Nathaniel Smith and “The Song That Reached My Heart”

This is the story of the first selection ever listed in a phonograph record catalog, and it is also the story of one private phonograph enthusiast’s efforts to obtain some good records from Edison’s laboratory at the very dawn of the recording industry.

It begins on 20 September 1889.  Nathaniel Edward Smith, age thirty-four, was chief train dispatcher for the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad Company at New Haven, Connecticut, responsible for coordinating rail traffic through one of the busiest transportation hubs in New England.[1]  In the course of his duties, he had encountered a problem with a phonoplex telegraphy system he was trying to implement and wired Thomas Edison’s laboratory at West Orange for technical support.  At the same time, he added a personal request of his own: could the laboratory kindly send him some musical records for his phonograph?

Alfred Ord Tate, Edison’s personal secretary, tersely wired back: “Phonograph cylinders have to be procured from the North American Phonograph Company, #160 Broadway, New York City.”[2]  That was the unvarnished truth.  But Smith was a valued client whose requests were not to be turned aside lightly, so Tate elaborated on his telegraphic response in a letter written the same day, politely explaining what the obstacle was:

Your telegram in regard to phonograph records was duly received, and I immediately wired you in reply to the effect that cylinders would have to be obtained from the North American Phonograph Company, No. 160 Broadway, New York City.  I regretted very much being obliged to telegraph you thus, but Mr. Edison’s contracts with the North Am. Phono. Co. preclude his selling phonographs or supplies therefor, for use in the United States, the same being obtainable only from the North Am. Phono. Co. or their authorized agents.  Had Mr. Edison been at home, I am sure he would have been very pleased to have presented you personally with a few good records; but in his absence, however much we would like to gratify your desire in this connection, we are powerless to do so, for the reason mentioned above.  When Mr. Edison returns from abroad, I shall bring the matter to his attention, and he will doubtless present you with a few choice records.  Meanwhile, I think that the parties from whom you obtained your phonograph should be able to secure some records for you.[3]

In the past, Edison’s laboratory had indeed taken advantage of the loophole Tate mentioned in this letter.  True, Edison couldn’t legally sell phonograph records or other supplies in the United States except through the North American Phonograph Company, but he considered himself free to give them to people gratis if circumstances warranted.  On 28 May 1889, for example, the manager of the Michigan Phonograph Company had written him asking for “a variety of cylinders with musical records etc.” to be used in an upcoming exhibition.[4]  Tate had replied: “In regard to musical records, the North American Phonograph Co. is particular in having all such orders pass through them, but Mr. Edison believes that there is nothing in the way of his presenting you, personally, with 2 boxes of these records, and he has, therefore, given instructions for a selection of first class cylinders to be made and expressed to you, which he asks you to receive with his compliments.”[5]  This was not an isolated case.[6]  In September 1889, however, Edison was abroad on the same European tour that famously took him to the Paris Universal Exposition and the Eiffel Tower, so any gesture of this sort would have to await his return.  Smith immediately replied:

Yours in reference to phonograph records recd.  I no doubt was very presumptuous in asking you for records but I of course was not aware of just how you were situated & I thought after I sent the msg that you might think it a rather “cheeky” request, I being a comparative stranger to your people.  My idea was that perhaps you had extra records at the Laboratory that perhaps you had no use for, but of course you have a great demand for them in your regular business dealings with the N. A. Phono. Co.  Mr Bushnell of this City who I believe has sang for you, very kindly procured me one of the improved Phonographs but as yet I have only 2 or 3 or his records.  You are indeed very kind to suggest obtaining some from Mr Edison.  They would be treasures & exceedingly appreciated & I hope I can reciprocate sometime a hundred fold.[7]

“Mr Bushnell” was Ericsson Foote Bushnell, a New Haven native and celebrated oratorio and opera singer who is known to have made some of the musical cylinders sent from the United States to England for exhibition in mid-1888 and also to have visited Edison’s laboratory for another recording session in February 1889.[8]  It is unclear what Smith’s relationship with Bushnell was, or how Bushnell could have “procured” a phonograph for him at a time when anybody in the United States who wanted one had to rent it from a local licensee of the North American Phonograph Company (in Smith’s case, the New England Phonograph Company headquartered in Boston).  Those are unresolved mysteries.  But Smith’s excitement about the prospect of being presented with some records “personally” by Edison upon his return from Europe is clear.

