it was prepared in Edison’s laboratory for use at an event at which one of his employees would have a phonograph, and where Blaine was also expected to be present, such that the employee could “bring” a phonogram from him back for duplication.  On October 27-28, 1888, just after the phonograph exhibition at the Third Battalion Armory, Blaine did pay a highly publicized visit to nearby Newark, including a drive through the Oranges,[17] but no evidence has surfaced that he encountered (or was expected to encounter) a phonograph during this period.  Thus, there is no known occasion on which Around the World would have been appropriate if taken literally as a message from Edison to Blaine.

On the other hand, we know that one other phonogram resembling Around the World was conceived not as a message to be taken literally, but as an entertaining simulation of a hypothetical use scenario.  On June 3, 1889, a phonograph demonstration in Louisville, Kentucky, is said to have featured

the reproduction of Edison’s voice.  It is a rich, resonant bass, and, judging from his remarks, Mr. Edison understands the enjoyment of the good things of life.  He described his plans for his coming European trip, and dwelt upon the anticipated delights of Monte Carlo and the pretty Hungarian meadows….  In all this the object was of course simply to amuse.[18]

Edison was then indeed just preparing to leave for the Paris Universal Exposition, but the reference to “the anticipated delights of Monte Carlo and the pretty Hungarian meadows” shows that the speech did not describe his real itinerary; he actually visited only France, Belgium, England and Germany, and even that exceeded his original plans.[19]  Thus, the Louisville “world travel” cylinder demonstrated that Edison could have used the phonograph to share his travel route with someone (we don’t know who the addressee was, if any), but it didn’t actually serve that function.  Meanwhile, the fact that Monte Carlo and Hungary are both also mentioned in Around the World suggests that these might instead have been consistent elements of a “world travel” routine used repeatedly to make phonograms for demonstration purposes.

If Around the World was likewise created to simulate a hypothetical use scenario during a phonograph exhibition, then it would have been eminently topical during Con Nestor’s exhibition of October 25, 1888.   Even though Blaine didn’t attend the Third Battalion Armory fair at which “Mr. Edison’s account of his trip around the world” was played, his upcoming speech in Newark and his role in the political campaign would have been on many visitors’ minds; indeed, the fair is said to have opened “with a very light attendance, owing, doubtless, to the political parade that night.”[20]  The most plausible hypothesis, I believe, is that Around the World is the very same cylinder Con Nestor exhibited at the fair, and that it was created to entertain a general audience while simultaneously demonstrating how Edison could have used the phonograph to send Blaine a spoken message.

Of course, an interpretation of Around the World as primarily fictional would also be consistent with its core narrative of an imaginary journey “on the phonograph.”  The description we have of the Louisville “world travel” cylinder is too scant to permit detailed comparison, but a third variant of the routine survives in the form of two typed transcriptions on letterhead of the Pacific Edison Phonograph Company, headquartered in San Francisco; since this concern changed its name to the Pacific Phonograph Company on its official organization in January 1889, these documents presumably date to before or soon after that time.  One typescript is captioned: “This is the young ladies [sic] second effort at dictation from Phonograph and she heard the instrument for the first time in her life no more than twenty minutes before this was written.”  In other words, this particular “world travel” phonogram was used specifically to demonstrate how easily a typewriter operator with no previous exposure to the phonograph could transcribe recorded speech—a use scenario of particular importance to the coveted business dictation market.  The Pacific text, redacted from both typescripts, runs as follows:

Mr. Edison’s trip around the World.

D’you know how far it is from New York to Liverpool, from Liverpool to London, from London to, O, Calais, Calais, that’s French, you see?  Calais and then to Paree, Paree, that’s another French, I—I’m quite up in French and from Paree to Marsa [Marseilles], that’s another one, and from Marsa,—to Paree and from Paree to Berlin and from Berlin to St. Petersburg and from St. Petersburg to Moscow and from Moscow back to St. Petersburg and from St. Petersburg to Berlin and from Berlin to Vienna and from Vienna to Monte Carlo and then you walk back to Paris, no, no, no, You go, you go from Monte Carlo down down to Rome and then to and see the Pope and a number of other things there and then from Rome you go down—let me see, I don’t know where you go then yes, you get to Cairo somehow and Alexandria and from Alexandria you go to to the mouth of the Red Sea no, to the Canal and from there you go through the Canal to the Red Sea and from the Red Sea into the Gulf, or, Arabian Gulf and from there to Bombay and from Bombay to Calcutta and from Calcutta to Liverpool and [sic, presumably “Singapore on”] the Malay Archipelago and from there to Hong Kong and from Hong Kong to Shanghai and from Shanghai to Pekin and from Pekin go back to Shanghai and then and then from Shanghai to Pekin and then you go back then to, vibrate, about four hundred times a minute and then from there to Tokio and then at Tokio you get on the Pacific Steamship Co. and go to San Francisco and then you walk to New York.  Now there, that’s a pretty good trip, isn’t it?  You can make that trip for about four hundred and thirty five cents.  That is, if you are an actor.[21]

pacific-typescriptIn comparing the Pacific text with Around the World, we find two variants of a single underlying routine consistent in its content, structure, and comedic strategy.  The Pacific text uses the second person—you go here, you go there—where Around the World uses we; but otherwise the two pieces are remarkably similar.  Many of the same place-names appear in both, although the speaker chooses different ones to elaborate upon in each case.  Both times, the speaker draws attention to French pronunciations and expresses uncertainty about the route from Rome to Egypt via the Mediterranean Sea.  The delivery appears equally choppy, as far as we can judge from the typescript (perhaps inscribing quirky speech with stenographic accuracy was precisely the point).  The cheapness of virtual travel “by phonograph” remains a central comic motif: Blaine won’t be charged anything, and “you” can make the trip for $4.35, as long as “you’re an actor.”

Unlike Around the World and the Louisville cylinder, the Pacific text doesn’t clearly purport to be a message from Edison.  Indeed, if we infer that “Mr. Edison’s trip around the World” refers to a trip Edison himself will be taking, as in the other versions, the Pacific text appears to be addressed to Edison by someone else.  If the identity of the speaker in the “world travel” routine varied along with other aspects of its framing, that raises an important question.  If we accept that Around the World was probably not created as a real message to James Blaine, we might ask whether its status as a message from Thomas Edison was part of the same fiction.

