Metal Machine Music
The Phonograph’s Voice and the Transformation of Writing
It is nineteenth century up-to-date with a vengeance. And yet, unless my senses deceive me, the old centuries had, and have, powers of their own which mere “modernity” cannot kill.
—Bram Stoker, Dracula
Thomas Edison’s invention of the phonograph is both a perfect example of “modern” science and a harbinger of the problems brought about by modernity’s increased mechanization. It was originally conceived as a modified version of Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone. While Bell’s machine was a milestone in communication history, Edison felt that it was simply too expensive for most people to use. Consequently, he wanted to develop a “telegraph repeater”, which would “record Morse code signals by indenting dots and dashes on a paper tape,” thereby combining the telephone’s speed with the low cost of the telegraph (Kruse 1993). What Edison discovered, however, was that other acoustic vibrations could be stored in this manner. During the summer and fall of 1877, Edison and his staff perfected a device which would use a needle to inscribe onto a tinfoil cylinder sheet a mark, similar to a written code, which, when replayed, would produce an audible signal.
From the moment the phonograph was unveiled to the public, it was an immediate sensation. Edison’s machine was viewed as a breakthrough in the history of technology, giving its inventor the dubious title, “The Wizard of Menlo Park.” Wizardry notwithstanding, the phonograph did not achieve mass-cultural success for another twenty years. In part, this is due to economic and technical problems which delayed the production of a cost-efficient device; however, many of these problems can be attributed to the fact that, although the phonograph eventually transformed culture, culture itself had a difficult time adjusting to these changes. As I will argue, the phonograph disrupted American and European attitudes towards language, communication, and identity and forced a rethinking of the conception of “humanity”. By examining the phonograph in light of these shifting historical contours, I hope to suggest ways in which the device exemplifies many of the questions and concerns that shaped social history and critical theory in the years between the United States Civil War and World War I. In particular, I want to focus upon the convergence of “human” and “machine” exemplified by the phonograph and how this leads to a shifting conception of writing and the development of modern mass media.
The Scientist and the Sound
In many ways, the phonograph owes its existence to a shifting definition of both “science” and the “scientist” in the nineteenth century. Prior to this time, “the word science… meant knowledge acquired by study” (Chapple 1986, 1), with “knowledge” defined in the classical sense as the understanding of both the physical and metaphysical realms. In many ways, science was part of what was generally called philosophy, which is a term suggesting a comprehensive (Gestalt) acquisition of knowledge. Science was perceived as the domain of wealthy amateurs who had the time and resources to engage in serious research (Haynes 1994, 104). These scientists, as Roslynn Haynes notes, could be saviours or villains, heroes or demons. On the side of the saviours are figures such as Issac Newton, “Britain’s national treasure” (Ibid., 50), whose Principia “demonstrated the predictive abilities of science and released scientists from the need to seek mystical causes for phenomena they had previously been unable to understand, such as gravity. It tamed the hitherto random and hostile universe into a well-oiled and entirely reliable clockwork model” (Ibid., 54). By giving names to fundamental scientific principles, Newton demystified certain aspects of science. Moreover, by demonstrating the universality of nature and its laws, he reconciled Christianity’s belief in a personal god with the logical and rational rules governing science.
While Newton was deified, other scientists were perceived as dangerous figures whose knowledge could conceivably destroy or pervert the forces of nature. These scientists were often regarded as eccentrics whose isolation from human society led to dangerous tampering with forces beyond their control. This “mad scientist” was common in the literature of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries; in fact, this figure is still common in novels and movies today (witness Brent Spiner’s Dr. Brakish Okun in Roland Emmerich’s 1986 film, Independence Day). The most notable “mad scientist”, however, is Mary Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein, whose isolation from others leads to “his suppression of emotional relationships and æsthetic experiences and the delusion that his work is being pursued in the interests of society, when in fact the real goals are power and fame; above all, he fails to foresee and take responsibility for the results of his research” (Haynes 1994, 5). Rather than attempting to understand the laws of nature, Frankenstein sought to reshape these laws according to his own will.
