The story goes like this: Eugene Oscar Mohr Haberacker of Pennsylvania learned about the phonautograph in the late 1850s while attending Allentown Seminary (now Muhlenberg College) and went on to build one of his own which he used for giving demonstrations as a schoolteacher in Tyrone. Then, when news of Thomas Edison’s speaking phonograph broke in late 1877, he hauled his old phonautograph down from the attic and swapped out some parts, replacing its bristle stylus with a metal needle and its lampblacked paper recording surface with tinfoil. After inviting some friends over to witness a trial of the altered machine, he recited “Old Mother Hubbard” into the mouthpiece and succeeded in playing it back loudly enough for it to be heard throughout the room. He regularly exhibited the same talking machine at school into the 1880s and then stowed it away again until a newspaper reporter—one of his former students—wrote a feature about it in 1917 and borrowed it for photographing. Haberacker proceeded to demonstrate it for interested parties a couple more times at least, including once in 1924 for the Blair County Historical Society, which reportedly had ownership of it at the time of his death the following year.
This is a remarkable story. Accounts of phonautographs being built or used in the United States before 1877 are already few and far between, but I’m not aware of any other description of an old phonautograph being transformed into a speaking phonograph, much less one that was still being exhibited by its maker nearly fifty years later. The only remotely comparable case I know involves a tinfoil phonograph that Thomas Edison and Charles Batchelor converted into a phonautograph in 1878 so that they could make a visual study of the noises of the Metropolitan Elevated Railroad, but that adaptation went the other way. If Haberacker really converted an old phonautograph into a tinfoil phonograph, the result could arguably have become the oldest machine in the world capable of recording and playing back sound, even if its playback functionality had only come about later on as the result of an upgrade—analogous to what we’d have if someone had refitted a horse-drawn carriage built in 1750 with a combustion engine. Haberacker’s use and adaptation of his machine over time would also present a uniquely tangible continuity from Scott-type phonautography, focused on making visible records, to Edison-type phonography, focused on playback. Moreover, the machine itself might well survive today, since the institution that owned it back in 1925 is still going strong, as we read:
The Blair County Historical Society holds a collection approaching 100,000 artifacts. The major period covered is 1850 through the present. Nearly all pieces have been acquired through the donations of local residents. The collection includes a wide variety of items depicting everyday life ranging from sports memorabilia, industrial tools, militaria, and historic furnishings.
I’m writing this at home in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020, which isn’t a good time to inquire about obscure museum holdings several states away; but maybe when things clear up we’ll be able to get a look at Haberacker’s actual machine. In the meantime, I’d like to take this opportunity to share the various primary sources I’ve been able to find about it, which you’ll find transcribed below. The Haberacker story might seem too good to be true, and our sources for it admittedly contain some gaps and contradictions, so I want you to be able to weigh the original texts for yourself and draw your own informed conclusions from them. Still, the central claim that Haberacker converted a pre-1877 phonautograph into a working tinfoil phonograph strikes me as plausible enough to warrant careful consideration.
One point that might provoke skepticism is that I’ve been unable to find any reference to Haberacker doing anything with a phonautograph or phonograph written within thirty years of when he’s supposed to have done what he’s supposed to have done. The earliest source I’ve seen that links Haberacker to the phonograph didn’t appear until 1912, when a tinfoil record said to have been made by him in 1878 was put on display in Los Angeles.
TINFOIL RECORD DISPLAYED
In the Window of the Southern California Music Co. with Photograph of Edison’s Original Phonograph a Great Attraction—Old and New Edisons Contrasted—Interesting Data.
[Talking Machine World, February 1912, p. 26]
(Special to The Talking Machine World.)
Los Angeles, Cal., Feb. 4, 1912.
In one of the display windows of the Southern California Music Co., 332-334 South Broadway, in this city there is at present being exhibited one of the earliest tinfoil records made in Tyrone, Pa., in 1878 by Dr. E. O. N. [sic] Haberacker. With this tinfoil record is displayed an enlarged photograph of Mr. Edison’s original phonograph, of which Dr. Haberacker’s is an exact duplicate. These interesting souvenirs of the early attempts at sound reproduction are attracting much attention in the windows of the Southern California Music Co. As a contrast one of the latest model steel cabinet Edison business phonographs is displayed, with an excellent likeness of Mr. Edison examining the machine.
Dr. Haberacker read one of the first accounts of Mr. Edison’s success in producing a phonograph that would talk back, and from the description he made a duplicate, with the assistance of Will L. Ramsey, now of Los Angeles. Mr. Ramsey has been totally blind for twelve or thirteen years, and was forced to drop his official connection with the Title Insurance & Trust Co., of Los Angeles. He recently has mastered the intricacies of the typewriter and now transcribes rapidly to it from dictated matter on the Edison business phonograph, and has resumed active business with the Title Co., with which he was associated for many years.
The tinfoil record now being displayed was presented by Dr. Haberacker as a souvenir to Mrs. F. E. McCullough, of Los Angeles, and it was through her courtesy that the public is now viewing a rare curiosity. The record recorded the doctor’s voice as he repeated “Old Mother Hubbard” and “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” He first produced the sound vibrations by the aid of a tallow candle. When the needles struck the paper the smoke would be scratched away, thus showing the sound marks on the paper. It was previously that Mr. Edison announced that he had invented the phonograph, and his model was then followed by Dr. Haberacker.
Mr. Ramsey having demonstrated practically the success of typewriting with the aid of the Edison business phonograph, another blind operator, E. Wherry Curtis, of Tulare, Cal., upon hearing of it, at once ordered a similar instrument for his own use. With this equipment he will transcribe court testimony as dictated by the official reporter of the Superior Court of Tulare County, Cal.
The Southern California Music Company sent a copy of this article to the Edison Phonograph Monthly, which reprinted it in its issue for June 1912, together with an accompanying letter that read in part as follows:
The tin-foil record mentioned, attracted a good deal of attention in our show window on Broadway. I had an enlargement made of one of the little cuts of Edison’s first Phonograph, and had it mounted; this in connection with the tin-foil record, and the metal cabinet Edison Business Phonograph, also the picture of Edison looking at E. B. P. as published in the anniversary special catalogue of E. B. P., made an attractive display right up in the center of one of our big windows.
We’re told that the phonograph Haberacker had used to make the tinfoil recording had been “an exact duplicate” of Thomas Edison’s which Will L. Ramsey had helped him to build. Since the purpose of the window display seems to have been to contrast the original Edison tinfoil phonograph with the Edison Business Phonograph of 1912, rather than to showcase Haberacker’s work in particular, it might have been advantageous to represent the tinfoil record as a typical one made on a typical early machine. But a subsequent passage undermines that message and would surely have confused any readers who knew anything about how tinfoil phonographs ordinarily worked:
- The record recorded the doctor’s voice as he repeated “Old Mother Hubbard” and “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” He first produced the sound vibrations by the aid of a tallow candle. When the needles struck the paper the smoke would be scratched away, thus showing the sound marks on the paper. It was previously that Mr. Edison announced that he had invented the phonograph, and his model was then followed by Dr. Haberacker.