The American phonographic culture of the late nineteenth century is typically characterized in terms of a quest for “fidelity,” the ideal that mechanically mediated sounds should be indistinguishable from original sounds to which they are causally linked by an indexical recording process: actual sound vibrations passing through the air caused a membrane to move over time in a specific way, causing the inscribed groove to assume its particular shape.  However, early phonographic culture also partook of an older ideal that valorized creative aural illusions and skilled vocal mimicry for their own sake—the stuff of a mimetic tradition in which the representation of sound by means of sound had always involved a conscious exercise of skill and ingenuity.  The tension between these two ideals within the practice of phonography might be seen as part of the broader “shift from a culture of imitation to a culture of authenticity” posited by Miles Orvell, who notes that “in the former…the arts revolve around various kinds of replications of nature within the vocabulary of conventions and types governing current notions of ‘realism,’ while in the latter the arts attempt to get beyond imitation, beyond the manufacturing of illusions, to the creation of works that are themselves real things.”[22]  Specifically, I propose that we consider identifying the older tradition of aural mimesis with Orvell’s culture of imitation and the newfangled ideal of fidelity with his culture of authenticity.

I’m aware that past scholarship has applied Orvell’s dichotomy to the phonograph rather differently.  Thinking of tone tests—publicity events during which the lights were extinguished and performers were replaced in mid-performance by Edison disc phonographs playing back their voices to persuade audiences that they couldn’t tell the difference—Emily Thompson explicitly aligns phonographic fidelity with the culture of imitation:

While Orvell does not specifically consider musical culture, his focus on “imitation and authenticity in American culture” renders his analysis particularly applicable to the phonograph, and especially to the tone tests, with their challenge to audiences to distinguish creation from re-creation, authentic from imitation….  Within an Orvellian framework, tone tests should be seen as retrograde, vestigial celebrations of the mimetic capability of the machine, evidence that, as Orvell himself notes, “the nineteenth-century culture of imitation remained (and still remains) a strong part of the mainstream of twentieth-century industrial popular culture.”[23]

I’ll concede that if we contrast phonographic playback specifically with live music, it might be seen reasonably enough as falling on the side of imitation.  However, Orvell himself adopts a different perspective on nineteenth-century recording-and-reproduction technology in his own analysis of photography.  Much as modern critics have tended to normalize a “straight phonography” that aspires to capture sonic reality as objectively as possible, Orvell writes of

our predilection for “straight photography,” which we think of as an “honest” use of the medium. Thus, looking at the nineteenth century, we have tended to find antecedents and exemplars for our own time—the great descriptive photographers of the city, the makers of unvarnished portraits, the journalistic artists of the Civil War, the scientific students of motion. Our conservative taste can hardly prepare us for the discovery that the Victorians, in their own fascination with the new medium, luxuriated in the many diverse forms it might take, one moment celebrating its capacity for a seemingly literal imitation of reality and the next its use as a vehicle for fantasy and illusion….  We have put off to one side the practitioners of illusion, of staged tableaux, of table-top photography, relegating them to a minor facet of the popular interest in photography, peripheral to the medium’s destiny as a realistic form, a medium of truth and revelation.[24]

It’s easy to find analogs in phonography of the two facets of photographic practice Orvell identifies in this passage.  In 1888, Edison articulated a philosophy of “straight phonography” as follows:

We don’t attempt to imitate.  We are dealing with the real thing.  That is, we take the actual vibrations of your voice as you speak, and convert them into lines cut on the wax.  Then those lines send out the same vibrations again, so that you hear them.  You don’t hear your own little voice, but you hear an exact reproduction of it from the record which was made by your own speaking. It isn’t an imitation.  It is a reproduction.  But all the same it copies all your inflections better than any mere imitation or mimicry could do it.[25]

The strictly reproductive aspect of the process was often felt to carry heightened evidentiary value with it.  “Just think how much more authentic a phonograph letter will be than a written one,” Edison enthused in 1887.  “Where the writer is known to the reader, to imitate the voice of a person, his peculiar way of talking, his inflexions, is a far more difficult matter than to forge handwriting.”[26]  The fact that phonographic forgery was even conceivable implied an evaluative framework in which phonographic authenticity was also assumed to be possible.

Nevertheless, most exhibition phonograms of the late nineteenth century were products of a culture of imitation in that the subjects represented during playback were not identical to the ones recorded in the laboratory—the scenario we can assimilate to “the real thing”—but instead relied upon nuanced conventions of representation.  Orvell writes that examining the nature of Victorian photography “is, in large measure, to expose the varieties of artifice designed to enhance the power of the representation,”[27] and a precisely analogous task faces the historian of early phonographic practice.  One staple commodity was “faked records” of the voices of famous people.  In one amusing incident, a “phonograph fakir,” overhearing the celebrated actor Edwin Booth without knowing his identity, actually tried to hire him to “imitate” his own performances for the trade.[28]  However, the “fakery” was generally more subtle.  Consider the United States Marine Band cylinders marketed by the Columbia Phonograph Company in the early 1890s, as a company executive remembered them: “It was impossible at that time to record a full band or orchestra but on a phonograph cylinder ten or twelve instruments carefully selected and properly placed produced a very good imitation of a full band and in comparison with the wheezy band records then in vogue, the effect was startlingly realistic.”[29] Sometimes the same musicians enhanced the effect with a fictive audience response, as a journalist of the time observed: “Now and then, if there is a little space left at the end of the cylinders, the band indulges in a wild burst of applause, stamping and shouting in approbation of its own performance.  This passes for demonstration by a suppositious audience, of course, when one hears the phonograph reproduce it.”[30]  The brass band phonogram found with Around the World concludes with an ovation of this sort.

The artifice of the recording laboratory reflected three interrelated factors.  The first was technological.  Early phonographs couldn’t record certain subjects suitably from life, so record-makers took special measures to produce phonograms that would acceptably represent them—for example, substituting a dozen musicians for the whole United States Marine Band.  The second factor was contextual.  The performance genres represented in early phonography had traditionally been linked to particular contexts, settings, and interactions.  When performances were isolated and recorded in the laboratory for playback at other times and in other places, familiar contextual elements were missing or altered, and record-makers sought to compensate in various ways—for example, by simulating the applause after a band performance.

The third factor was the positive value placed on imitations for their own sake.  The entire pre-phonographic culture of aural representation had been based on imitation and mimicry—on the subjective art of contriving sounds to resemble other sounds, voices to resemble other voices.  Early phonographic practice, far from overturning this precedent, had largely been assimilated to it.  It is claimed that new media invariably “remediate” prior media,[31] and one thing the phonograph remediated, on numerous levels, was a rich tradition of aural imitation.  As Tom Gunning observes with reference to the exhibitions of 1878, “the phonograph in performance was treated as a clever imitator, a human-like virtuoso with a genius for imitation, rather than simply a recording device.”[32]  Thus, phonographic “reproduction” was itself initially perceived as a new kind of mimicry, at least by certain observers in certain contexts, rather than as the harbinger of a radically different paradigm of aural representation.