During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, science was considered less significant than the study as philosophy, the classics, and divinity. It was not until approximately 1850 that science existed as a separate discipline, one “restricted to the systematic study of the material and natural universe” (Chapple 1986, 1). This change effectively constituted a shift away from the “questions of Truth or universal values” to a more specialized discipline based upon an understanding of the scientific method, which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as a “method of procedure… consisting in systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses” (Haynes 1994, 105).Whereas, in previous cultures, literature, chemistry and politics were all seen as achieving the same ends, science after 1850 divided such categories according to their respective fields of inquiry. Specialization, in other words, led to “scientists,” a term first used in 1834, in an article from the British journal Quarterly Review examining the lack of “unity” in the field of science:
A curious illustration of this result may be observed in the want of any name by which we can designate the students of the knowledge of the material world collectively…. Some ingenious gentleman proposed that, by analogy with artist, they might form scientist, and added that there could be no scruple in making free with this termination when we have such words as socialist, economist, and atheist — but that was not generally palatable. (Quoted in Chapple 1986, 59)
The dispute over the term “scientist” derives from an unwillingness to turn science into a profession like law or banking. In large part, this is a result of class antagonisms in Britain; the development of science was primarily supported by a large middle class groundswell, which was effecting a reconfiguration of education away from the “classical” tradition and towards a more specialized course of study. Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a prime example of this new science, for the work is largely shaped by the actions of two scientists, Drs. Seward and Van Helsing. Their knowledge of physiology, criminology and technology offer the means by which the vampire Dracula is understood and destroyed. The scientific centre of the novel is epitomized in the foreword:
How these papers have been placed in sequence will be made manifest in the reading of them. All needless matters have been eliminated, so that a history almost at variance with the possibilities of later-day belief may stand forth as simple fact. There is throughout no statement of past things wherein memory may err, for all the records chosen are exactly contemporary, given from the standpoints and within the range of knowledge of those who made them. (Stoker 1897, xxvi)
Unlike the remainder of the novel, this note is not attributed to a particular character; in other words, it seems to have no specific human author. As Rosemary Jann notes, the foreword “adds to [the novel’s] authority and implies the presence of some omniscient author who vouches for the “truth” of the “simple facts” presented” (Jann 1989, 278). It sets out a systematic method of reading which parallels Van Helsing’s later insistence upon complete and accurate disclosure of facts. However, phrases like “all needless matters have been eliminated,” “no statement… wherein memory may err,” and “exactly contemporary” suggest that the facts which shape this novel are themselves subject to interpretation. This “construction” emerges more fully on the final page of Dracula, in which Jonathan Harker comments on the book itself: “We were struck with the fact, that in all the mass of material of which the record is composed, there is hardly one authentic document; nothing but a mass of type-writing” (Stoker 1897, 444). Whereas the foreword proclaims the novel’s absolute objectivity, by the end of the novel this objectivity has a human author which admits that these facts are “nothing but a mass of type-writing,” a trace of textual markings without significance or authenticity. This transformation from objective fact to subjective opinion suggests that an anxiety over authorship resides at the centre of the novel’s rational heart; it is as if, somewhere along the line, the novel’s belief in science is unhinged.
In part, this “unhinging” of scientific authority can be attributed to science’s revision of nearly every commonly held assumption about life, history, physiology, perception and communication in the final decades of the nineteenth century. Besides inventions such as the phonograph and the X-ray machine, scientific discoveries like Thomas Henderson’s 1831 disclosure that the nearest star was twenty-four trillion miles away (Haynes 1994, 104) and Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution stripped the uniqueness away from the human race and repositioned the Earth within an ever-expanding universe. These transformations questioned the basic foundations of civilization, especially in terms of religion. Social Darwinism, for instance, became a political as well as a scientific and social doctrine, providing a justification for the rejection of social welfare and negating the Christian conceptions of charity and providence.