The description of Haberacker’s use of a candle, a needle scratching away smoke, and paper as a recording medium plainly pertains to a phonautograph, not a tinfoil phonograph. It certainly couldn’t have described the method used to make the tinfoil record that was on display. But someone, possibly Ramsey, had apparently brought up the phonautograph while explaining Haberacker’s work. Perhaps the explanation—garbled a bit in transmission—had been that Haberacker had “first produced” records phonautographically, but “then followed” the model of Edison’s tinfoil phonograph after an announcement of its invention had been “previously” made. Such an account would have been consistent with the others we’ll be examining below.
Our next source appeared in print five years later. This time we’re treated to a picture of Haberacker’s machine, even if the image quality leaves much to be desired.
DR. E. O. M. HABERACKER AMONG EARLIEST INVENTORS OF NOW POPULAR TALKING MACHINES
Interesting Relic of Experimental Days of Phonograph Brought Forth from Garret of Physician’s Altoona Home
DEMONSTRATED TO FRIENDS BACK IN 1877
[Altoona (Pa.) Tribune, February 3, 1917]
From the recesses of a garret in this city there was recently brought forth a piece of mechanism unique as a relic of the experimental stage of modern science and invention—a bit of intellectual craftmanship about which the designer and builder speaks modestly and which only comes to light at the insistant [sic] solicitation of others.
When the writer was a boy in the schools of Tyrone he profited and pleasured in Friday afternoon science talks by Dr. E. O. M. Haberacker, then a practicing physician in Tyrone and also an instructor in the schools of that lively borough. There lingers in memory vivid impressions of practical demonstration of the properties of gases and we recall the gunlike popping of a cork from a metal tube when an admixture reached the point of explosion. Heat and light and sound were explained to the boys and girls by one whose kindly face glowed with personal interest in both his hearers and his subject, and scattered over the world today are many men and women who have not forgotten the Friday afternoon talks that foreran the introduction of science as a feature of the regular public school course.
Foremost in the experimental work of Dr. Haberacker stands his talking machine that we heard in the school room in the early eighties, although its construction dates back to the fall of 1877—the year in which Edison made his first phonograph. We can still see the doctor showing his pupils how the diaphram [sic] vibrated needle made its spiral succession of sound indentations on the tinfoil coated cylinder, and we think we still hear the falsetto reward of his efforts in Mother Goose rhyme—”Old Mother Hubbard went to the cupboard to get her poor dog a bone.” The poorest talking gimcrack of today has the early device beat to a frazzle, so far as results are concerned, but at that time it was a marvel and the school room was crowded with pupils and visitors who came to hear talk come out of a machine.
Although living within a mile or two of Dr. Haberacker for many years we have had the pleasure of meeting him only at long intervals. Grasping his hand just a couple of weeks ago we were flattered to find that we still have a place in the memory of the venerable physician. The conversation turned naturally to school days in Tyrone and further inquiry revealed that the first talking machine in this part of the country has for twenty years lain silent in the garret of his home at 2222 Seventh avenue. We succeeded in borrowing the relic for photographic purposes and found the designer still an enthusiastic and interesting conversationalist on the science themes that have been his chief diversion in a long and useful life. He was, however, a very reluctant talker on other subjects concerning his career and in a subsequent call at his office the dean of the medical profession in this county betrayed far more interest in the study of his Sunday school lesson than in his own personal history.
When Dr. Haberacker was a student at Muhlenberg college in the late fifties he was attracted by the phoneautograph [sic], an invention of Leon Scott, of which he discovered a description in Atkinsons-Garrots’ early text book on physics. This device was designed to record a visible effect of sound and, while it made no audible reproduction, was undoubtedly the forerunner of the phonograph. The language of its description in Atkinsons-Garrots’ physics coincides so closely with the first announcement of the Edison invention that there is reason to believe that the father of the talking machine found his inspiration from the same source. At his first opportunity for experimental work the young physician and scientist made for himself a phoneautograph. Arranging a sheet of white paper smoothly upon a cylinder he smoked it over the flame of a candle to coat the surface with lamp black. Mounted upon a shaft it was revolved in proximity to a bristle fixed upon a vibrating diaphram, and tones of the human voice through its transmitter produced upon the blackened paper a series of dots and dashes, swirls and curves that bore relation to the intensity and amplitude of sound. By means of a screw thread the phoneautograph cylinder moved laterally as it turned, so that the spiral record bore a very close resemblance to the phonograph cylinder of wax that came later.
For many years the experimenter pursued the study of sound and harmonic values and in a Christmas visit to Philadelphia, about 1878, delighted a meeting of Franklin institute with magnificent tinfoil records projected upon a screen. While the doctor has originated several other devices and his name is recorded as that of an inventor in the United States patent office, he does not claim originality in his talking machine. He was, however, an advanced thinker among the first to grasp the scheme and in 1877 transformed his phoneautograph into a phonograph by substituting a sheet of tinfoil for the smoked paper. Talking into the mouthpiece produced upon its surface indentations and with a slight adjustment of the steel needle, that had been substituted for the bristle, the uncanny apparatus talked back the words that had been spoken to it. So certain was he of success with the device that he invited half a dozen friends to be present at its trying out. We are sure the evening was delightful in his former cozy home in West Tyrone. The original machine as shown in our cut was built in part through the courtesy of the late S. S. Blair, who assigned to a machinist in the Tyrone P. R. R. shop the task of turning up the shaft with its screw thread and nut bearing. The cylinder was made from an old iron pulley found on the scrap pile at the Nevling foundry.
To say that Dr. Haberacker’s talking machine was well received is putting it mildly. People from far and near came to hear the strange thing and the physician sprang into insistant [sic] popularity as an entertainer in public gatherings. By invitation he appeared with it before the institute of Blair county teachers in the winter of 1877. All of his life a student of science and one who delights to give the rising generation the benefit of his researchers, the doctor made full use of the opportunity to teach the properties of sound and the relative vibrations in the musical scale. He has, however, regarded the invention in the great progress of scientific discovery and his own investigations have covered a much larger field—notably the design of a photometric apparatus to measure the intensity of light, and other inventions of a more purely mechanical character.
Dr. E. O. M. Haberacker has been a practicing physician in this county since 1869—the year of his graduation as a doctor of medicine from the University of Pennsylvania. He was born at Fogelsville, Lehigh county, July 8, 1846, and is of German descent, the families of both of his parents originating in Alsau [sic] and in the Rhine Palatinate. He was educated in the Fogelsville schools, Muhlenberg college at Allentown, the Keystone State normal school and finally at the University of Pennsylvania. During his period of practice in Tyrone he was also a lecturer upon scientific subjects and just prior to his removal was principal of the high school and grammar grades in the Tyrone schools. Upon his arrival in Tyrone in August, 1869, he must have to some extent laid aside pursuit of science for the time being, for we learn that on August 28, 1870, he was wedded to Miss Jennie S. Keith, of Sinking Valley. Dr. and Mrs. Haberacker removed to this city in 1886 and the husband has for twenty years been prominent in the medical profession in the Altoona district. At almost four-score years of life he is still in service and, with every faculty alert, looks upon the world of science with a mind awake to every movement.