Mimicry also furnished appealing subject matter for “reproduction” (or perhaps “imitation”) by the early phonograph.  Edison himself reportedly dabbled in such efforts during 1878, “putting his mouth to the instrument and imitating the crowing of a rooster, the barking of a dog, the cry of a peacock, the peculiar enunciation of the darky, the squealing of a pig and a general medley of barnyard sounds.”[33]  This combination of subject matter, while unfortunate, is also suggestive of the course future developments would take.  The American phonographic practice of the 1890s drew on several established imitative traditions.  One was “descriptive” music, a primarily instrumental genre Rick Altman characterizes as “expressly designed to evoke a visual image.”[34] Another was vocal imitation in the barbershop quartet tradition, which Lynn Abbott traces to African American origins.[35] Stage ventriloquism was another progenitor, at least conceptually.[36]  But of particular significance was the conventionalized representation of ways of speaking associated with distinctions of class, race, ethnicity, and gender.

The tradition in question may be better known today through written American dialect literature.  Gavin Jones attributes the Gilded Age craze for this genre to a fascination with linguistic difference as an index of broader social and cultural difference, noting that “the search for more radical and thorough depictions of sound led to widespread orthographic innovation.”[37]  That innovation took the form of “eye dialect” in this vein: “wat’s dish ’ere w’at dey calls de fonygraf—dish yer inst’ument w’at kin holler ’roun’ like little chillun in de back yard?”[38]  The introduction to one retrospective anthology provides examples of similar passages the editors consider “much too wearing for most moderns to read,” despite their acknowledgment that the quoted authors were revered by such figures as Mark Twain and Abraham Lincoln.[39]  I hypothesize that eye dialect must have appealed to readers partly because of a connection to the aural experience of language that is less striking to those of us who have spent our lives surrounded by radio and television.  More than other written genres, dialect literature offered readers a rich experience of hearing, even if only through the silent internal revoicing which Garrett Stewart calls “ventriloquizing.”[40]  It was also profoundly intertextual; much run-of-the-mill written dialect humor presumably referenced theatrical performances of race and ethnicity more directly than it did “the real thing.”  Oral caricatures of dialect, which were then ubiquitous on the American stage, helped determine what texts written in eye dialect would sound like as readers contemporaneous with the tradition revoiced them mentally (or aloud).  The advent of phonography made it possible to “fix” such oral performances directly, outdoing eye dialect not just in phonetic specificity, but also through the inclusion of other timbral, prosodic, and paralinguistic elements, as illustrated by Jacob Smith’s investigation of how specific white performers vocally indexed “blackness” in early phonograms through formal qualities such as “rasp.”[41]

Phonograms of performances by esteemed practitioners of racial and ethnic mimicry were valued just as phonograms of music by “good” musicians were, and the stars of the early American recording industry accordingly included specialists in verbal caricatures of the African American (Billy Golden), the Irish American (Dan Kelly), the rural New Englander (Cal Stewart), and the German American (Frank Kennedy).  Such performances were also central to the creative development of the new medium.  The pioneers of phonographic narrative forms compensated for the relatively short duration of early phonograms—averaging around three minutes—largely by tapping listeners’ presumed ability to recognize races and ethnicities by voice, according to the conventions of the art, and to evaluate them quickly with reference to established stereotypes.

Perhaps the most acclaimed early work of phonographic audio theater was Michael Casey Departing From New York By Steamboat, a piece originated in the early 1890s by Russell Hunting, who performed all the roles himself and was renowned for his “voice, his rare faculty as a mimic, his mastery of brogue and his rich humor.”[42]  Even Edison reportedly singled it out for praise:

As to [Hunting’s] mimetic ability, Edison himself declared that the Casey steamboat record was the best he had ever heard.  There were no less than ten different characters in this record and eight mechanical effects, all of them produced by Mr. Hunting.  First the bell on the forward deck clangs loudly, then the little bell on the look-out-house puts in its turn.  “Get in that gangplank there; hurrah now; pull her in, boys; pull her out!” shouts the mate in a voice which drowns even the snorts of the engine at work.  Thump, thump go the bales of cotton and boxes of merchandise on deck.  “Look heah, honey, doan you fergit to send me a letter so I gets it at St. Louis,” shouts a Negro deck hand to his dusky sweetheart, waving him a last adieu from the land.  Puff, puff, puff goes the engine, and sh-sh-sh sings the escape valve.  The heavy chain rattles against the capstan, and as the sound dies away a dozen of the deck hands strike up the melody: “Farewell, my love, farewell.”

And Mr. Hunting would tell you—for he makes no secret about it—that all that went to make that record was his own voice, a bell, a couple of bottles, and a piece of sandpaper.[43]

In 1892, a reporter described the experience of hearing this phonogram in terms suggestive of immersive virtual reality: “It was all so natural and so plain that I stood for the moment on the wharf and saw the boat drawing away, and was astonished the next minute to find myself in Edison’s laboratory.”[44]  Again, that same year, we read in the phonographic trade press that Hunting’s Steamboat “was pronounced by no less a personage than Mr. Edison himself, to be the most remarkable record ever made on a phonograph.”[45]  This, then, was the sort of phonogram Edison personally admired: a masterpiece of imitation.

There was another sort of phonogram that Edison did not admire.  He was strongly opposed to furnishing cylinders of his voice for exhibition purposes.  Granted, he had spoken and sung into the phonograph constantly while conducting exhibitions during 1878, but those efforts had produced only ephemeral traces on sheets of tinfoil, made at a time when there was no pretense that his invention had been “perfected.”  In the era of the wax cylinder, phonograms had become relatively permanent, and claims about fidelity were becoming more rhetorically ambitious.  In 1898, an article comprised of anecdotes “contributed by Mr. Edison’s closest friends and intimates” quoted him as saying that it would make him “sick with disgust” to have cylinders of his voice on nickel-in-the-slot phonographs, to the point that he had turned down a $10,000 offer for five minutes of his talk.  The article continued:

In perfecting the phonograph he has, of course, been obliged to talk into the machine frequently, but the cylinder is always scraped so that his voice cannot be reproduced.  To one close friend, however, he reluctantly gave a cylinder recording a few of his words, and to a young man who particularly interested him he gave another, on which is recorded his favorite story.  These are the only two in existence.[46]