Although science perceived itself as laying the groundwork for a future utopian society, many refused to accept that machines and medicine alone could improve the world. In light of Darwin, many felt that “the bases of the new theory [science] were chance, waste, and suffering” (Ibid., 108); these consequences would lead to a situation in which animalistic urges reduce civilization to rubble. What many disagreed with was not science’s methodology but the unemotional and inhuman attitudes that this research assumed. As Janet Oppenheim points out, many at this time eagerly criticized science’s inability to live up to its role as agent of humanity’s future:
Instead of an essential harmony and morality in nature, many a Victorian came to detect with dread nothing but universal conflict in which all but the fittest succumbed. Worst of all, man turned out to be an integral part of this natural savagery, with a history inseparable from that of animal life on earth and the terrible implication of that connection was clear. (Oppenheim 1985, 60)
Rather than offering a utopian hope for the future, science reaffirmed the “baseness” of humanity. What this implies, of course, is a particular definition of “human” that is linked to a spiritual or emotional centre. Consequently, science’s avoidance of spiritual issues negated the belief systems that maintained human beings’ uniqueness. As a result of this antagonism, many (both within and without the scientific community) began to explore the “non-material” aspects of life that were largely ignored by science. As William Boyd Carpenter (president of the Society for Psychic Research in 1912) notes, the individuals interested in exploring psychic phenomena were fundamentally “against the low-leveled materialism which threatened to rob mankind of its noblest prerogatives, its most splendid inheritances, and its most inspiring outlook” (Oppenheim 1985, 82). By lifting up humanity against Darwin and others, spiritualists and others sought to rethink humanity not as a machine or an ape but as a deity.
The “spiritualist movement”, as it became known, began in Hydesville, New York in 1848, when Margaret and Kate Fox gained notoriety for producing “rapping” noises out of thin air (a talent later discovered to be fraudulent). The sensation caused by these “mediums” helped spark a movement that quickly spread across the United States and into Europe and became one of the largest and most significant religions of the period. The movement was based “on the proposition that, after death, a person’s spirit could remain in close touch with the living and could relay messages to them with the help of a medium” (Ibid., 165). Spiritualist mediums, in other words, functioned in the same capacity as a telephone operator: capturing distant signals and re-transmitting them to others. In fact, at its core, spiritualism was less a religious order than an attempt to resolve science’s inability to tap into the spiritual aspects of human existence. Spiritualist leaders (as well as psychic researchers, who, like Fox Mulder on The X-Files, saw themselves as objective witnesses who studied paranormal activity to determine their validity or authenticity) went to great lengths to scientifically rationalize their procedures. They considered the seance itself their “secret weapon”, for it was within such a “laboratory” that “demonstration or proof” could be calculated, recorded and preserved (Ibid., 63). While this purportedly suggests a scientific basis for understanding the supernatural (a contradiction in terms, it would seem), it similarly offers science a means by which to escape the accusations of inhumanity.
Thomas Watson’s description of his seance experiences provides a good example of the way spiritualism enabled the convergence of science and the supernatural. “On July 16, 1872,” Watson notes, “we ‘had a spirit circle’ at [his friend George] Phillips’ house with ‘strong manifestations’” (Watson 1926, 37). At first, the manifestations consisted of “table tippings and rappings”; however, the circle soon “asked questions of the spirits, who instantly responded by three knocks or table tips for ‘yes’ and two for ‘no’” (Ibid., 37–38). Soon after this, the circle experimented with “slate writing”, in which Watson’s “old school slate, with a short piece of pencil on its upper surface was placed on Phillips’ hand which he then reached under the table. Instantly the pencil began to write briskly with the dash of a fluent penman, and, when Phillips took the slate from under the table, there was unmistakable writing on it!” (Ibid., 39) Through this “slate writing,” the circle receives purportedly messages from Phillips’ father and a playmate of Watson’s, each of whom had recently died. After four months of productive sessions, in which many messages were sent and received, the messages slowly came to an end because Phillips, the group’s medium, had lost “his occult and exclusive power” (Ibid., 41). Although they did not last long, the events were significant to Watson; moreover, his scientific analysis of the seances led him to conclude that the “spiritings” were not:
caused by discarnate human spirits. My limited experience does not justify dogmatizing on this disputed subject but I am better satisfied with the explanation that Phillips and other mediums are endowed with the power to transform some subtle, bodily radiation into a mechanical force that produces the raps, movements, and slate writings as a steam engine changes heat into mechanical motion or a telegraph instrument transforms pulsations of electricity into the taps of the Morse code. I believe investigation on the basis of this hypothesis will give results… and [I] am certain that, whatever the explanation may be, we have in these phenomena evidence of a force, the nature of which is unknown to us. (Ibid., 42–43)
Although Watson is willing to accept that something happened during these seances, he is unwilling to give this “something” a name other than “force,” a scientific term whose “nature… is unknown to us.” Technology and science, to Watson, touch upon matters that go beyond current scientific comprehension; however, it is only through science that such mysteries will be solved. In this, Watson was not alone. Thomas Edison was also interested in the supernatural, attending several meetings with the famous theosophist Madame Blavatsky (Kahn 1992, 97) and speaking openly about his belief in an afterlife. As late as 1921, he outlined to a New York Times reporter his theory of life after death:
Life he conceives as a series of “units” motivated by physical and chemical reactions. Memory, or that part of life which goes to make up the complex of emotions, feelings, desires, tendencies and intrinsic peculiarities of the individual, Mr. Edison believes to be our personalities…. When so-called “death” appears to drive life from our bodies Mr. Edison thinks that our personality “units” do not die, but continue to exist as substantial material things. (Rothman 1921)
Later in the article, Edison explains his interest in building a hyper-sensitive microphone which would be able to capture and store these “life units” as they leave a dying body — thereby extending the notion of recording beyond material sound and into the registers of spirits and energy. Edison’s maintained these beliefs until his death in 1931, when his last words, “It is very beautiful over there,” were publicized around the world. These comments persuaded Henry Ford to proclaim: “The greatest thing that has occurred in the last 50 years is Mr. Edison’s conclusion that there is a future life for all of us” (Wachhorst 1981, 40). As these comments suggest, cultural logic of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries believed that the scientist, the inventor and the medium all shared the power to understand and order both natural and supernatural laws.