The doctor had aspirations in a military way as far back as 1863, when he slipped away from the Keystone state normal school to enlist in the Union army. He was but seventeen years of age at the time and only got as far as Reading when his father interferred [sic] with the plans of youthful patriotism. While young Haberacker was cheering a Rhode Island regiment, passing through[,] a hand was laid on his shoulder and he turned to face a parent less indulgent than the recruiting officer. The father caught the fever of army service two days later and enlisted himself, and the son was permitted to give unenlisted service in a field hospital at Gettysburg. In 1887 Dr. Haberacker was commissioned by Governor Beaver as assistant surgeon of the Sheridan Troop, with the rank of first lieutenant, and in 1892 became ranking sergeant of the troop. He retired from the service in 1894. He is a member of the Association of Military Surgeons of the United States and is the oldest living member of the Blair County Medical society. The doctor is a modest man and don’t care much for fuss about his own achievements. He says, “Don’t put it too strong,” but we can’t resist the rare opportunity to do honor to a gentleman whose life has been strictly in the line of human progress and who is still in the harness.
Gable’s Exhibit Machine
Gable & Co. today is using the Haberacker phonograph as the special feature of a special phonograph window display. It is the centre of a fine display of the Pathe machine and sitting as it does in the foreground of the group of modern talking machines makes a very decided contrast.
The display is most unique and fully demonstrates the onward march of science and progress of the inventive genius of American inventors, especially the progress in the making of the now popular talking machines.
The phonograph as created by Dr. Haberacker attracted a great deal of attention last night and will be viewed with interest by hundreds who will have the opportunity to view it in comparison with the splendid phonographs exhibited by the progressive firm.
I’d like to examine several different pieces of this article in turn, starting with this one:
- the first talking machine in this part of the country has for twenty years lain silent in the garret of his home at 2222 Seventh avenue.
According to Altoona city directories, Haberacker had moved to 2220-2222 Seventh Avenue by 1893 but had lived at 1017 Sixth Avenue in 1891. Either he’d done something with his machine around 1897 or it had really “lain silent” in said garret for closer to twenty-five years. Barring some kind of renumbering of addresses, there now seems to be a parking lot at this location.
- When Dr. Haberacker was a student at Muhlenberg college in the late fifties he was attracted by the phoneautograph [sic], an invention of Leon Scott, of which he discovered a description in Atkinsons-Garrots’ early text book on physics.
Until 1867, Muhlenberg College had been known as the Allentown Seminary, and some Haberacker biographies use that name instead. The book in question would have been the Elementary Treatise on Physics Experimental and Applied For the Use of Colleges and Schools, originally written in French by Adolphe Ganot but translated into English and otherwise adapted by Edmund Atkinson to produce a widely-used textbook known colloquially as “Atkinson’s Ganot.” This was first published in London in parts between 1861 and 1863 based on the 1860 ninth French edition of Ganot, which had included both a description and an engraving of the phonautograph as well as plates of several phonautograms. It was also published in the United States starting with a third (New York) edition of 1868. Atkinson’s Ganot didn’t yet exist “in the late fifties,” but that’s when other accounts of the phonautograph had begun appearing in print, and the newspaper article doesn’t technically state that Haberacker had learned of the phonograph from Atkinson’s Ganot—only that he’d been “attracted by” it while a student in Allentown and had also, perhaps much later, “discovered a description” in the well-known physics textbook.
- At his first opportunity for experimental work the young physician and scientist made for himself a phoneautograph. Arranging a sheet of white paper smoothly upon a cylinder he smoked it over the flame of a candle to coat the surface with lamp black. Mounted upon a shaft it was revolved in proximity to a bristle fixed upon a vibrating diaphram, and tones of the human voice through its transmitter produced upon the blackened paper a series of dots and dashes, swirls and curves that bore relation to the intensity and amplitude of sound. By means of a screw thread the phoneautograph cylinder moved laterally as it turned, so that the spiral record bore a very close resemblance to the phonograph cylinder of wax that came later…. [H]e does not claim originality in his talking machine. He was, however, an advanced thinker among the first to grasp the scheme and in 1877 transformed his phoneautograph into a phonograph by substituting a sheet of tinfoil for the smoked paper. Talking into the mouthpiece produced upon its surface indentations and with a slight adjustment of the steel needle, that had been substituted for the bristle, the uncanny apparatus talked back the words that had been spoken to it…. The original machine as shown in our cut was built in part through the courtesy of the late S. S. Blair, who assigned to a machinist in the Tyrone P. R. R. shop the task of turning up the shaft with its screw thread and nut bearing. The cylinder was made from an old iron pulley found on the scrap pile at the Nevling foundry.
We can establish date ranges for the work described in the last two sentences. According to J. Simpson Africa, History of Huntingdon and Blair Counties, Pennsylvania (Philadelphia: Louis H. Everts, 1883), S. S. Blair had become superintendent of the Tyrone Division of the Pennsylvania Railroad in November 1873 (p. 211), William H. H. Nivling had taken over a previously established local foundry in 1870 (p. 213), and both men were still engaged in those activities at the time of writing, presumably in or shortly before 1883. The Twentieth Century History of Altoona and Blair Counties states further that Samuel S. Blair (filling in his first name) had been transferred to Tyrone in 1873, so he wouldn’t have been working there in some other capacity before becoming superintendent. As far as dates are concerned, these sentences could be describing work done at any time after November 1873, including parts made in 1877. And the article does repeatedly state that Haberacker’s talking machine had been constructed in 1877.
But here we also need to consider what characteristics Haberacker’s original phonautograph would have had, based on the details we’re given, and then what specific adaptations would have been needed to convert it into a tinfoil phonograph. The shaft of Haberacker’s phonautograph had a screw thread so that it “moved laterally as it turned,” and a “nut bearing” would also have been part of that mechanism. As Atkinson’s Ganot puts it: “On the prolonged axis of the cylinder a screw is cut which works in a nut; consequently, when the handle is turned, the cylinder gradually advances in the direction of its axis.” Of course, a phonautograph also needed a “cylinder.” Some writers like to present the phonautograph as recording sound vibrations laterally (from side to side), unlike the tinfoil phonograph, which recorded them vertically (up and down), but in practice the orientation of phonautograph diaphragms to recording surfaces varied quite a lot, and Atkinson’s Ganot showed a membrane positioned so as to record more or less vertically. The description of Haberacker’s phonautograms as “series of dots and dashes, swirls and curves” further points to a vertical orientation of the diaphragm, such that a flexible stylus would alternately have risen up from the recording surface and been bent downward against it.
Three adjustments would have been needed to transform a phonautograph matching that description into a typical tinfoil phonograph, of which the article mentions only two.