The 1913 article describing the three-cylinder display case represented Edison’s sentiments similarly: “Despite his personal connection with Mr. Edison in many recording experiments, it was with great difficulty that Mr. [Walter] Miller persuaded ‘the Old Man’ to make a record of his own voice as a souvenir, it being Mr. Edison’s contention that there was only one worse recording voice in the world than his own, that being Mr. Miller’s.”[47] The reporter implicitly identified Miller’s “souvenir” with Around the World, but it was more likely the liver cure story recorded privately for him in 1906, which had then not yet been made public.  These sources establish that Edison didn’t permit himself to be recorded lightly.  Miller’s explanation, however jokingly expressed, was that Edison felt he had a bad “recording voice,” meaning one that early phonographs couldn’t acceptably transduce. “My voice is of such character, being high-pitched, that any alteration would affect it and it would therefore be unpleasant to the ear,” Edison is later reported to have said: he had refused to record it because his phonograph couldn’t reproduce it “in its natural tones.”  This admission came out strategically in 1919, when the improved fidelity of a phonograph called the New Edison was said finally to have induced him to approve a record of his speech, Let Us Not Forget, for public sale.[48]

Edison’s earlier assessment of his own “recording voice” resembles contemporaneous observations about the technical challenge of recording women’s voices.  “It is a very difficult thing to get a good record of a female singer,” reads one typical account.  “The high, loud notes are liable to jar the delicate diaphragm too harshly, and in that case the reproduction of these notes is apt to be a discordant sound that is unpleasant to the ear and destroys the entire effect of the harmony.”[49]  The difficulty associated with recording women’s voices may have contributed to the fact that female characters in the American phonographic audio theater of the 1890s and early 1900s were routinely voiced by male performers in falsetto.  The first exceptions to this rule of which I’m aware were not to appear until 1904.[50]  Of course, the convention of using falsetto to represent female voices didn’t just reflect the principle that whatever subjects could not be well-recorded from life needed to be imitated.  Many phonograms, such as one in which a male performer took the role of a humorously inept Irish maid while his wife assumed the “straight” female role as mistress of the household, plainly reflect a broader conviction that male caricatures of female voices were appealing for their own sake, and not merely a matter of phonographic expediency.[51]  Nevertheless, the imitations may have been more readily embraced because a perceived weakness of the medium happened to coincide with a valued tradition of mimicry.

Despite his misgivings, Edison often found himself under pressure to supply phonograms of his voice for public exhibition.  George Gouraud, who represented his phonograph interests in London, was eager to exploit spoken letters from him as a source of publicity and had already begun pestering him for a “first phonogram” in late 1887, to be duplicated “for use by agents.”[52]  Edison objected to the prospect of being “Barnumized,”[53] but Gouraud traveled to the United States in person to fetch a prototype machine and managed to obtain the desired “first phonogram” while there, dated in the wee hours of the morning of June 16, 1888.  The message, mostly drafted by Edison’s secretary four days earlier,[54] was framed as a letter to Gouraud in London filling him in on recent events, even though Gouraud was actually visiting Edison when it was recorded.[55]  A photograph of the same date was published upon Gouraud’s return to England as “Mr. Edison Speaking Through the Perfected Phonograph in America,” but it shows the battery in the off position, with its plunger pulled up, revealing that it too had been staged; Edison looks displeased.[56]

edison-in-illustrated-london-news-july-1888When the “first phonogram” quickly wore out through constant use, Gouraud asked Edison to send him another one; he had already ordered a set of cards printed up inviting British luminaries “To meet Mr. Edison (Non presentem sed alloquentem),” which he said made it “absolutely necessary that I should produce your voice.”[57]

non-presentem-sed-alloquentemThe demand for such phonograms increased that fall, when a few new Edison phonographs were distributed as samples to agents around the United States; the first domestic request Edison received for prerecorded exhibition cylinders asked for “some phonogrames [sic] containing musical records, and at least two to which you have personally given dictations.”[58]  Some of these requests were apparently filled, beginning with a demonstration of September 20, 1888, in Detroit, Michigan, that incorporated “Edison’s greeting to Detroit” and “recitations by Edison.”[59]  We find a number of similar cases documented over the next few years, not just in news reports, but also in laboratory correspondence that confirms that some of the phonograms were supplied through official Edisonian channels.[60]  When one recipient objected that a phonogram didn’t sound like Edison, he was advised that he was probably playing it at the wrong speed.[61]

We’re faced with an apparent contradiction: Edison refused to make phonograms of his voice available to exhibitors, and yet his laboratory did occasionally provide exhibitors with phonograms of his voice.  One letter preserved among Edison’s papers resolves the discrepancy.  When laboratory insider W. T. Ross asked Edison for a phonographic message to the people of Tennessee in December 1889, he wrote: “Don’t let any of the Boys put ‘Pebbles’ in their mouth and imitate you (as has so often been done), but send the genuine article, as I will surely know the difference, and should any thing of the kind occur, it would do me no good whatever, as I would not use it.”[62]

pebblesIf Ross’s remarks can be trusted, many of the Edison voice phonograms officially supplied to exhibitors may actually have been imitations created by laboratory employees with Edison’s knowledge and complicity.  In fact, this explanation seems quite plausible.  We have seen that Edison admired clever phonographic imitations in general; remember, he is supposed to have considered Hunting’s Steamboat “the most remarkable record ever made on a phonograph.”  We also know that he felt he had a bad “recording voice” and considered “genuine” phonograms unacceptable as representations of it.  Perhaps he found phonographic imitations of his own voice to be a happy coincidence between a perceived weakness of the medium and an impressive display of mimicry, just as in my earlier speculation about male imitations of the female voice.  He might well have believed that the imitations sounded more like him than “the genuine article” would have, and that they would do a better job of convincing listeners the phonograph could mediate the nuances of spoken language.

However deceptive such imitations might seem in retrospect, we should remember that no social precedents had yet been established in 1888 for the creation of personal phonographic messages.  To the extent that the phonograph remediated the written message, Edison might reasonably have turned for guidance to the conventions of writing.  Like many other public figures, he did not personally compose every letter sent out as “his”—his secretary did much of that work for him, converting rough notes into polished prose.  Even the famous article that appeared under his byline in 1878 as “The Phonograph and its Future” was apparently composed by his associate Edward Johnson.[63]  That same year, the Theosophical Society of America had invited Edison to join its other members in speaking personal messages into a tinfoil phonograph to send to India.  When he had arranged for Johnson to supervise the recording session in his place, the society had asked, “Can he speak for your voice?”  Edison had replied in the affirmative.[64]  After all, if Johnson could write as Edison, why couldn’t he also speak as Edison?  By the same token, if a representative spoke a message into a phonograph on Edison’s behalf and with Edison’s approval, was it not as legitimate a “message from Edison” as a piece of correspondence drafted by his secretary was?

