Friday, March 18, 2016

The NRR Project #4: Edison’s voice

Around the World on the Phonograph
Thomas Edison
October 1888

Thomas Edison was one sharp operator. His first patent was for a vote recorder – which no one bought. Why? Because it made it harder for politicians to steal elections. The lesson Edison took from this was to focus on inventions people wanted. In this, he was far more than an inventor – he was an entrepreneur, a self-promoter. It seems fitting, then, that his should be the first recorded voice we are intended to hear.

His cylinder recordings are the first commercially feasible ones. Sound conducted through a horn vibrates a diaphragm, which in turn moves a stylus; the stylus etches the resulting groove into the spinning cylinder. Reversing the process by spinning the cylinder again and placing the stylus in the groove allows the sound to replay via the horn.

Originally, the musician or speaker had to stand in front of the horn all day, repeating the performance, in order to make copies; eventually, mechanical multiples could be produced, but the loss of sound quality was great. Cylinder coatings went from tinfoil to wax to cellulose to plastic, until cylinders lost out to cheaper, less bulky discs. The number of effective playbacks in a cylinder went from fewer than 20 to 100 or more – another reason to switch to the more reliable, if more brittle, disc records.

Here Edison promotes not only his invention but himself, the genial but commanding science-magician, the “Wizard of Menlo Park.” He describes the kind of round-the-world journey that could only be contemplated by people well-off enough to afford his new invention – Edison knows his new toy will best be marketed to the leisure class.

Edison relates a string of cities this imaginary journey takes him through – Liverpool, London, Calais, “Paree,” a litany of destinations the smart traveler would not miss. Edison cracks a joke about being laid up with cholera in “Bombay” for a few weeks, and continues through Singapore, Hong Kong, Tokyo, and so on back home. This is the itinerary of the Cook’s Tour, the pioneering travel agency of the 19th century. In the wake of the “Grand Tour” usually taken by upper-class travelers in Europe for 200 years, package tours such as Cook’s and others starting mining the pockets of the culturally and socially ambitious nouveau riche and expanding middle class. The Internet Archive has an excellent recording of it here.

Edison is selling not just a product, not just a process, but an assumption that he’s discussing a common, and reachable, aspiration. He’s selling a vision of a wider-ranging life.

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: The Edison Talking Doll cylinders.

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