Edison’s Latest Invention
Spiritualism’s influence on the culture of the late nineteenth century is apparent in the numerous accounts of the phonograph’s unveiling, which regularly used supernatural metaphors to describe the effects of hearing the device speak. Harper’s Weekly of March 30, 1878, for instance, notes:
If it were not that the days of belief in witchcraft are long since past, witch-hunters such as those who figured so conspicuously in the early history of our country would now find a rich harvest of victims in the Tribune Building. Here are located the head-quarters of two marvels of a marvelous age. The telephone, which created such a sensation a short time ago by demonstrating the possibility of transmitting vocal sounds by telegraph, is now eclipsed by a new wonder called the phonograph. This little instrument records the utterances of the human voice, and like a faithless confidante repeats every secret confided to it whenever requested to do so. It will talk, sing, whistle, cough, sneeze, or perform any other acoustic feat. With charming impartiality it will express itself in the divine strains of a lyric goddess, or use the startling vernacular of a street Arab. (Quoted in Read and Welch 1976)
1. The original Home Notebooks of Charles Tainter are located in the archives of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History.
2. To refer to an invention as a child is a common literary technique, most frequently used by authors toward their books. However, this metaphor recurs throughout the phonograph’s development, from its first recorded words (Edison singing “Mary had a Little Lamb,” a children’s nursery rhyme), and his development, in the 1880s, of a “talking doll”, built with a miniature phonograph inside its body.
3. William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 1: Scene V.
Although the phonograph is described as a product of witchcraft, its most startling and unsettling feature is its “human” voice. As the article notes, this voice is capable of speaking multiple languages in multiple voices, changing from a “lyric goddess” to a “street Arab” at a moment’s notice, and reproducing any type of “acoustic feat,” including sneezing, coughing and singing. This odd convergence of supernatural and human characteristics is also evident in the phonograph’s successor, the graphophone, a device developed by Charles Tainter in 1881 that used wax cylinders rather than the phonograph’s tinfoil cylinders. Tainter’s first words into the gramophone are telling: “G‑r‑r‑G‑r‑r‑ There are more things in heaven and earth Horatio, than are dreamed of in our philosophy‑G‑r‑r‑I am a graphophone and my mother was a phonograph” (New York Daily Graphic, 2 April 1878, quoted in Read and Welch 1976, 28).  By calling his machine a child of the phonograph (2), Tainter reaffirms Edison’s comment that the phonograph “is my baby, and I expect it to grow up and be a big feller and support me in my old age” (quoted in Josephson 1959, 171). The quote from Hamlet, however, adds to this familial theme a remarkably lucid contemplation of the supernatural. The quote is lifted from the scene in Shakespeare’s play immediately following Hamlet’s first encounter with the ghost of his dead father, who instructs the prince to kill his Uncle Claudius. Horatio, upon witnessing the encounter between ghost and sun, comments, “but this is wondrous strange!” whereupon Hamlet remarks, “And therefore as a stranger give it welcome. / There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” (3) The encounter between the human and the spiritual produces “strange” consequences in Hamlet because the ghost is attempting to manipulate human events. By employing this quote as a metaphor for the graphophone’s creation, Tainter effectively positions his creation as herald to a future world, while also suggesting that his device has a power that extends beyond those understood by its human creators.