If the “world travel” phonograms were among the imitations of Edison’s speech created by his employees, then that could help us account for the peculiar form they took.  The phrases Edison used to test phonographs routinely became objects of humor within the laboratory community, as one of Edison’s workers, Peter Valentine, told his father-in-law in a letter of early 1888:

Sometimes Mr. Edison talks to the machine, and it works very well, and I tell you it is fun at times.  The attention of the whole shop is directed on this job, for whatever you say or talk to the machine is taken up by the men and it goes the rounds and you hear it all day.  In the street they will hail me thus: “How is it now, Mr. Phonograph?  How is it now?  You got there all right?” etc., etc.[65]

The city-name test seems to have been one of Edison’s most consistent methods for evaluating phonographs, spanning the years 1878, 1887, and 1888.  If the “boys” had been looking for something recognizable in Edison’s phonographic speech habits to caricature, it would have been a natural choice.  By treating the conventionalized string of place names as an actual travel route and puzzling through the ramifications of each stage in the imaginary journey, a “world travel” narrative would have exposed how ridiculous Edison’s testing formula was if taken as a literal assertion.  The routine could thus easily have originated as occupational humor.

In 1888, the laboratory employee most renowned as a speech mimic was the same Con Nestor who exhibited “Mr. Edison’s trip around the World” at the Third Armory Battalion fair.  “He was gifted with pronounced dramatic talent and, although he never asserted it, it is probable that he did not lack stage experience,” Edison’s secretary and business partner Alfred Tate recalled.  “His declamation of Marc Antony’s oration over the body of Caesar would have done credit to the elocution of any one of the tragedians of that day.”  Tate also credited Nestor with originating The Ravings of John McCullough, a vivid phonographic imitation of the incoherent talk of an actor who had famously gone insane and died in Bloomingdale Asylum in 1885, “reproduced with all its gradations of polished intonation.”[66]  It will be recalled that “an imitation of the insane ravings of John McCullough” appears in the list of phonograms Nestor exhibited together with “Mr. Edison’s trip around the World” at the Third Army Battalion fair.  The batch of phonograms Edison sent to Gouraud in London in the summer of 1888 to replace the worn-out “first phonogram” likewise combined a “world travel” narrative with a McCullough imitation, judging from Gouraud’s playlist:

  1. Observations by Mr. Edison on his first visit to England in the flesh.
  2. Observations on travelling by Mr. Edison.
  3. Observations on English climate by Mr. Edison.
  4. Suggestive to Mr. Gladstone on tree felling by Mr. Edison.
  5. Recitation from Shakspeare after the late John McCulloch [sic].[67]

I postulate that Nestor was responsible for making both McCullough and Edison phonograms for these exhibition contexts where representations of the two voices were to appear side by side.  For his part, Edison seems to have passed off one of Nestor’s McCullough imitations as authentic during a phonograph entertainment at his father-in-law’s house that December.[68]

Nestor left Edison’s laboratory at the end of 1888 to work as technical expert for the Pacific Phonograph Company in San Francisco.  While there, he continued to demonstrate the phonograph on his own virtuosic test recitations, characterized in one instance as “a volume of rapidly spoken, but distinctly uttered, words.  A verse of ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ was repeated in several voices with varying intonations, including side remarks, facetious and otherwise, laughter, coughs, etc.”[69]  The Pacific “world travel” text appears to date from this period, providing circumstantial evidence that the routine remained part of Nestor’s repertoire.

One display of an alleged Edison voice phonogram took place in the territory of the Pacific Phonograph Company during Nestor’s tenure there, in a publicity effort centered on the Morning Appeal of Carson City, Nevada, whose editor was also the company’s local agent.  On October 12, 1889, the Appeal announced that the company had just “telegraphed that they had received a cylinder direct from London, talked into by Edison the inventor, and cylinder had been mailed to this city for exhibition.”[70]  A few days later, the people of Carson City were invited to “hear the tones of the great inventor as he talked into his phonograph in London on his return from the Paris Exposition.”[71]  The full text—addressed to Edison’s friend Frank McLaughlin, who was also Vice President of the Pacific Phonograph Company—appeared on October 20, reportedly set into type directly from the phonograph.

London, Eng., Sept. 23, 1889.

My Dear Major:—My wife and I arrived here from Paris last Tuesday.  The passage was rather rough.  My wife was quite sick and hasn’t got over it yet.  I am entering up arrears in correspondence today, and include you in the number, not because I am indebted to you, but bucause [sic] since I have been here I have met Colt and Harvey, who tell me that they are interested with you in the Golden Gate Mine.  What jolly dogs they are!  I am really sorry that I could not have been there at the same time that you were.  They tell me that you have made America famous in certain localities throughout London.  Ha, ha, h-a-a, old fellow, I heard lots of things which I am afraid to commit even to a phonograph cylinder.  The exhibition in Paris was not altogether a credit to America, but there are many reasons why this should have been so.  Of course you must know that I made a special effort, and I must say that I feel fully repaid for the expense and trouble I have had.  They feated [sic] and treated us over there in the most kindly sort of manner, and Mrs. Edison and I will never forget it.  I am anxious to get back to New York, and expect to sail some time next week, but do not yet know on what steamer.  I have some new phonographic ideas which I think may be useful, and which I intend to work out as soon as possible.  How soon will you be in New York, Major?  I trust we will see you soon.  With very kind regards from my wife and I, I remain

Truly your friend,
Thomas A. Edison.
To Major Frank McLaughlin,
Oroville, Cal.[72]

Some aspects of this message ring true: Major Frank McLaughlin was indeed a close friend of Edison’s, and McLaughlin’s interest in the Golden Gate Mine comes up elsewhere in their correspondence with each other.[73]  But no other letters from Edison are known to bear the date September 23, 1889, which would be odd if the inventor had in fact been “entering up arrears in correspondence” that day.  Edison spent most of his visit to England at Foot’s Cray, near Cudlip, and although he had announced plans to visit a power plant in London on September 23, he was then suffering from a severe chill: newspapers subsequently reported that he had cancelled numerous appointments due to illness and that his visit to London had actually taken place on September 24.[74]  Thus, it’s possible—although this point could stand confirmation—that Edison wasn’t even in London on September 23 as had been planned.  Furthermore, some details the phonogram furnishes about Edison’s past and future travels are either incorrect or strangely vague.  September 23 was a Monday, so “last Tuesday,” the day of the supposed rough sea passage that had left Mrs. Edison indisposed, would correspond to September 17; but the Edisons hadn’t actually left the continent for England until Saturday, September 21.[75]  On September 22, Edison had told a reporter he would “leave Havre for America on Saturday [September 28],”[76] and his plans hadn’t changed as of September 27,[77] so on September 23 he should already have known exactly which day he would be leaving for America, not merely that it was going to be “some time next week.”  I submit that these and other discrepancies mark the phonogram exhibited in Carson City as another probable Nestor imitation, based on an imperfect knowledge of Edison’s overseas activities.  Still, critics of the time didn’t question the phonogram’s authenticity; rather, they expressed doubt only about the claim that a compositor could have set type from it, which was the specific rhetorical point it had been advanced to make.[78]