Edison arrived home in early October 1889, but the records Tate had encouraged Smith to expect failed to materialize.  When roughly a month had passed since his first inquiry, therefore, Smith tried to catch Edison’s attention by sending him a phonographic spoken letter, a transcription of which survives:

This phonogram is intended for Mr. Thomas A. Edison, Orange, New Jersey.  Perhaps it is not agreeable for you to be addressed in this manner.  I presume you are bored to death by those who perhaps are so anxious as myself to obtain a record from you personally.  I trust you will, however, bear with me this time, as I wish to partially make this a business phonogram.  [Smith briefly discussed his phonoplex problems and aspirations before proceeding:]  I have one of your phonographs and should be extremely delighted to receive a phonogram from you to be reproduced for those who may have the good fortune to hear it.  By the way, wont you please tell me why this cylinder scratches.  I have as yet been unable to record without this hard scraping sound, although I have experimented thoroughly to find the trouble.  I cannot understand it unless it is the wax is too hard.  If you will kindly grant my request, it will be highly appreciated.[9]

On 24 October, Tate sent Smith a copy of the recently published Inspector’s Handbook of the Phonograph in response to the question about the “hard scraping sound” and promised that Edison would let him know as soon as he had resolved the phonoplex issues.[10]  However, Smith’s request for a phonogram from Edison went unanswered and may even have been a little embarrassing: Smith seems to have misinterpreted Tate’s earlier suggestion that Edison might present him “personally with a few good records” as referring not to musical records but to records Edison would make himself—records of his own voice.  Edison wasn’t comfortable doing such things and didn’t have time for it anyway.[11]

There matters sat for a couple weeks.  Then, on 12 November, Smith visited Edison’s laboratory in person and left some instructions there with the head of the “record department,” who would have been Walter Miller.  We know about this only because Smith wrote to Tate afterwards for good measure:

May I trouble you for a little favor.  I left with your man, who has charge of the record dept, when I was at your place Tuesday a list of pcs I wished to get, duplicates of those I had smashed.  I understand the Nor. Am Co. have ordered them of you.  Will you kindly ask the gentleman to select some that ˄are good.  Those I lost were exceptionally fine and of course am anxious to get some that are ˄equally as good if possible.  Will thank you very much for the favor.[12]

Smith was now making an effort to go through the proper channels—North American had duly placed an order on his behalf, as he’d been told was necessary—but he also wanted to make sure he got the selections he wanted, replacements for particular cylinders in his collection that he had broken.  This was a bit irregular.  At this point, there was still no official mechanism by which record customers could order specific titles; a North American price list published on 28 May 1889 had merely offered “musical phonograms, in boxes of 6 and 12 (assorted).”[13]  Not all prospective buyers were willing to take their chances on getting a good assortment, however, and on 28 June, the New Jersey Phonograph Company had written to Tate:

A customer of ours who visited you with one of our Employees some time since and who has paid us for 12 of your musical cylinders which he proposes to use in giving Exhibitions returned home with the understanding that you would send him a catalogue from which he could make his selection.  He has his machine, is ready to go out but not hearing from either you or us is becoming restive.[14]

Tate’s response had then been to instruct an employee: “Make me a list of the A [i.e., top quality] musical cylinders which we have, and send it to the Edison Phonograph Works, and ask them to forward a copy of it to the N. J. Phonograph Co., who desire to make a selection.”[15]  But this would only have been an inventory of what was available to choose from at that particular moment; there had been no commitment to maintain a list of titles regularly in stock.  Production was still too chancy and irregular for that.  As a rule, each performance was recorded on multiple phonographs simultaneously, but it was hard to keep up with demand even so, and musicians seem to have played whatever the mood struck them to play, so there was no guarantee of just what records might be available at any given time.  Tate’s reply to Smith of 18 November 1889 reflected this situation:

With reference to your letter of 15th instant, your order for musical records will be filled at the earliest possible moment, and we will take particular pains to select for you good records.  We have none of the selections mentioned on hand and will have to be necessary to have them played to the phonograph.  The cornet solos we will send you in a few days, but the full band selections may be delayed a week or so.[16]

The entries in the recording ledger for the week this letter was written agree with its prognosis about when new records would be available: D. B. Dana produced a total of 666 cornet cylinders on 16-21 November 1889, but Duffy and Imgrund’s Fifth Regiment Band did not make records again until 3-7 December.[17]  By 6 December, Smith was growing impatient:

As I have seen nothing as yet of the Phonograph records you were to make for me wont you please send me 4, of as good ones as you can select of those you may have on hand & send those you are to make for me as soon as you can.  I want 3 or 4 to use as soon as possible.  I will leave ˄it for the proper party at your place to select what ever is good.  I should like among them a nice ˄triple tongue Cornet & Piano Record.  One where the piano can be heard nicely thru a funnel.  Somehow I have not been rather unfortunate in getting good records.  About every time I have ordered from sub company they have been “all out of good records” & about all I have thus far been able to get were the “leavings” & I would like to get some that are first class if possible.  You can send bill of these 4 to sub company when you send bill of others, can you not?  I believe the N. E. Pho Co advised you to let me have what records I wished & send them bill— Kindly send tomorrow if convenient & will be greatly obliged to you.[18]

Tate responded apologetically a few days later:

I am sorry that there has been such a delay in furnishing you with musical records for your phonograph.  I was under the impression that the selections, of which you left a list when last at the Laboratory, had already been forwarded to you.  I am sending you to-day a dozen of first class records, in which I have included such of the pieces named on your list as we had on hand, and these you will please accept with my compliments.  The other selections which you desire will be forwarded to you at the earliest possible moment.[19]

The twelve records were a present from Tate rather than from Edison, but the principle was the same, and Smith conveyed his thanks in a letter of 14 December:

The box of records recd in good order also your letter at hand and contents noted.  I wish to express to you my sincere appreciation of your generosity & thank you a thousand times for the gift.  I appreciate it to the highest extent & hope I can reciprocate in some way.  It was a very great surprise as I had no idea you had any such intentions.  I have been troubled to get good records, being so far from the local Co.  I have had to take up with whatever was left or that they saw fit to send.  The records you sent are [written over “were”] fine & I prize them very much.  I am anxious to get a band record of “The song that reached my heart” pls include it in the list of those you are still to make for me and anything else you may have in the way of Clarinet, Banjo ˄Cornets or any thing that is good, enough to make 6 or 8 records all told.[20]

We don’t know what exactly was in the original list Smith had left with Walter Miller back in November, but here he identified one piece he particularly wanted: a band record of “The Song That Reached My Heart.”  This was a Julian Jordan composition, first published in 1887, and it had been one of the pieces performed for the phonograph by Markwith’s Band during a recording session of 25 September 1888.[21]  However, it had never before been listed as a band selection in the recording ledger begun at Edison’s laboratory in May 1889, where it had so far appeared only as a cornet solo.[22]  According to that same ledger, the next time Duffy and Imgrund’s Fifth Regiment Band made records following Smith’s latest letter was 14 January 1890, and the second piece listed in the entry for that date was indeed “The Song That Reached My Heart,” undoubtedly recorded to satisfy Smith’s request. Smith must have been sent one of the records made during that round while the others were added to the stock available for filling future band record orders.

Meanwhile, under increasing pressure to furnish a record catalog once and for all, Tate had promised Thomas Lombard of North American on 21 December 1889:

Mr. Walter Miller will call on you Monday next and will bring with him a list of the musical phonograms which we now have in stock.  You can then go over this list, and mark such selections as you desire to be included in the catalogue.  We will see that a number of the selections catalogued are always kept on hand, from which to fill orders.[23]

There was some delay, perhaps due to the holidays, but North American finally issued its first printed phonogram catalog (“Catalogue of Musical Phonograms, First Edition”) a few days before 17 January 1890, with two pages of brass band, parlor orchestra, cornet, clarionet, flute, piccolo, violin and piano “duett” selections, the titles numbered from one up in each category.  Local companies were encouraged to use the catalog “for distribution to the public.”  The very first item listed was band selection number one, “Song That Reached My Heart”—which had been included in the laboratory’s inventory only because it had just been recorded at Smith’s special request.[24]