- Mentioned: Replacing the flexible “bristle” with a rigid “steel needle.”
- Mentioned: Replacing the lampblacked paper with tinfoil.
- NOT mentioned (and hence uncertain): Machining a helical groove into the cylinder so that the stylus could indent the tinfoil downwards into it. Presumably the cylinder of Haberacker’s original phonautograph had a smooth, ungrooved surface, since there would have been no reason for it to be grooved. Alternatively, if the cylinder of Haberacker’s talking machine remained ungrooved, its stylus would have needed to record by engraving the tin. Hold that thought.
Meanwhile, it’s also worth considering whether the writer could have meant that Haberacker had “transformed” his phonautograph into a tinfoil phonograph only in the abstract sense that he’d drawn on it conceptually when building a new machine from scratch—the same sense in which someone might have claimed that Edison “transformed” the phonautograph into a talking machine. If so, he would have needed to secure another threaded shaft and nut bearing in 1877, just like the old ones. But I think this is unlikely for a few reasons, some of which I’ll bring up as we deal with further sources below. For now, I just want to raise a practical point. A threaded shaft and nut bearing would have taken significant work and (probably) expense to contrive, so unless Haberacker had wanted both a phonautograph and a speaking phonograph to use side by side, he would have had good reason to reuse those valuable parts. If he did, the “task of turning up the shaft with its screw thread and nut bearing” would only have arisen during the making of the original phonautograph; and if that happened “through the courtesy of the late S. S. Blair, who assigned to a machinist in the Tyrone P. R. R. shop the task,” then the original phonautograph could not have been made before November 1873. We read also that Haberacker had created it “at his first opportunity for experimental work,” so we’ll want to consider whether that would have been consistent with such a date.
This article is equivocal about what had inspired Haberacker to substitute tinfoil for paper—to “grasp the scheme”—but nothing here contradicts the claim that he’d got the idea from reading an early description of Edison’s tinfoil phonograph, as stated in the piece from 1912.
- We are sure the evening was delightful in his former cozy home in West Tyrone.
Where did Haberacker’s first experiment with the playback of recorded sound take place? Below is a detail of a 1873 property ownership map of Tyrone, reoriented so that “up” represents due north, with Haberacker’s lot highlighted. Alas, it looks like the location corresponds to a more recently built house at 723 Washington Avenue, so the “former cozy home” is presumably long gone.
- For many years the experimenter pursued the study of sound and harmonic values and in a Christmas visit to Philadelphia, about 1878, delighted a meeting of Franklin institute with magnificent tinfoil records projected upon a screen…. By invitation he appeared with it [i.e, his “talking machine”] before the institute of Blair county teachers in the winter of 1877. All of his life a student of science and one who delights to give the rising generation the benefit of his researchers, the doctor made full use of the opportunity to teach the properties of sound and the relative vibrations in the musical scale. He has, however, regarded the invention in the great progress of scientific discovery and his own investigations have covered a much larger field—notably the design of a photometric apparatus to measure the intensity of light, and other inventions of a more purely mechanical character.
Before delving into this, I’d like to throw out two more sources for consideration:
- “Dr. E. O. M. Haberacker is in Philadelphia attending lectures at the Franklin Institute, and perfecting arrangements for his scientific lectures on wonders of animal and insect life in the invisible world.” Altoona (Pa.) Tribune, December 28, 1882.
- “Dr. E. O. M. Haberacker of Altoona was in our town [Juniata] last evening and presented the stereoptican [sic] views during George Schmittle’s lecture. The views were fine.” Altoona (Pa.) Tribune, May 12, 1909.
These other sources confirm that Haberacker visited the Franklin Institute at least once and that he knew how to project images onto a screen. However, I can’t confirm that he ever projected tinfoil records onto a screen at the Franklin Institute, and no such thing appears in the institute’s published proceedings, as far as I can tell. Still, what most stands out here for me is that Haberacker’s stated interests align more with the phonautograph as a tool for acoustic research than with the speaking phonograph: studying “harmonic values,” projecting records onto a screen, teaching “the properties of sound and the relative vibrations in the musical scale.” In short, he seems to have been thinking phonautographically.
- …the doctor has originated several other devices and his name is recorded as that of an inventor in the United States patent office…
Haberacker did indeed have some patents to his name, including one for a fan attachment for rocking chairs and another for a porch swing, both of which were written up in the press.
AN AUTOMATIC FAN.
A Simple Device That Will be Appreciated in Summer Time.
[Pittsburg Post, November 23, 1902]
The automatic fan for which United States letters patent have recently been granted to Dr. Haberacker, of Altoona, Pa., is an invention developed along comparatively untrodden lines, and an examination of its operation and practical utility gives one the impression that after all there may be something new under the sun. It is a contrivan[c]e designed to be attached to the side of an ordinary rocker and to be operated by the motion of the chair. The entire mechanism of the apparatus is enclosed in a tube an inch in diameter, and the intermittent and direct vertical impulse given by the forward motion of the chair is converted into a continuous rotary movement of the fans which may easily be speeded to 300 revolutions per minute, and which are made to revolve vertically, obliquely or horizontally, as may be desired. The air current may be driven in any direction by either forward or reverse movement, the apparatus is universally adjustable and noiseless and when not in use it may be folded back alongside of the chair so as to be entirely out of the way either with the fans in position or a[f]ter their removal. It is not by any means to be regarded as a toy or advertising device, but is built for practical service and is yet so light and compact that it may be telescoped and [f]olded into the compass of a package that might be sent by mail. Excepting the fans, the apparatus is made entirely of metal. Its wearing parts are of tempered steel with ball bearings, and all details are interchangeable.
DR. HABERACKER INVENTS SWING
Local Physician Has Device to Ease Jolts of Life
[Altoona (Pa.) Times, June 8, 1914]
“If a man writes a better book, preaches a better sermon, or makes a better mouse trap than his neighbor, though he build his house in the wilderness, the world will make a beaten path to his door.” This fine bit of sentiment might be amended to conform with the facts by saying if he invents a better device to ease the jolts of life and promote physical comfort, he contributes to the world’s happiness and adds a mite to the sum total of human enjoyment.
PHYSICIAN IS INVENTOR.
Dr. E. O. M. Haberacker of 2222 Seventh avenue, has recently been advised by the United States patent office, at Washington, D. C., that a porch swing, his late invention, has all the qualities claimed for it. We have seen and tested the invention and found it as meritorious a device that it deserves more than passing notice. It is a contrivance more luxuriously comfortable, more simple in construction and capable of a larger number of adjustments and possible uses than any similar invention heretofore devised. It is both a swing and a hammock, and all changes in the use and adjustment are controlled by the movement of the hinged arm and automatic locking device to hold the contrivance in any desired position, which does away with all braces, ratchets and set screws usually employed for such purposes.
WHOLE DEVICE SIMPLE.