Details of Nestor’s subsequent life in California hint that his associates playfully considered him to “be” Edison in some special sense, a phenomenon which a covert status as an Edison voice imitator would do much to explain.  When Tate visited the headquarters of the Pacific Phonograph Company in 1892, he noticed an office door labeled “C. Nestor Edison, Manager.”  Louis Glass, the company’s president, proceeded to introduce Nestor as “Edison’s nephew,” explaining:

Soon after Con’s arrival in San Francisco, Louis recognized both his expressed and his latent abilities.  At first, when he was acting as an expert, Louis as a joke always called him “Mister Edison.”  Later, when it was decided that the management of the company should be placed in his hands, Louis thought it would be a still better joke, and coincidentally add to the prestige of the office, if the name were to become permanent.[79]

In the same spirit, the Los Angeles Times remarked in 1911 that “Nestor has always been more than his name would imply to one Thomas Edison.”[80]  He apparently agreed, since he had given his name as “Edison C. Nestor” in the previous year’s federal census,[81] and as “Cornelius Edison Nestor” on numerous other occasions, including his voter registration in 1896.[82]  The middle initial E., which he had been using since at least 1888,[83] may have stood for “Edison” all along.

nestor-passport-application-1925Tate also acknowledged that the Pacific Phonograph Company’s appropriation of the Edison name had extended to the strategic misrepresentation of phonograms.  Specifically, Louis Glass had confessed to passing off locally produced cylinders as records of Edison’s wife, explaining: “we found a young girl, a student who has a remarkable voice.  Of course her name was unknown and I thought her voice was too good to send it out without attaching some prestige to it.  We had got Con fixed up all right, and as I had appropriated Edison’s name I thought I might as well include Mrs. Edison.  If it hadn’t been such a fine voice of course I wouldn’t have done it!”[84]  Glass’s admission is echoed in a later claim, on uncertain authority, that dealers in the American West of the early 1890s “would engage a woman to sing some standard number such as ‘Ave Maria’ or ‘The Last Rose of Summer’ and have it announced as ‘soprano solo by Mrs. Thomas A. Edison.’”[85]  As yet, I’ve seen no contemporaneous evidence of this practice.  However, Nestor did claim to a reporter that when the celebrated soprano Adelina Patti had declined to sing into the phonograph during a February 1890 engagement in San Francisco, he had smuggled his equipment into the Grand Opera House and recorded her secretly from the prompter’s box.[86]  This sounds suspiciously like a fiction contrived to justify the existence of the “Adelina Patti” cylinders that began to appear on California phonographs about the same time.[87]  Perhaps they too were the work of an unknown student with a remarkable voice.  Moreover, a later account of the surreptitious Patti recording incident in San Francisco, which doesn’t name Nestor, adds that “the possessor of the cylinder swears that the instrument reproduces the thud of the auditors’ tears as they fell to the floor.”[88]  It’s hard to know just what to make of such a statement, but it hints at a phonographic culture in which such playful humbugs could be appreciated for what they were, and in which true phonographic authenticity was still too tenuous a commodity to be taken very seriously in the first place.

And this wasn’t even the first time Patti’s voice was alleged to have been reproduced on the phonograph.   One purported cylinder of her singing had already been played during an exhibition for a group of businessmen in New York back on October 30, 1888—long before the alleged surreptitious recording incident in California, but at a time when Nestor still seems to have been Edison’s principal phonograph exhibitor in the East.  “Then came the strains of Patti, as she gave the exquisite waltz song from ‘Romeo and Juliet,’” we read.  “Next one could hear Gladstone pleading for oppressed Ireland, just as if he was standing at the other end of an immense hall.  Thomas Ed[i]son then delivered a lecture on ‘Geography.’”[89]  But the alleged William Ewart Gladstone selection can’t have been any more authentic than the Patti.  Rumors had indeed been circulating of a plan to record Gladstone’s speech on the Irish Question at an event in Birmingham scheduled for November 7, 1888,[90] but Gouraud had explicitly denied them at the end of October, [91] and although Gladstone’s voice was successfully recorded in another context later that year,[92] it had most definitely not been recorded as of October 30.  Edison’s “lecture on ‘Geography’” was paired here in exhibition with two retrospectively obvious “fakes.”

In light of the evidence laid out above, it seems plausible to suppose that Around the World is not “the oldest surviving recording of Thomas Edison’s voice” as generally believed, but rather a parody on a formula Edison used to test phonographs, created by his representative Con Nestor in 1888 to entertain an audience preoccupied with an upcoming visit by political celebrity James Blaine.  Edison might have authorized this kind of imitation to satisfy the demand for phonograms of his voice partly because he found that “genuine” records of it sounded unpleasant (and thus reflected poorly on his invention), and partly because he admired skillful phonographic imitations for their own sake.  In short, I’m contending that Edison was complicit in faking his own voice.  Around the World emerges from this analysis not only as a product of the early phonographic culture of imitation, but arguably as its apotheosis.


Note: At the start of April 2017, I updated links to individual documents in the Edison Papers from “php3” (which had ceased working) to the more flexible “php.”

[1] “National Recording Preservation Act of 2000,” 106th Cong., 2d sess., H.R. 4846/P.L. 106-474.

[2] It lost this distinction in 2010 with the induction of the phonautograms of Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville.  Two Emile Berliner gramophone discs inducted in 2003 are listed with the date 1888 but would in fact have been recorded no earlier than late 1889.

[3] “The Wizard’s Voice: Edison Lives On In 1888 Recording,” Seattle Times, Jan. 28, 1996.  In December 2005, Jerry Fabris observed that the title slips for this cylinder and others found in the same display case were written out on the back of “Form 165,” which, judging from the number, would have been introduced in the latter half of 1900; thus, they must have been written long after the dates of recording.  On the other hand, the handwriting on the slip for Around the World appears to be Theo Wangemann’s, a presumably well-informed witness associated Edison’s the laboratory at the time the record was made; see Patrick Feaster, “Theo Wangemann biography,” https://www.nps.gov/edis/learn/photosmultimedia/theo-wangemann-biography.htm (accessed November 24, 2016).

[4] National Park Service object catalog number EDIS 566.

[5] Thomas Alva Edison, A Humorous Story, National Vocarium TNV-100B.

[6] “Edison Cylinders on the National Recording Registry,” National Park Service, http://www.nps.gov/archive/edis/cylinder_desc.htm (accessed July 18, 2010).

[7] The display case is National Park Service object catalog number EDIS 475; the cylinders are EDIS 564 and 565.

[8] “Recording a Quarter of a Century Ago and Now,” Talking Machine World, October 15, 1913, 13.  Thanks to Bill Klinger for alerting me to this source.