Alas, Edison’s laboratory was to continue manufacturing the selections listed in North American’s brave new catalog for scarcely more than a week.  On 25 January 1890, Edison announced that repeated complaints had convinced him the record business was more trouble than it was worth, and that he had just closed his “Music Room” and discharged its staff.[25]  “That was rather a sudden determination on Mr. Edison’s part,” Thomas Lombard later recalled, “and I was put in a hole with about 600 orders for records to fill.  I immediately started in to see how we could fill those orders and made some arrangement with the New York Company to do so.”[26]  The result was a new catalog using the same layout and numberings found in the old one:  a “List of Musical Cylinders kept in stock by The New York Phonograph Company.”[27]  Of course, the New York company relied on different local performing ensembles than Edison’s laboratory had: “Brass Band” titles formerly supplied by Duffy and Imgrund’s Fifth Regiment Band were now being covered by Cappa’s Seventh New York Regiment Band, and “Orchestra” titles originally produced by Issler’s Orchestra were now available from Dodsworth’s Orchestra of New York.[28]  Many of the selections remained the same, however, allowing North American to continue filling orders keyed to the original numbers.  Still, there were a few title substitutions in the “brass band” and “orchestra” categories, and one of the items affected was brass band selection number one, right at the top of the list: “Song That Reached My Heart” had been replaced by “Resolute March.”

And so it seems that the first selection ever listed in a phonograph record catalog—a special customer request, included only by chance—was also the first selection ever deleted from a phonograph record catalog.

This article first appeared with minor differences in The Sound Box 28:1 (Mar. 2010): 13-18.  Click here for a modern instrumental rendition of “The Song That Reached My Heart” (on piano) by Phillip Sear and here for a photograph of our protagonist, Nathaniel Edward Smith, as restored by his descendant Walter Ashworth.


[1] T. Addison Busbey, ed., The Biographical Directory of the Railway Officials of America, 1906 Edition (Chicago: Railway Age Co., 1906), 559; federal census entries for Nathaniel Smith (“telegraph operator,” Boston, Massachusetts, 1880); Nath Smith (“train dispatcher,” New Haven, Connecticut, 1900); and Nathaniel Smith (New Haven, Connecticut, 1910); personal record for Nathaniel Edward Smith, b. 1855 in Massachusetts, Disc #86, Pin #593955.

[2] Tate to N. E. Smith, transcription of telegram [20 Sept.1889], in Thomas E. Jeffrey, ed. Thomas A Edison Papers: A Selective Microfilm Edition (Frederick, Maryland: University Publications of America, 1985—), henceforth “TAEM,” 139:686, or the digital edition at, henceforth “TAED,” LB032368.

[3] Tate to N. E. Smith, 20 Sept. 1889 (TAEM 139:685-6, TAED LB032367).

[4] John L. Butterfield to Edison, 28 May 1889 (TAEM 128:60, TAED D8963AAO).

[5] Tate to John L. Butterfield, 1 June 1889 (TAEM 139:257, TAED LB030172); acknowledged in John L. Butterfield to Edison, 17 June 1889 (TAEM 128:72-3, TAED D8963AAV); John L. Butterfield to Edison, 24 June 1889 (TAEM 128:79, TAED D8963ABA).

[6] For other instances, see Henry D. Goodwin to Edison, June 17, 1889 (TAEM 128:74, TAED D8963AAW); Walter H. Miller to Edison, June 18, 1889 (TAEM 128:75, TAED D8963AAX); Batchelor to John C. English, 31 July 1889 (TAEM 139:612, TAED LB031471); Batchelor to W. S. Wills [sic, W. R. Wills], 1 Aug. 1889 (TAEM 139:609, TAED LB031468).

[7] N. E. Smith to Tate, 21 Sept. 1889 (TAEM 127:465, TAED D8955ADA).