Because it does not appear human yet effectively sounds human, the phonograph’s voice acts as a catalyst for the questioning of human agency and superiority. As Avital Ronell notes in relation to the telephone: “It destabilizes the identity of self and other, subject and thing, it abolishes the originariness of site; it undermines the authority of the Book and constantly menaces the existence of literature” (Ronnell 1989, 9).While the telephone works along different theoretical parameters, it, like the phonograph, effaces the physical bodies that make use of the instrument. This is done principally through the deletion of the barriers of time and space, a power often perceived as the most clearly “supernatural” force at work in the phonograph. Edward Johnson, Edison’s press secretary, noted in a letter published a month before the machine’s official unveiling:
Whoever has spoken into the mouthpiece of the phonograph and whose words are recorded by it, has the assurance that his speech may be reproduced audibly in his own tones long after he himself has turned to dust. The possibility is simply startling. A strip of paper travels through a little machine, the sounds of the latter are magnified, and our grandchildren or posterity centuries hence hear us as plainly as if we were present. Speech has become, as it were, immortal. (Scientific American, 17 November 1877, quoted in Read and Welch 1976, 12)
The fascination with preserving sound for future generations is seconded by Edison himself, who characterizes his “baby” as:
this tongueless, toothless instrument, without larynx or pharynx, dumb, voiceless matter, [which] nevertheless utters your words, and centuries after you have crumbled to dust will repeat again and again to a generation that will never know you, every idle thought, every fond fancy, every vain word that you choose to whisper against this thin iron diaphragm. (Clark 1977, 81)
Although the earliest phonographs were made unlistenable after only a few playbacks (Roland Gelatt refers to the sound as “a grating, metallic travesty” [Gelatt 1977, 81]), both Edison’s and Johnson’s comments suggest that this prototype would lead to a technology capable of extending beyond the limitations set by time, space and death.
What problematizes this formula, however, are the roles of language and writing in late Victorian culture. When the phonograph records sound, it inscribes marks onto a sheet of wax or tin; although they do not appear to be “writings” in the traditional sense, the fact that they store information that can be used and disseminated effectively characterizes them as writing. However, this writing, like the binary codes used in computer languages, is too complex to be read by human beings; as such, it is only understood by a phonograph. Because human beings cannot read this writing, there is a necessary separation between the act of writing and the act of reading. Consequently, the human agent who speaks into the phonograph is separated from his/her own voice once it is recorded (inscribed) onto the cylinder. As Charles Grivel notes, “this machine bears a paradox: it identifies a voice, fixes the deceased (or mortal) person, registers the dead and thus perpetuates his living testimony, but also achieves his automatic reproduction in absentia: my self would live without me — horror of horrors!” (Grivel 1992, 35) The phonograph, in other words, can capture, store, and reproduce the sound of a human voice; in theory, that voice would continue to live even after the body dies. In order to attain this semblance of immortality, however, it is first necessary to give control of one’s voice over to a machine.
Phonography and Identity
Just as the phonograph presents a new conception of communication based upon replication and reproduction, so it also questions the authenticity and authority of the human voice as maker and definer of meaning. The ambivalence generated by such disconcerting consequences is raised in the December 22, 1877 article in Scientific American, which describes the first public unveiling of this apparatus:
Mr. Thomas A. Edison recently came into this office, placed a little machine on our desk, turned a crank, and the machine inquired as to our health, asked how we liked the phonograph, informed us that it was very well, and bid us a cordial good night. These remarks were not only perfectly audible to ourselves, but to a dozen or more persons gathered around, and they were produced by the aid of no other mechanism than the simple little contrivance explained and illustrated below. (“The Talking Phonograph,” 384–5)
The above article emphasizes the phonograph’s humanity as if to “deliberately magicalize the apparatus as if it were animated by a little human inside it” (Taussig 1993, 208), with a full knowledge of social customs, an eager concern over others well-being, and a calm and graceful demeanor. Notably absent from this description, however, is any trace of the speaker. Was it Edison himself? Was it a man or woman? The author seems uninterested in these details; after all, the machine, not the voice, is the focal point. In fact, the human beings that do appear in this passage are peripheral. The narrator simply catalogues the events and the audience’s size, and Edison himself is completely subsumed by his invention: his actions are described in rigid, mechanical language, suggesting that he is more the device’s servant than its master.