[9] Jonathan Sterne, The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003), 251.

[10] “A Marvellous Discovery,” New York Sun, February 22, 1878, Thomas A. Edison Papers: A Selective Microfilm Edition, henceforth TAEM, ed. Thomas E. Jeffrey, microfilm (Frederick, Maryland: University Publications of America, 1985—), 94:115-16; or the digital edition, henceforth TAED, https://edison.rutgers.edu (accessed July 18, 2010), MBSB10378.

[11] “The New Phonograph,” Mail and Express (New York), December 14, 1887, TAEM 146:321, TAED SC88093B.

[12] “Edison’s New Phonograph,” New York Sun, February 19, 1888.

[13] “Sherman and the Phonograph,” New York Herald, May 13, 1888.

[14] “Edison’s Questions Still Puzzle City,” New York Times, May 12, 1921.

[15] “Exhibiting the Phonograph,” Newark (N. J.) Journal, October 26, 1888, TAEM 146:245, TAED SC88017B; “Exhibiting the New Phonograph, New York Tribune, October 26, 1888, TAEM 146:243, TAED SC88015B.

[16] “The Full National Recording Registry,” Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/rr/record/nrpb/registry/nrpb-masterlist.html (accessed July 18, 2010).

[17] “Mr. Blaine at Newark,” New York Times, Oct. 28, 1888; “Blaine and Mills,” Newark (N. J.) Evening News, Oct. 29, 1888; “James G. Blaine in Newark,” Newark (N. J.) Daily Journal, Oct. 29, 1888.  I am indebted to Jerry Fabris for the last two sources, plus the citation in note 20.

[18] Louisville Commercial, June 3, 1889, TAEM 146:531, TAED SC89167B.

[19] Paul Israel, Edison: A Life of Invention (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1998), 369-72.

[20] “Township Calls,” Newark (N. J. ) Sunday Call, October 28, 1888.

[21] TAEM 124:277-9; TAED D8847AEK.

[22] Miles Orvell, The Real Thing: Imitation and Authenticity in American Culture, 1880-1940 (UNC Press, 1989), xix-xx.

[23] Emily Thompson, “Machines, Music, and the Quest for Fidelity: Marketing the Edison Phonograph in America, 1877-1925,” Musical Quarterly 79 (Spring 1995): 131-71, at 133.

[24] Orvell, Real Thing, 77.

[25] “Thomas A. Edison’s Latest,” Evening World (New York), May 12, 1888, emphasis added.

[26] “Edison’s Greatest Wonder,” Commercial News (Charleston, S.C.), October 24, 1887, TAEM 25:302, TAED SM030066C.

[27] Orvell, Real Thing, 78.

[28] Maverick, “Chicago Jottings,” Idaho Statesman (Boise), Mar. 26, 1890; Sewell Ford, “The Phonograph Fakir,” Newark (Ohio) Daily Advocate, September 10, 1897; “The Faked Records,” Massillon (Ohio) Independent, December 12, 1898.

[29] Frank Dorian, “Reminiscences of the Columbia Cylinder Records,” Phonograph Monthly Review, January 1930, 114.

[30] Rene Bache, “Do Monkeys Have Speech?,” Brooklyn Times, September 21, 1890, TAEM 146:608, TAED SC90045A.

[31] Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin, Remediation: Understanding New Media (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2000).

[32] Tom Gunning, “Doing for the Eye What the Phonograph Does for the Ear,” in The Sounds of Early Cinema, ed. Richard Abel and Rick Altman (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001), 19.

[33] “Phonograph and Telephone,” New York Herald, May 31, 1878, TAEM 25:226, TAED MBSB10629X.

[34] Rick Altman, Silent Film Sound (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), 46-51.

[35] Lynn Abbott, “‘Play that Barbershop Chord’: A Case for the African-American Origin of Barbershop Harmony,” American Music 10 (1992): 303.

[36] Steven Connor, Dumbstruck: A Cultural History of Ventriloquism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 249-305.

[37] Gavin Jones, Strange Talk: The Politics of Dialect Literature in Gilded Age America (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1999), 4.

[38] Joel Chandler Harris, Uncle Remus: His Songs and Sayings (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1881), 201.

[39] Walter Blair and Raven I. McDavid, Jr., ed., The Mirth of a Nation: America’s Great Dialect Humor (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), xxv.

[40] Garrett Stewart, Reading Voices: Literature and the Phonotext (Berkeley, Los Angeles, Oxford: University of California Press, 1990), 37-8.

[41] Jacob Smith, Vocal Tracks: Performance and Sound Media (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), 138-45.

[42] “Gallery of Talent Employed for Making Records,” Phonoscope, July 1898, 13.

[43] Ulysses (“Jim”) Walsh, “Russell Hunting, Sr.,” Hobbies, November 1944, 27-8.

[44] “A House Full of Wonders,” New York Times, October 23, 1892.

[45] “A Noted Record Maker,” Phonogram, August-September 1892, 191.

[46] “The Anecdotal Side of Edison,” Ladies’ Home Journal, April 1898, 7-8.

[47] “Recording a Quarter of a Century Ago and Now,” Talking Machine World, October 15, 1913, 13.

[48] Jim Walsh, “The Facts About ‘The Only Recording of Mr. Edison’s Voice, Part II,” Hobbies, February 1972, 40, 52.

[49] “Before the Phonograph,” New York Times, December 14, 1890.

[50] “Mrs. Cal Stewart” is audibly present in Cal Stewart, Evening Time at Pumpkin Center, Columbia A376, mx. 1757-2, originally issued May 1904; the voice actress in Harlan and Stanley, Two Rubes at the Vaudeville, Edison 8736, issued July 1904, is identified as Daisy Boulais in Edison Phonograph Monthly, June 1904, 8.

[51] Steve Porter and Emma Forbes, Mrs. Hiram Offen Discharges Bridget O’Sullivan, Columbia A379, mx. 3469-2.

[52] George Gouraud to Thomas Edison, November 30, 1887, TAEM 120:292, TAED D8751AAL.

[53] George Gouraud to Thomas Edison, March 3, 1888, TAEM 124:677, TAED D8850AAX1.

[54] Thomas Edison to George Gouraud, June 12, 1888, TAEM 122:360, TAED D8818AMN.

[55] “The Phonograph,” Standard (London), June 30, 1888, TAEM 146:267, TAED SC88039c.

[56] Illustrated London News, July 21, 1888.

[57] George Gouraud to Thomas Edison, July 14, 1888, TAEM 124:716-7, TAED D8850ABY; specimen of card at TAEM 124:756, TAED D8850ACW (image 3).

[58] George S. Evans to Thomas Edison, Sept. 17, 1888, TAEM 124:416, TAED D8848ADV.

