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The Phonograph Becomes a Source of Entertainment

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Insofar as the phonograph provided Edison with a model for his subsequent motion-picture endeavors, it merits careful attention here. When first invented, the phonograph was predictably seen as another communications device with a fundamentally utilitarian purpose. In the summer of 1877, during the course of experimentation at his Menlo Park, New Jersey, laboratory, Edison encountered certain unexpected phenomena that enabled him to invent an instrument for recording and playing back sound. He called this device the phonograph: the term, derived from the Greek, meant “sound writer.” As Reese Jenkins points out, he initially explored three different formats for storing the sound information: in two cases waxed paper or tin foil were wrapped around a cylinder or shaped into a disk, while the third possibility involved a paper tape similar to stock-ticker tape, with which Edison was intimately familiar. 4 In the end, he pursued cylinders wrapped in foil. A short time after constructing and testing this novel recorder, the inventor gave a demonstration at the offices of Scientific American. 5 The public was amazed, and a whirlwind of publicity culminated in an impromptu entertainment for President Rutherford Hayes at the White House. Almost overnight, Edison became a popular hero dubbed “the Wizard of Menlo Park.”

Everyone believed that the phonograph’s long-term value was as a business machine. But because it was still too primitive to be employed “for the practical uses of commerce,” the instrument was exhibited as a technological novelty. The Edison Speaking Phonograph Company was organized in the first part of 1878 to market and exhibit the new invention. James Redpath, founder of a Lyceum bureau in Boston, organized this aspect of the machine’s exploitation. Showmen were assigned territories for their exhibitions, which consisted of practical demonstrations accompanied by elaborate explanations: another instance of the operational aesthetic at work. Only a few hundred exhibition phonographs were built; these used tin foil, wrapped around a cylinder, as a recording material. The instrument was hand-cranked, during both recording and playback. Each impression (the stylus making indentations on the foil) could be used only a few times before its quality degenerated beyond recognition. At exhibitions, the phonograph reproduced speeches and natural sounds as well as music. People were brought onstage to speak into the mouthpiece and then heard their voices emanate from a funnel attached to the phonograph. 6 As a Massachusetts newspaper reported in 1878:

The experiments were intensely interesting. The operator repeated the juvenile poem,

“Mary had a little lamb,
Its fleece was white as snow,”

and immediately as he reversed the crank, it was repeated through a pasteboard tunnel, giving all the inflections of his voice. A cornet player performed several tunes, placing his cornet over the mouthpiece, and they were all repeated with wonderful accuracy. Someone sang in the mouthpiece and the singing was reproduced. Imitations of crowing, barking, cat calls, whistling and singing, were also repeated, affording much mirth ( Cape Ann Advertiser, 24 May 1878).

The craze lasted for a little less than a year; once the pool of customers had been exhausted, the novelty failed. Edison then turned his attention to another problem, incandescent light.

After a five-year period during which the phonograph had all but disappeared from commercial use, Alexander Graham Bell and several colleagues unveiled a vastly improved recording system. Tin foil was replaced by a wax-coated cardboard cylinder, and Edison’s rigid needle by a free-floating stylus. Impressions were made by “engraving,” which meant removing materials from the cylinder rather than simply indenting. The new system utilized much narrower grooves, allowing for more playing time. Acknowledging their debt to Edison, the Bell associates reshuffled the name of his invention and called their own machine the graphophone. They also sought a commercial alliance with the Menlo Park inventor, but Edison angrily refused and embarked on his own improvements. His “perfected phonograph,” although still requiring further refinement before it could function reliably in practical situations, was unveiled in May 1888. 7 That spring Jesse Lippincott, a successful industrialist, gained control of the recording industry, first acquiring the marketing rights for the graphophone and then for Edison’s phonograph. These rights were dispersed on an exclusive basis among approximately thirty regional subcompanies, including the Holland brothers, who controlled the Canadian territory. 8 These subcompanies were to lease (not sell) the machines to their customers for forty dollars a year, exclusive of batteries and other sundries.

The perfected phonograph was expected to fulfill the invention’s promise as a useful business machine. Low-paid personnel could simply transcribe an executive’s dictation off the cylinder. The new instrument was hailed as "a stenographer which will take with unfailing accuracy from the most rapid dictation, which never goes out to ‘see a man,’ which is ready for work at any hour of the day, which repeats its notes as often as may be desired, which is never dissatisfied, sick or ‘looking for a raise.’ " 9 It could even do away with letter writing. Businessmen could send correspondence via a phonogram, as these cylinders were often called, and so save the time and expense of having letters typed on still-primitive typewriters. Like the quadruplex and the telephone, the phonograph was meant to increase communication efficiency and decrease the costs of running an office. Yet subcompany managers encountered resistance when they marketed the phonograph as a respectable business machine. Phonograph agents testified to the practical difficulties that inexperienced people had in operating the machine. Managers soon realized that only by using the phonograph as a source of entertainment could they make money. 10 This idea took two forms: the phonograph concert and the nickel-in-the-slot phonograph, forms of presentation that paralleled projection and various peephole devices.