At one end the canvas is secured to the head of the iron frame by a novel device, while the other end with equally novel means, is attached to an adjustable cross bar above the step, which enables the cloth to be stretched to any required tension, or constantly detached. These details, together with the flexible and reversible seat and the fact that the swing may be folded up into small compass and automatically locked in that position and also elevated into a vertical plan and again locked upon the supporting chains, are distinguishing features of the doctor’s invention. After use upon the summer porch, it becomes one of the furnishings of the winter living room, where it is transformed into an adjustable couch or invalids chair, with the usual attachments of a folding table for reading and writing purposes, or the spreading of the invalid’s individual banquet.
WILL PUT ON MARKET.
A number of scientific men, skilled mechanics, merchants and manufacturers who have examined the invention, are impressed by its simplicity and all around utility, and the probability is that the swing will be placed upon the market at an early date. One enthusiastic gentleman who witnessed the recent demonstration declared it was the finest arrangement for comfort that he had ever seen in the way of a swing. The swing will be placed on the market at a low price and it is certain that those who see it and try it will want no other kind of a resting place for their leisure hours during the summer months, when they are enjoying the porch or other favorite out-of-door haunts.
These swings promise to be in great demand and already about twenty-five citizens have arranged to have them installed. Mr. A. C. Ergler, of the Monarch Machine works, will construct a limited number to be distributed to subscribers at cost, with a view of determining to a nicety the exact cost of manufacture, preliminary to the probable formation of a company and establishing of a new industry in this city, in which no doubt a goodly number of skilled mechanics would find employment.
Haberacker also patented a washing-machine (U. S. Patent 523,343, filed January 12, 1893, issued July 24, 1894), the stated goal of which was “enabling the body of the machine to be readily detached and removed from the stand to permit a separation of the parts for storing, or to enable the body or the suds box to be used elsewhere.” These patents demonstrate not only that Haberacker had some real ability as an inventor, but also that his thought processes led him in the direction of creating versatile devices that could be used adjustably for multiple purposes. A device that could be used either as a phonautograph or as a speaking phonograph, just by swapping out a few interchangeable parts, would have fit neatly into that pattern.
Except for a brief account in the Altoona Mirror for April 12, 1917, of a “phonograph entertainment” at the Eighth Avenue Methodist Church where Haberacker “had on exhibition his own phonograph, made by him and said to be one of the first successful ones,” it was seven more years before another article appeared on our topic, announcing a forthcoming presentation.
DR. HABERACKER TO TALK TO HISTORICAL SOCIETY
[Altoona (Pa.) Tribune, January 7, 1924]
The regular meeting of the Blair County Historical Society will be held Friday evening in the Community room at City hall, it was announced last night by Dr. Guy C. Robb, the new president of the organization.
One of the features of Friday night’s meeting will be an address by Dr. J. E. Haberacker, of Altoona, one of the oldest medical men in this section of the state. Dr. Haberacker did a lot of experimenting on phonographs at Tyrone many years ago and it is expected he will have something to say concerning it.
Here’s the same newspaper’s follow-up report after the talk:
Pioneer Talking Machine Demonstrated by Inventor
[Altoona (Pa.) Tribune, January 12, 1924]
A pioneer phonograph, made in 1877 by Dr. E. O. M. Haberacker, then of Tyrone, but now of 2220 Seventh avenue, this city, was demonstrated before the Blair County Historical society at its monthly meeting at the community hall, city hall, last evening, in comparison with the latest model of a modern machine of popular make.
Dr. Haberacker was one of the earlier experimenters with the “talking machine,” and achieved considerable progress with it, creating a machine which would talk, although it never attained the commercial importance of Thomas A. Edison’s invention.
He used his original model last evening, the same which he used years ago when he astounded the Franklin Institute at Philadelphia with the results of his experiments.
A Tinfoil “Record”
The central feature is a cylinder on which is placed a sheet of tinfoil. The cylinder revolves while a person talks or sings into the machine, and when it is reversed it reproduced the original sounds. Dr. Haberacker, who spoke before the society last evening, did not lay claim to all the credit for the invention, as he obtained the idea from an old French book of physics.
By contrast the historical society heard a concert on the modern machine, loaned by Arthur Winter, of F. A. Winter and Sons. The concert ended with the Star Spangled Banner, the entire assemblage standing. A vote of thanks was given for the loan of the instrument.
[Remainder of article deals with unrelated society business.]
The 1917 article had stated that Haberacker “does not claim originality in his talking machine.” By contrast, this article from 1924 is more circumspect: he “did not lay claim to all the credit for the invention, as he obtained the idea from an old French book of physics.” In other words, he must have acknowledged his debt to the account of the phonautograph he’d read in Atkinson’s Ganot. By contrast, his relationship with Edison is cast here as one of competition rather than imitation. Like Edison, he had created a machine that could talk; but unlike Edison, he hadn’t been able to make a commercial success of it. The word “phonautograph” (or “phoneautograph”) doesn’t appear anywhere in this article, but the message seems to be that Haberacker had independently elaborated an “idea from an old French book of physics” into a successful talking machine. If he had merely made a few adjustments to an existing phonautograph, that perspective would be quite understandable.
And finally we come to Haberacker’s obituary.
OLDEST DOCTOR DIES
DR. HABERACKER IS CLAIMED BY DEATH IN HIS 79TH YEAR
Noted As Physician, Educator and Inventor of Many Devices
HAD PHONOGRAPH BEFORE EDISON
Never Realized Value of Machine Until Too Late
[Altoona (Pa.) Tribune, April 6, 1925]
Dr. Eugene O. M. Haberacker, physician, educator and inventor of note, died at 1 o’clock yesterday morning at the family residence, 2220 Seventh avenue. Death was attributed to complications incident to advanced years, following a lengthy illness. He was the oldest member of the Blair County Medical association. He had been bedfast for the past three weeks.
While Dr. Haberacker will be remembered both as a physician and an educator, his discovery that for years he had the secret of Edison’s great invention—the phonograph, will assure him a place in the annals of Blair county. Dr. Haberacker’s machine, the phoneautograph, he had used for years in demonstrating science to his pupils when he was teaching school. The machine is now the property of the Blair County Historical society.
His method of demonstrating the phoneautograph was simple and easily understood by his little group of students. Winding a sheet of paper about the cylinder and oiling the paper thoroughly, he placed a burning candle beneath it and slowly turned the crank, this causing the cylinder and paper to revolve gradually above the candle flame and receive the carbon given off by it. Then reversing the machine and using a special device, the smoked paper recorded sounds in wave lengths.
Reproduces His Voice
It was some time after Dr. Haberacker had abandoned his phoneautograph lecture and had placed his experimenting machine with a pile of miscellaneous possessions in the attic of his home, that he saw one day in a newspaper an account of a new invention by Thomas A. Edison. The announcement gave the invention the name of “phonograph.”