[59] “Talks Back,” Detroit Free Press, Sept. 21, 1888, TAEM 146:333, TAED SC88107A; phonograms requested in Gaston and Marsh to Thomas Edison, n.d. (TAEM 124:274, TAED D8847AEH).

[60] For examples, see Missouri Phonograph Company to “Our Associate Friends,” October 30, 1889 (TAEM 126:811-2, TAED D8945ABB); Edison to Edwin Ruthven Weeks, February 7, 1890 (TAEM 140:500-1, TAED LB037172) ; “A Great Reception,” Atlanta Constitution, June 5, 1890; “Dinner by Electricity,” Herald and Torch Light (Hagerstown, Md.), February 26, 1891; “Representing Women’s Clubs,” New York Times, May 21, 1891; “A Phonographic Soiree,” Phonogram, January 1893, 309.

[61] Thomas Edison to Egisto Paolo Fabbri, November 9, 1892, TAEM 132:779, TAED D9211AHX.

[62] W. T. Ross to Thomas Edison, December 25, 1889, TAEM 128:96, TAED D8963ABL.

[63] Reese Jenkins, Robert A. Rosenberg, Paul Israel et al., ed., The Papers of Thomas A. Edison (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989—), 4:224-5.

[64] Olcott to Edison, December 14, 1878, TAEM 16:512-3, TAED D7802ZZMZ.  When Olcott sent the same tinfoil sheets from India back to England in 1895 to try to get them dubbed to wax cylinder, “nothing could be done with them, the indentations made by the voices having become almost flattened out.”  See Henry Steel Olcott, Old Diary Leaves (Adyar, Madras, India: Theosophical Publishing House, 1941), 1:480, n.

[65] “Making a Phonograph Talk,” Dunkirk (N. Y.) Observer Journal, February 22, 1888.

[66] Alfred O. Tate, Edison’s Open Door: The Life Story of Thomas A. Edison, a Great Individualist (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1938), 175-6.

[67] “To Meet Edison ‘Eloquentem sed non Praesentem,’” Pall Mall Gazette (London), August 15, 1888, TAEM 146:295, TAED SC88067A.

[68] “[A] Phonograph Party,” Cleveland (Ohio) Leader, December 29, 1888, TAEM 146:320, TAED SC88092A.

[69] “Wonderful Invention,” San Francisco Examiner, January 9, 1889, TAEM 146:383, TAED SC89017B.

[70] “The Phonograph,” Morning Appeal (Carson City, Nev.), October 12, 1889.

[71] “The Phonograph,” Morning Appeal, October 16, 1889.

[72] “A Phonographic Letter,” Morning Appeal, October 20, 1889.

[73] See e.g. Frank McLaughlin to Edison, Aug. 8, 1888 (TAEM 121:455, TAED D8805AFM).

[74] Edison was planning to visit the Metropolitan Electric Supply Company in London “tomorrow” as of Sept. 22, but was then feeling under the weather (“Mr. Edison at Foot’s Cray,” New York Herald, London edition, Sept. 23, 1889 [TAEM 146:531, TAED SC89168A]).  On Sept. 25 he was instead reported as having visited “yesterday” (“Edison in London,” Galignani’s Messenger, Sept. 25, 1889 [TAEM 146:533, TAED SC89170B]; “Mr. Edison,” London Times, Sept. 25, 1889, p. 5), and there was reference to a general “cancelling of receptions and banquets” due to his illness (“Edison’s Illness,” Lima Daily News (Lima, Ohio), Sept. 25, 1889.

[75] “Edison in Belgium,” New York Herald, Sept. 21, 1889 (TAEM 146:529, TAED SC89166A).

[76] “Mr. Edison at Foot’s Cray,” New York Herald, London edition, Sept. 23, 1889 (TAEM 146:531, TAED SC89168A).

[77] “Honors for Edison,” New York Herald, Sept. 27, 1889 (TAEM 146:520, TAED SC89157B).

[78] See e.g. “Don’t Understand It,” Morning Appeal, Oct. 27, 1889; “Setting From the Phonograph,” Morning Appeal, Oct. 31, 1889, p. 3.

[79] Tate, Edison’s Open Door,177-8.

[80] “Hereabouts,” Los Angeles Times, April 2, 1911.

[81] The 1910 Federal Population Census, microfilm (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Service, 1982), 101:199B, line 76.

[82] “Cornelins [sic] Edison Nestor,” California, Voter Registers, 1866-1898, at Ancestry.com.  See also records there for “Cornelius Edison Nestor,” 29 January 1925, U. S. Passport Applications, 1795-1925; and 13 September 1953, California, San Francisco Area Funeral Home Records, 1895-1985.

[83] His name appears as “C. E. Nestor” in the citations in note 15.

[84] Tate, Edison’s Open Door, 178-79.

[85] Walsh, “Facts,” 38.

[86] “Patti in a Phonograph,” Frederick (Md.) News, April 24, 1890.

[87] “The Examiner Train,” Los Angeles Times, May 7, 1890.

[88] “Phonograph’s Queer Uses,” Sacramento Daily Record-Union, April 29, 1891.

[89] “Home Affairs,” Sacramento Daily Record-Union, October 31, 1888.

[90] See e.g., “Mr. Gladstone and the Phonograph,” Daily Chronicle (London, England), Oct. 21, 1888 (TAEM 146:347; TAED SC88120A).

[91] “Stenographers and the Phonograph,” Daily Chronicle (London, England), Oct. 30, 1888 (TAEM 146:349; TAED SC88122A).

[92] For details, see Patrick Feaster, “Phonographic Etiquette; or, ‘The Spirit First Moves Mister Knowles’,” Victorian Review 38:2 (Fall 2012): 18-23.

NB. Edison Papers links updated September 29, 2022.

3 thoughts on “Edison’s Phonographic Voice and the Aural Culture of Imitation

  1. If “Around the World on the Phonograph” is an Edison imitation, it’s a pretty good one. I’ve often compared it to other Edison voice recordings (including interviews on early sound film) and never suspected it wasn’t the wizard himself. This recording will always bring to mind the photo of ‘Mr. Edison speaking Through the Perfected Phonograph’ no matter who is on the recording. There is another early recording of Thomas Edison not mentioned here, the 1908 “Electricity and Progress” (on the Edison National Park website) … I’m guessing the somewhat clumsy delivery of that speech must be by Edison himself, though I don’t know for what purpose that recording was made (apparently not for commercial release). Any thoughts ?

  2. Pingback: All Griffonage That On Earth Doth Dwell | Griffonage-Dot-Com

  3. Pingback: Nathaniel Smith and “The Song That Reached My Heart” | Griffonage-Dot-Com

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