[8] Tate to Edison, 18 Aug. 1888 (TAEM 122:517, TAED D8818ARV); “America’s Latest Marvel,” from London Evening News, in Newcastle Weekly Courant (Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, England), 17 Aug. 1888, p. 3; “Londoner’s Astonished,” Orange Herald, 3 Nov. 1888 (TAEM 146:352, TAED SC88125A); “Concert Without Voices,” News (New Haven), Mar. 25, 1889 (TAEM 146:435, TAED SC89069a).  Bushnell may also have coordinated recording sessions by other performers, such as Emma Thursby, judging from Ezra Gilliland to Edison, 22 June 1888 (TAEM 124:367, TAED D8848ACK).

[9] N. E. Smith to Edison [20 Oct. 1889] (TAEM 125:410-11, TAED D8905AHM).

[10] Tate to N. E. Smith, 24 Oct. 1889 (TAEM 139:782, TAED LB033227); Inspector’s Handbook of the Phonograph (Newark, New Jersey: Ward & Tichenor, 1889; TAEM 147:274ff; TAED CA025B); for Edison’s manuscript of this work, see TAEM 137:1103ff, TAED D9899AAS2; TAEM 137:1116ff, TAED D9899AAS3.

[11] For more details, see the Griffonage-Dot-Com blog post “Edison’s Phonographic Voice and the Aural Culture of Imitation.”

[12] N. E. Smith to Tate, 15 Nov. 1889 (TAEM 127:488, TAED D8955ADO).

[13] “North American Phonograph Company Price List of Supplies No. 1,” 28 May 1889 (TAEM 128:7, TAED D8962AAG).

[14] W. C. Smith, New Jersey Phonograph Company, to Tate, 28 June 1889, ENHS correspondence box 1889:22, folder D-89-63.

[15] Tate to John F. Randolph, 30 June 1889 (TAEM 139:464, TAED LB031138A).

[16] Tate to N. E. Smith, 18 Nov. 1889 (TAEM 139:939, TAED LB034095).

[17] Allen Koenigsberg, Edison Cylinder Records, 1889-1912, with an Illustrated History of the Phonograph,  (New York: Stellar Productions, 1969), 124-6; or Mason Vander Lugt, editor, The First Book of Phonograph Records (National Recording Preservation Board, April 2017), original pagination 127-133, 137-141.

[18] N. E. Smith to Tate, 6 Dec. 1889 (TAEM 127:499-500, TAED D8955ADV).

[19] Tate to N. E. Smith, 10 Dec. 1889 (TAEM 140:22, TAED LB035063).

[20] N. E. Smith to Tate, 14 Dec. 1889 (TAEM 127:516, TAED D8955AEE).

[21] “Playing for Europeans,” Orange Herald, 29 Sept. 1888 (TAEM 146:341, TAED SC88114B).

[22] Koenigsberg, Edison Cylinder Records, 124, or Vander Lugt, First Book, 127.

[23] Tate to Thomas Lombard, 21 Dec. 1889 (TAEM 140:85, TAED LB035213), in response to Thomas Lombard to Edison Phonograph Works, 12 Dec. 1889 (TAEM 128:37, TAED D8962ABB).

[24] Koenigsberg, Edison Cylinder Records, 134; also TAEM 147:361-2, TAED CA027C1.  The list had been “issued…a few days hence,” according to the North American Phonograph Company’s circular letter #16, dated 17 Jan. 1890, reprinted in New York Phonograph Company vs. National Phonograph Company, Transcript of Record, 1:602 (TAEM 117:937, TAED QP0100602).

[25] Edison to Edison Phonograph Works, 25 Jan. 1890 (TAEM 140:343-6, TAED LB036335; typewritten copy at TAEM 141:828-9, TAED LB046099).

[26] Proceedings of the Third Annual Convention of the National Phonograph Association of the United States, Held at Chicago, June 13, 14, 15, 1892 (n. p.: [1892]), 83; see transcription here.

[27] “List of Musical Cylinders kept in stock by The New York Phonograph Co.,” n. d., ENHS Primary Printed Series, Box 28, “New York Phonograph Company” folder.

[28] This conclusion is based on my comparison of catalog items with the phonograms listed in “The Edison Phonograph,” Atlanta Constitution, 23 July 1890, p. 7.

NB. Edison Papers links updated September 29, 2022.

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