Something about the description of the phonograph struck Dr. Haberacker as being strangely similar to that of the crude device he had stored away in the attic months ago. Pursuing the same course he had employed in recording a visible sound wave for his students, he wound a sheet of tinfoil about the cylinder in place of paper, substituted a chisel pointed bit of metal for the delicate bristle joined to the diaphragm plate and then, reciting as distinctly as he could the old rhyme about Old Mother Hubbard, he began turning the crank, the pin point the while cutting a continuous groove through the semi-soft sheet of foil and recording, as the bristle had done on the surface of the smoked paper, a series of small waves, loops and zig-zaggy lines the same as one sees on a modern phonograph record.
When the sheet of foil was filled with the word indentations, the motion of the crank was reversed and the point swung back until the cylinder was again at its original position. When the crank was again turned, a startling thing happened.
“Old Mother Hubbard, she went to the cupboard to get her poor dog a bone,” came the response from the simple bit of machinery.
Native of Lehigh
Queer-sounding and full of unintelligible screeches, the reproduction was nevertheless sufficiently clear and loud to be heard easily at any place in the room where the experiment was being conducted. The doctor was elater [sic], certain that his machine was fully as much a phonograph as Edison’s.
Dr. Haberacker was born in Fogelsville, Lehigh County, Pennsylvania, July 8, 1846, son of Dr. Henry J. and Hannah (Mohr) Haberacker. He is of German descent, the Haberackers having originated in Alsace and the Mohrs in the Rhine Palatinate. Both families have for generations been prominently identified with the agricultural interest of Lehigh and Berks counties. His grandfather, George Haberacker, figured quite conspicuously in the early history of Allentown, Pennsylvania, and his father, who was graduated from the University of Pennsylvania Medical Department in 1840, located for practice in Fogelsville, where he married. From the schools of his native town he entered the Allentown Seminary, subsequently attending the Keystone Literary Society of that school. His attendance at the Normal School alternated with teaching in the public schools.
Entered School Work
His professional preparations, begun under the direction of his father, were continued at the University of Pennsylvania, where he received the degree of Doctor of Medicine with the Class of 1869, and he began the pursuit of a summer course of study at the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy. Later in the same year he established himself in practice at Tyrone, Pennsylvania, but after three years of labor found it advisable to again return to educational work, and during the succeeding fourteen years he was lecturer upon scientific topics and Principal of the Grammar and Central High Schools, Tyrone.
During his temporary retirement he kept in touch with the medical profession, which he resumed in 1886, locating at Altoona, Pennsylvania, where he had since practiced his profession. In 1887 he was commissioned by Governor Beaver an Assistant Surgeon of the Sheridan Troop, Pennsylvania National Guard, and on his retirement in 1892 he was the ranking surgeon in that branch of the service. While residing in Tyrone he joined the Blair County Medical Society and was made a mason in Tyrone Lodge No. 494, of which he served as secretary for many years.
Never Aspired Politically
His wife preceded him to the grave three years ago. Surviving are one sister, Mrs. Marie S. Saul of Phoenixville, Lehigh county, a grandson, Charles E. Rippman and three great grandchildren, Julia, Janet and Christine Rippman, all of Millerstown, Perry county.
Funeral services will be conducted at the home, 2220 Seventh avenue, at 2:30 o’clock tomorrow afternoon. The Rev. Joseph F. Anderson, of Bellwood, assisted by the Rev. Benjamin A. Salter, pastor of the Simpson Methodist church will officiate at the services. The Masonic lodge No. 494 of Tyrone will conduct the services at Oak Ridge cemetery.
This account explicitly calls the machine preserved at the Blair County Historical Society a “phoneautograph” and presents a clearer narrative than we’ve had before of Haberacker reading about Edison’s breakthrough and being inspired by it to revisit “the crude device he had stored away in the attic months ago,” now purported to have contained the “secret” of the talking machine all along. Note that the article says “months” rather than “years,” even though it also characterizes the transformation as happening “some time after [he] had abandoned his phoneautograph lecture”; and also that he had used the phonautograph “for years” before setting it aside. These remarks may seem hard to reconcile with a date of construction for the original phonautograph later than November 1873, although Haberacker could conceivably have used it for school demonstrations from, say, the spring of 1874 through the spring of 1877, which would have been three years.
The most interesting technical detail in Haberacker’s obituary is the description of the stylus of his talking machine “cutting a continuous groove through the semi-soft sheet of foil and recording, as the bristle had done on the surface of the smoked paper, a series of small waves, loops and zig-zaggy lines the same as one sees on a modern phonograph record.” The same article also refers to these traces as “word indentations,” much as the 1917 article had called them “indentations,” but the reference to “cutting” a “semi-soft sheet of foil” implies rather strongly that an engraving method was actually used. If we read the defendants’ testimony in the court case American Graphophone Company vs. US Phonograph Co. et al., and more specifically that of Charles Batchelor (starting with image 47), we find him arguing that to “indent” could mean to “cut out little indents” (p. 600). We also read at page 605:
Q. 109. What would have been the method of making the record on the phonographs which were made and sold by Bergmann prior to 1881 [i.e., standard tinfoil phonographs], if a solid resisting material had been used for the tablet in place of the pliable metal foil, which was ordinarily used on such instruments?
A. The record would have been cut out instead of embossed.
Q. 110. Do you mean to say that this simple change in the material of the recording surface would have been accompanied by a change in the method of recording?
A. Decidedly so.
Batchelor stated further that there had been at least one experimental phonograph at Edison’s laboratory in the late 1870s with an ungrooved cylinder (p. 591), and that records had been successfully cut into sheet copper, 1/32 inch thick, wrapped around such a cylinder, which he considered too thick to be called “foil,” a term he associated with thicknesses of 1/100 inch or less (p. 594). If Haberacker had used a more substantial tin sheet instead of ordinary tinfoil, that could explain the “cutting” reference, and it would also have obviated the need for him to machine a groove into the cylinder, which we never read about him doing (and which might have made the device harder to use again as a phonautograph, in case he wanted the changes to be reversible). The reference to “loops and zig-zaggy lines the same as one sees on a modern phonograph record”—presumably meaning a 78 rpm gramophone disc—also hints at a recording method with a significant lateral (side-to-side) component, consistent with a phonautograph but not with a tinfoil phonograph. If Haberacker was really playing back laterally modulated recordings in late 1877, he would have been doing something Edison hadn’t done, and indeed doing something nobody else had yet done at that point. But the diaphragm in the 1917 photograph sure looks as though it’s mounted for vertical recording, and the “cutting” remark itself could just be the result of sloppy wording or imperfect understanding on the part of the reporter. If Haberacker’s machine survives at the Blair County Historical Society, and if we can get a look at it, we should be able to resolve a lot of these questions very quickly.
I’ve been unable so far to identify the Mrs. F. E. McCullough of Los Angeles who’s said to have loaned the Haberacker tinfoil record to the Southern California Music Company for its window display, but I’ve had better luck with the Will L. Ramsey who had reportedly helped Haberacker build his talking machine, and who turns out to have been a pretty well-known character.
