The Wonder of the Age - Mr. Edison's New Talking Phonograph

We have become so accustomed to records, films and magnetic tapes, that we accept them as everyday household commodoties, but before Thomas Edison invented the Phonograph, the written word was the sole method of recording thoughts, speech or conversation; the actual sound of a voice could only be preserved in the memory of those who had actually heard the speaker.

The invention of the Phonograph was almost accidental. During 1877 Thomas Alva Edison was attempting to devise a method of repeating morse telegraph signals; instead, he came up with a machine described in Scientific American on December 22nd that year as “a little affair of a few pieces of metal that talks in such a way, that even if in its present imperfect form many words are not clearly distinguishable, there can be no doubt but that the inflections are those of the human voice.” Imperfect or not, the Phonograph caused a sensation, and when exhibited in London the following August, The Illustrated London News went into raptures about the instrument, “Witnessing its performance one is apt to take the stories of genii bottled up for years to be released at last, of frozen tunes released by warmth flooding the air with melody, and other romances of a like kind, as veritable prophecies of the good time coming.”

Despite this great public attention, Edison did not develop his invention, thus allowing others time to make their own important discoveries. During the next few years, Alexander Graham Bell, Chichester Bell, and Charles Sumner Tainter worked together in Washington to produce the Graphophone, which used cardboard cylinders coated with wax and a feed screw to move the recorder along the cylinder as it turned. The challenge of the Graphophone led Edison to improve his Phonograph. He placed on the market a much more sophisticated model, which, using a cylinder made entirely of wax, superseded the Graphophone of the period. This model of the Phonograph, dating from 1888, became the basic design of every subsequent Edison product. The original version was powered by an electric motor which limited its sales, but by 1895 spring motors were incorporated.

As part of a campaign to get the Phonograph accepted into offices as as a dictating machine, Edison’s agent, Colonel Gouraud, invited celebrities of the day to record messages to be sent to Edison. Politicians, literary men, people prominent in every walk of life, flocked to make records. From Florence Nightingale came, “When I am no longer even a memory, just a name, I hope my voice may perpetuate the great work of my life. God bless my dear old comrades of Balaclava, and bring them safe to shore.”

The statesman William Ewart Gladstone sent the following tribute: “The request that you have done me the honour to make, to receive the record of my voice, is one that I cheerfully comply with, so far as it lies in my power, though I lament to say that the voice I transmit to you is only the relic of an organ, the employment of which has been overstrained. I offer to you as much as I possess and so much as old age has left me, with the utmost satisfaction, as being at least a testimony to the instruction and delight I have received from your marvellous invention.”

Other recordings that survive feature the voices of Lord Stanley, the American showman P.T. Barnum, Oscar Wilde, Robert Browning and Lord Tennyson. The earliest still in existence is a message from Sir Arthur Sullivan, recorded on 5th October 1888 at Colonel Gouraud’s home ‘Little Menlo’, in South East London. Sir Arthur seems to have had few illusions about the new invention… “For myself I can only say that I am astonished, and somewhat terrified at the results of this evening’s experiments. Astonished at the wonderful power you have developed – and terrified at the thought that so much hideous and bad music may be put on record for ever.”

The disc record was invented by Emile Berliner in 1887, and his ‘Gramophone’ demonstrated in 1888. During the ten years to 1899 manufacturers of both cylinders and discs made immense progress in quality and performance, with steadily increasing sales, albeit in side street cycle shops and hardware stores. It was The Gramophone Company who got the talking machine accepted into smart society. In 1903 they persuaded the veteran opera singer, Francesco Tamagno, to come out of retirement and record for them. The resulting records were marketed at the then astronomical price of £1 each. The company made no apology for the high price, far from it, it was a deliberate attempt to attract the carriage trade into their ‘Gramophone Salons.’ Melba soon followed Tamagno into the recording room – her records were even more expensive – one guinea each! Until the twenties this was a basic policy of The Gramophone Company – the bigger the name, the larger the price: and if several celebrity artists were employed for a recording the price was correspondingly inflated.

Litigation bedevilled the industry in its infancy. The Three most important patents were owned by Edison, Bell and Tainter, and Berliner, who realising that they held the keys to a potentially important market, pooled their patents in 1902 to allow progress in the industry. Pioneer inventors also patented the names of their products. Thus Edison patented ‘Phonograph’, Bell and Tainter the ‘Graphophone’ and Berliner the ‘Gramophone’. Right into the Edwardian era the Gramophone Company jealously guarded its right to the name and quickly took action against any firm producing an instrument to play discs, and calling it a ‘gramophone’. Finally it was judged in one such law-suit that ‘gramophone’ had become a generic word. Henceforth, any disc-playing machine could be so called without let or hindrance.