Phonograph concerts continued the demonstrations given for the Edison Speaking Phonograph Company. Initially, many of these exhibitions took place in storefronts, sites used by traveling museums and related amusements. During the first part of 1890 Lyman Howe and a partner traveled through eastern Pennsylvania presenting their phonograph in stores and small rooms. Open continuously each afternoon and evening, they gave concerts lasting about half an hour for an admission fee of ten cents. Their varied selections included music, speeches, and on-the-spot recordings of local personalities. These early concerts were “visited by people from every walk in life … and [the phonograph] excited the wonder and curiosity of all who heard it.” 11 The well-to-do often came more than once.

Concerts given in lecture halls, opera houses, and churches usually lasted two hours or more. As early as February 1889, Edison associates gave a phonograph concert at Commonwealth Hall in East Orange, New Jersey, for the benefit of the Calvary Methodist Episcopal Church. This entertainment, as reported in the Orange Chronicle, also included a lecture on the Moors of Spain illustrated by stereopticon slides. When Howe became a solitary exhibitor in late 1890, he adopted the longer format and charged twenty-five cents for admission. Like Howe, showmen leased (and later bought) their phonographs from a subcompany and then traveled through a designated territory giving exhibitions. According to phonograph showman M. C. Sullivan, these concerts required “all the tact and versatility of the man who manipulates the instrument.” He had to introduce each selection in a way that maximized its effectiveness yet melded these individual recordings into a coherent program “governed by the well known laws of dramatic practice.” While a concert should have a beginning, middle, and end, it still depended on variety principles for its construction. “Serious incidents,” advised Sullivan, “should be of short duration and made powerful. Comic incidents should be numerous and carefully mingled with the serious.” Novelty was also important. “Sounds from nature,” such as cackling hens and crowing roosters, amused audiences simply because they were incongruous and unexpected in a lecture hall. As a climax to the evening, a local band or minister often performed for the phonograph; the playback always left audiences “awed by mystery and amazement.” 12

Coin-operated phonographs (the precursor of the modern-day jukebox) became popular during 1890. In February the Automatic Phonograph Exhibition Company was incorporated to “manufacture, lease, use, and sell a nickel-in-the-slot machine by means of which the dropping of a coin in the slot will operate a mechanism which will cause a phonograph or phonograph-graphophone, to produce the sound recorded upon its cylinder.” For five cents an individual could listen to a recording through earphones. By that summer, a dozen were installed at different locations in Richmond, Virginia. The Missouri Phonograph Company placed forty-eight machines in Kansas City and realized as much as fifteen hundred dollars per month. 13 The Ohio Phonograph Company found it more profitable to group its machines in arcades. At the second annual convention of local phonograph companies of the United States, James L. Andem, president of the Ohio company, explained:

We commenced putting out the Automatic Company’s machines, and confined it to the largest cities, such as Cincinnati and Cleveland. The receipts at first were quite large, but the cost of inspection was very heavy, the cylinders were easily damaged and thrown out of adjustment, and people treated the machines in a pretty rough manner at times. We finally grouped them together in what we call a system of arcades. … We found there that by putting the machines in groups often, having an attendant present to make change and keep the machines in the best adjustment in which they can be kept, the receipts were larger ( Proceedings of the Second Annual Convention, pp. 58-59).

A Cleveland arcade was opened with twelve phonographs on 15 September 1890, and another in Cincinnati followed less than two months later. These served as models for the many phonograph parlors (and later, kinetoscope parlors) that soon appeared throughout the country. By June 1891 over a third of the country’s 3,200 phonographs were being used as nickel-in-the-slot machines. 14 Most others still employed for business purposes, but over the next several years entertainment became their dominant purpose.

The nickel-in-the-slot phonograph and the phonograph concert appealed to antagonistic cultural groups. The first type was located in saloons, hotels, and railroad stations, sometimes offered racy stories, and was occasionally subject to censorship. 15 Part of the “slot machine” phenomenon, it was strongly opposed by religious and civic groups as morally corrupting. Not long after its appearance, the nickel-in-the slot phonograph with its multiple users was called a health hazard: infectious diseases were said to spread via the earphones.

By contrast, religious organizations, which frequently opposed the “ordinary phonograph,” sponsored phonograph concerts to raise money. (For handling publicity, providing exhibition space, and drawing upon their members and friends, such groups received 30 to 40 percent of the gross receipts.) Commonly located in churches and presided over by ministers, these exhibitions featured sermons or hymns and involved group participation. In their format and selections, they continued the evening concert tradition of music, song, and recitations delivered by church members with occasional assistance from a visitor. Yet for Edison and the phonograph companies, the nickel-in-the-slot machine was far more profitable. While the Ohio Phonograph Company had over sixty nickel-in-the-slot devices, four phonograph exhibitors covered the entire state. 16 Cultural prejudices were forgotten in the face of commercial opportunity, and when Edison sought to extend his phonograph into the visual realm, the inventor developed a method of exhibition modeled after the arcade machine—the peephole kinetoscope.

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