- “Will L. Ramsey, of Los Angeles, California, who was about twelve years ago one of Tyrone’s jolliest boys, and who is known to all the readers of the HERALD, whether they have ever seen him or not, through his interesting California letters contributed to these columns, arrived in Tyrone at noon today and is busily greeting his many old friends. He will tarry here a few days while on his way to New York. Will looks natural and exhibits the jovial disposition of yore.” Tyrone (Pa.) Daily Herald, October 20, 1891.
- “Will L. Ramsey, a former citizen and a writer and base ball player of some repute, is visiting his old stamping grounds. He claims a home and habitation of late years amidst the salubrious climate and green culture of the far-famed Los Angeles of California.” “Tyrone Topics,” Altoona (Pa.) Tribune, October 21, 1891.
- “From the Los Angeles (Cal.) Times we learn the [sic] The Blind Men’s Social Club, organized by Tom Collins, the blind guide of the City Hall, Los Angeles, held its first meeting last Thursday evening at the home of Will L. Ramsey. The club has a membership of fourteen and the members and their wives celebrated Mr. Ramsey’s forty seventh birthday anniversary. It is the purpose of the blind men to hold a fete on the birthday of each club member. Mr. Ramsey is a former Tyrone boy, but has been living in the Pacific Coast state for the past twenty years. About seven years ago he was stricken with blindness.” Tyrone (Pa.) Daily Herald, June 14, 1906.
Next, here’s a longer piece that repeats some details regarding Ramsey’s use of the Edison Business Phonograph from the 1912 article about the Haberacker tinfoil. The reference to him being a draftsman hints at the kind of help he might have provided.
Blind Man Surmounts Handicaps.
[Office Appliances, April 1919, p. 24]
Will C. [sic] Ramsey, a skilled draftsman, abstracter and penman, lost his sight eight years ago. He is now 59 years “young.” His employer, O. P. Clark, of the Title Insurance & Trust Company, Los Angeles, Calif., furnished him with a typewriter, and Mr. Ramsey mastered the machine in a month, and has since earned his living with his old employer, transcribing voice-machine letters. An ingenious device sounds an alarm when the paper in the machine approaches the lower margin, and notifies him that it is time to insert another sheet. Mr. Ramsey has a record of transcribing sixty-two average letters and title reports in a day. He tabulates accurately, and undertakes everything except filling out printed forms.
We illustrate a writing board devised by Mr. Ramsey for feeding paper when writing with a pencil, and for guiding the pencil. The paper is advanced through two feed rollers, as on a typewriter. The guide bar for the pencil “floats” on springs, which hold the guide horizontally when normal. When a descending letter like a “g” is written, the guide gives way, permitting the formation of the tail. Then the bar returns to normal.
We are indebted to L. R. Smithen, of The Typewriter Repair Shop, Los Angeles, for the information and description.
And here’s his obituary, for good measure:
WILL S. [sic] RAMSEY
A Former Tyrone Resident Dies at Los Angeles, Calif.
[Tyrone (Pa.) Daily Herald, February 29, 1932]
Wednesday, February 24, at his home in Los Angeles, Will L. Ramsey, well and favorably known to a host of Tyrone people, passed to the great beyond. His death followed an illness of several months’ duration, from a general collapse of his bodily system.
Mr. Ramsey was a son of George W. Ramsey, who will be remembered by our older citizens as among the early officials and most prominent citizens of Tyrone.
In the early ‘80’s the Ramsey family left this community and located temporarily in Kansas, later removing to Los Angeles, where the elder Mr. Ramsey and his wife died.
Will L. Ramsey possessed abilities of no ordinary character. He was not in Los Angeles long before his peculiar fitness for a responsible position was recognized and he became associated with the Title Insurance and Trust company of that city, in which organization he was advanced from one responsible position to another until retirement came in consequence of failing eyesight, about ten years ago. In recognition of the value of his services, just before severance of relations with the company, his salary was increased and he retired on full pay.
Mr. Ramsey is survived by his wife, who was his faithful helpmate and zealous companion throughout his prolonged affliction and final illness.
In addition to the multiplicity of duties in his regular work, Mr. Ramsey found time to write for the news papers and occasionally furnished magazine articles. He possessed a vocabulary so extensive that he never failed in the proper and forceful expression of his ideas. Whether in humor or pathos his productions were marvels of expressiveness, and his style was most unique.
His passing will be sincerely regretted. His work will not soon be forgotten. His faithfulness, integrity and wholesome example will long be recalled.
I mentioned earlier that I haven’t been able to find any written sources from before 1912 connecting Haberacker with the phonautograph or tinfoil phonograph. That said, there is a report from 1883 stating that he had been teaching Isaac Pitman’s phonography—meaning phonetic shorthand—in Tyrone schools since 1878, which links him to yet another important branch of the history of sound-inscription. Moreover, a further reference from 1878 reveals that he taught first-graders in Tyrone to read and write using an experimental dictée method developed and promoted by William George Waring (1847-1935), a local court stenographer who went on to gain prominence as a chemist and metallurgist. Waring’s scheme combined a distinctive forty-two-character phonetic alphabet with an analysis of speech physiology. Haberacker must surely have discussed it with Waring about the time he converted his phonautograph into a tinfoil phonograph, so it helps put that work in context, but I also find it pretty interesting in its own right—reminiscent of Pitman’s phonotypy and Alexander Melville Bell’s Visible Speech, but also distinctly different from both.
The most comprehensive account of Waring’s version of the dictée method was probably the one that appeared in his pamphlet The Teacher’s Manual of Exercises on the Sounds of Speech, and the Sound-Signs Used in Homographic Dictée. Unfortunately, this pamphlet is quite rare today, with WorldCat reporting only a single exemplar held by the New York Public Library (Third Edition, Tyrone, Pennsylvania: Phonetic Depot, 1881), but a review of it in the Pennsylvania School Journal furnishes an interesting detail, viz.: “It affords a specimen of one of the extraordinary inventions of Edison, for it is printed from stencils perforated by the electric pen. This has been done in order to give the illustrations and homographs, which make up a considerable part of the pages.” So at roughly the same time Haberacker was upgrading his phonautograph into a tinfoil phonograph, Waring was apparently putting another recent Edison invention to use. Since I haven’t yet got my hands on a copy of Waring’s pamphlet, the best overview of his version of dictée method I’ve been able to access is his article “The Philosophy of the Alphabet,” American Primary Teacher 3 (Sept. 1879-June 1880): 242-244. The whole article is worth reading, but here’s one passage in which Waring lays out some analogies for the physiology of speaking in terms that wouldn’t have been out of place in a discussion of the articulatory talking machines of Wolfgang von Kempelen or Joseph Faber, which synthesized speech with bellows, reeds, and resonating chambers:
In the manual referred to, the peculiarities of the different classes of sounds (of which there are two of vowels and four of consonants), as well as the fundamental difference between vowels and consonants, are illustrated by jets of water flowing from differently shaped, or manipulated, nozzles; and the acoustic principles,—to older scholars,—by small globules, as shot or beads or pins, dropped, one alone, or more, into a basin of still water. The vowel-jets are smooth and unbroken as the waves are, and are therefore musical, giving a pure, even tone of sound. One class of the vowels,—having a tubular passage,—gives sounds of a quality like a flute; the other class, in which the passage is flattened to a certain degree for each vowel, gives sounds of thinner tone, having a quality like those of a reed-instrument, as a clarionet or flageolet.