The outbreak of the First World War sent shudders through the record industry. Manufacturers saw ruin around the corner and sent plaintive circulars to their dealers – “In the present grave crisis, we wish to point out the folly of of giving way to panic. That the trade will suffer severely from the war is unfortunately certain. But we will only increase the difficulties by proclaiming that the War will kill trade. If we all feel confident that records will still be in demand, we shall have done much to create and foster such a demand.” Much to their own amazement, the record companies found that they had a boom on their hands. Soldiers in the trenches were playing records to remind them of home, and astute publishers were soon churning out dozens of patriotic songs. Record companies sent both gramophones and records to the forces, particularly the Edison Bell Winner company owned by James Hough, which sent records all over the fighting front. Most of the gramophones that were sent were not designed to be carried about in the exacting conditions of war, and the long-established firm of Barnett Samuel marketed a portable gramophone which the name the ‘Decca’. The compactness and reliabilty of this little machine made it an immediate success both at home and with the troops. From Barnett Samuel has developed the large Decca group which we know today.

Without radio or television to provide a picture of current events, imaginative manufacturers produced miniature plays, packing as much topical material as possible into the two or three minutes duration of the record. There were scores of titles: ‘Departure of a Troopship’, ‘Tommy’s Return To The Front’, ‘The Angel Of Mons’ and the disc we hear on this album – ‘The Grand Peace Record’, issued in January 1919. The actual sound of the war was brought to listeners at home by taking portable equipment to France to record a gas shell bombardment at Lille. A creditable achievement for the technicians, and a permanent chronicle of the Great War. The armistice in November 1918 sent revitalised shudders through the trade; whereas in 1914 they feared that the war would stop business, now they expected that peace would be followed by a slump in sales. They need not have worried – Jazz Dancing was around the corner. HMV made ecstatic claims for their dance records – “There is a fascination about well played modern dance music. The melody is there, and an unfailing rhythm, around which is woven a texture of quaint effects, so numerous and unexpected as to give one great respect for the clever people who think them all out.”

Until the twenties, most of the gramophone periodicals were written for a mainly trade readership. Compton Mackenzie thought that the record buying public would support a magazine containing interviews with eminent musicians, and featuring reviews of current record releases. In 1923 he and his brother-in-law Christopher Stone launched THE GRAMOPHONE. With writers of the calibre of Hilaire Beloc, who subscribed some poems to early issues, and Mackenzie and Stone themselves, the new magazine was a dramatic improvement on earlier publications. Nearly all the literary items chosen to illustrate the Twenties come from the pages of The Gramophone – from Fay Compton warning of ‘The Power Of The Needle’ to Captain Barnett and his do-it-yourself high fidelity systems which guatanteed to bring musical perfection into the home for a modest outlay of cash, plus an infinite amount of patience, ‘tuning’ soundboxes, lapping horns with string, honing fibre needles to microscopic points and lovingly cutting bamboo points until they resembles poison darts.

While record sales continued to increase after the War, there could be no doubt that the sound quality left much to be desired. Several laboratories commenced experiments with microphones, searching for methods of recording electrically. Perhaps the first such recording in Britain was that made by Guest and Merriman who recorded part of the burial service of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey. The major breakthrough was made at the Bell Telephone Laboratories in the United States by a team headed by Harrison and Maxfield who developed the ‘Western Electric’ system of recording, to which many record companies gained access by taking out licenses to use it. The first electrical recording to make any public impact was ‘Adeste Fidelis’, sung by the Massed Choir of the Associated Glee Clubs of America, recorded during a performance at the Metropolitan Opera House, New York. Other methods of early electrical recording included the Brunswick ‘Light Ray’ method, and a system developed by P.G.A.H. Voigt and utilised by the Edison Bell Company for their ‘Radio’ and ‘Electron’ discs. Both of the electrical examples featured on this album were recorded by this process.

Despite early complaints, it was obvious that mechanical recording was finished. No record company could compete with the new electrical systems, the old techniques were abandoned almost overnight, and new skills and new artists quickly supplanted the old.

Edison’s invention of 1877 had grown within fifty years to a huge industry employing thousands of workers and producing over a million records a year. Edison himself summed up the achievements of the early pioneers in a speech he recorded in 1908: “There have come with remarkable rapidity, one electrical art after another; so that in practically every respect civilisation has been revolutionised. It is still too early to stand outside these events and pronounce final judgement on their lasting value, but we may surely entertain the belief that the last last half of the nineteenth century was as distinct in electrical inventions and results, as the first half was in relation to steam. We veterans can only urge upon our successors, the younger followers of Franklin and Kelvin, to realise the nature of their opportunities, and to rise to the heights of their responsibilities in this age of electricity.”