The consonants come of broken jets. They are broken in four different ways, at three of the four different “doorways” in the passage of the mouth. The three mutes are produced by shutting closely for each one, one of these three doors, stopping the jet,—the breath-flow,—and therefore all sound, entirely.
The three nasals also have each its door closely shut, but the fourth door, or portière (a side door to the nose-way), is opened by drawing down the curtain of the uvula, which closes it against all other speech-sounds but the French nasalized forms of four vowels.
For the fricatives the three doors are left slightly ajar. They are typified by a finger-point pressing on the nozzle-orifice so as to leave but a narrow chink, through which the flow fizzes and spurts in much-divided spray.
All these ways of using the “doors” result in a confusion of jetlets or of waves, making a medley of tones of sound, such as we call “noise.” All the consonants are, therefore, unmusical; but those that break the jet least can be sounded through the gamut as hums or trills, more or less broken. No door is closed in the case of vowels.
Waring also describes a sample lesson, of which I’ll present an excerpt in facsimile to preserve the unusual diacritics:
Waring had some other publications besides, including a monthly Phonetic Journal, of which the AAS Historical Periodicals Collection, Series 5, has issues for Volume I (October 1875 through September 1876), and the Internet Archive has issues for Volume II (November | December 1876 | January supplement | February | March | April | May | June | July | August | September | October 1877). It’s to the latter that I owe the following illustration, which may not advance our story much but is still pretty cool.
Although Pitman’s phonography and Waring’s version of the dictée method may not have informed Haberacker’s construction of a talking machine in any technical sense, they would likely have shaped his broader understanding of what speech was, what it meant to record it, and how these points could best be impressed upon schoolchildren in a classroom.
But let’s return to the issue of when Haberacker built his original phonautograph. Some evidence we considered earlier suggested that this couldn’t have been before November 1873, but that he built it “at his first opportunity for experimental work,” raising the question of whether those two details are mutually compatible. His acoustic experiments seem to have been associated with his work as a schoolteacher, and not his work as a physician, so a good place to start is to look at his teaching history. Haberacker’s “attendance at the Normal School alternated with teaching in the public schools,” according to his obituary, and elsewhere we read that he taught for one term at Rupp’s School in Lehigh County’s Weissenberg Township in 1863. It seems unlikely, though, that he would have had much in the way of leisure or resources for experimentation at that time. Returning to the obituary, we read that he opened his practice as a physician in Tyrone in late 1869 “but after three years of labor found it advisable to again return to educational work.” Taken literally, that would date the beginning of his many years of employment as a teacher in Tyrone to late 1872. If it took him a year to settle in, that would bring us to late 1873 as the point at which he might reasonably have started exploring creative ways to enhance the curriculum. 1874 was a big year for the phonautograph in the United States more generally, with a new model being designed at MIT by Charles Anson Morey and some early experiments conducted by Alexander Graham Bell. If I had to bet right now on the year in which Haberacker originally built his phonautograph, I think I’d go with 1874.
It remains puzzling why no contemporaneous accounts of Haberacker’s work have turned up. Of course, it could be that the whole story was made up years after the fact, but that seems unlikely, since the events should still have been within the living memory of numerous people in Tyrone during the 1910s and 1920s, when articles were being published about them. That said, one source that at least combines Haberacker’s name and the Edison phonograph in the same article (but not in connection with each other) should give us pause for reflection.
Items and Things as Seen by Our Correspondent.
[Altoona (Pa.) Tribune, April 19, 1883]
Dr. Haberacker, teacher of the natural sciences in the public schools, on Friday gave an interesting and highly instructive lecture in the high school on fermentation, in which he demonstrated plainly the effects of fermented drinks, such as beer, ale wine and other diet drinks produced by fermentation, and consequently containing alcohol. The doctor cautioned against the use of such by every one wishing to maintain good health. He explained the fact that the characteristic action of alcohol is to prevent or arrest chemical change in organic substances, and since digestion is a chemical change, that change is suspended by mingling alcoholic mixtures with the food, and when removed into the circulation by the absorbents of the stomach, its effects on the nerves of the stomach remain, diminishing and preventing the sensibility of that organ, so that the food half digested is hurried into the intestines and nutrition is lost. He pronounced the glass of wine at dinner as merely a bribe to deaden the sensibility of “nature’s strainer,” which has been overloaded by gluttonous indulgence. So also with fermented bread, badly made, unwholesome and indigestible, which has lost all the sugar the flour originally contained, which is estimated at from 6 to 10 per cent. of the whole weight. He thus accounted for crackers and kindred forms of unleavened bread being more nutritious and easier of digestion than the ordinary fermented bread.
Mr. James Davis, of James Bay, gave an entertainment in the schools Thursday with the use of Edison’s phonograph or talking machine. At the close of the exhibition the gentleman placed two apples on strings suspended from a cord stretched across the room, and offered the boy who could eat the apple in the shortest time fifty cents. Two boys, named Black and Miller, with hands tied behind their backs, vainly tried for several minutes to get a grip at the apples, but to no purpose. Then twenty five cents was offered the boy who could get away with half an apple. Black, by taking small bites and disposing of them, instead of cramming the entire piece into his mouth as did Miller, won the quarter. It furnished lots of fun for the little folks.
The fact that an exhibition of an Edison phonograph in the Tyrone schools was considered newsworthy suggests that this wasn’t a routine occurrence, and the fact that Haberacker wasn’t the person exhibiting it suggests he was less firmly established as a local phonograph pioneer than later accounts would have it. I wonder, too, whether the author of the 1917 article who wrote of Haberacker’s “talking machine that we heard in the school room in the early eighties” might actually have been remembering the 1883 exhibition by James Davis (whom I haven’t identified further, but who is not to be confused with the North Carolina inventor of the recording telephone). All of which is to say that while I think the Haberacker story is plausible, I also admit that skeptics would have plenty of fodder for their fire.
I’ve argued elsewhere that Thomas Edison didn’t base his speaking phonograph on prior knowledge of the phonautograph, and that he instead came at it from an entirely different direction. One of my favorite pieces of evidence for this view is an anecdote published in the New York Herald for April 24, 1878:
At the Smithsonian Institute the other day Edison saw a phonautograph, a machine used for delineating graphically the form of the sound waves, and examining it curiously a moment he remarked to a friend:—
“Wise men, these were, not to see that they could put a hard point and a piece of tinfoil in front of it and there was the phonograph.”
Based on the sources I’ve presented above, it seems Eugene Haberacker might have beaten Edison to precisely this idea—and, even more remarkably, made it work.
NB. Edison Papers link updated September 29, 2022.