The paragraph’s focus upon the phonograph, however, complete effaces the device’s words — its voice — in favour of a summary. Gone from the text is any mention of the machine’s incredibly rough sound, which, as Gelatt notes, “would play for scarcely more than a minute and give forth only the barest approximation of human speech” (Gelatt 1977, 30–31). The article’s claim of “perfect audibility,” it would seem, is not only suspect but also biased towards those marketing the device. This omission, moreover, effectively shifts the scene’s determining centre of action away from the phonograph and onto a human observer. Although one can allow for a certain distance from a scene to preserve journalistic integrity, the absence of the phonograph’s voice here is particularly unusual, since the whole point of the article is the voice. The absence, moreover, suggests a larger problem regarding technology’s reauthorization of human subjectivity. At the end of the Scientific American article, the writer summarizes the phonograph and its future:
We have already pointed out the startling possibility of the voices of the dead being reheard through this device, and there is no doubt but that its capabilities are fully equal to other results just as astonishing…. The witness in court will find his own testimony repeated by machine confronting him on cross-examination — the testator will repeat his last will and testament into the machine so that it will be reproduced in a way that will leave no question as to his devising capacity or sanity. It is already possible by ingenious optical contrivances to throw stereoscopic photographs of people on screens in full view of an audience. Add the talking phonograph to counterfeit their voices, and it would be difficult to carry the illusion of real presence much further. (“The Talking Phonograph,” 385)
In his analysis of early technology’s impact upon social knowledge, Fredrich Kittler notes that “phonography means the death of the author; it stores a mortal voice rather than eternal thoughts and turns of phrase” (Kittler 1985, 237). In effect, this Scientific American article recognizes such a rupture in perception by raising many of the questions that would come to dominate political and cultural theory in the twentieth century: namely, the relationship between signs, signification and meaning, and the reauthorization of language within the new realm of mass media. Just as the phonograph has the potential to transcend death and heighten democratization (making music available to all citizens), it also alters the reality of a sound so that even “the illusion of real presence” cannot be certified without first checking with the phonographic recording. This is a point Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin, among others, make in the 1930s; however, by then, the focus had shifted away from the effacement of reality to fascism’s manipulation of that “illusion” by technologic means. This results in a newly conceived “reality” that is wholly subsumed within the “virtual” realm of technology.
Recent Sales Figures Indicate…
Although the phonograph garnered a great deal of attention between the years 1877 and 1897, few machines were actually sold. The reasons for this were numerous; one of the most significant reasons, however, were the machine’s own internal limitations, which included faulty sound and the impermanence of recording cylinders and disks. Although many improvements were made during this period, none were successful enough to instill commercial success. Another and perhaps more crucial reason for the phonograph’s initial failure was Edison’s marketing approach. In an essay entitled “The Phonograph and Its Future,” Thomas Edison explains that, to him, the phonograph’s “main utility… [is] for the purpose of letter-writing and other forms of dictation” and that, as a result, “the design [of the machine] is made with a view to its utility for that purpose” (Edison 1878, 531). On one level, there is a certain logic behind marketing the phonograph in this way, for it effectively compensates for the device’s poor sound quality. In this way, the machine can be seen to produce the desired effects, even if those effects are difficult to hear. Dictation, after all, is primarily a textual action rather than a verbal one. A person speaks into the phonograph in order to store the information on a cylinder, so that it could be transcribed later. The phonograph’s voice, here, is secondary to the information carried through it. Because business emphasizes efficiency and precision, Edison reasoned that the rather rudimentary capabilities of the early phonograph were ideal for these purposes.
4. The machine, however, could only play records manufactured by Edison’s company.
In retrospect, however, such reasoning proved false; in part, this was because the phonograph’s limitations made recording messages more difficult to accomplish than dictating a letter to a secretary. Likewise, by marketing the phonograph as a dictating machine, Edison effectively undermined the device’s most unique trait, its sound, particularly as it is used for the reproduction of music. To a great extent, Edison’s denigration of recorded music’s role in the marketing of the phonograph was intentional. Musical recordings, after all, were available as early as 1878, and the first commercial musical recordings went on sale in the mid-to late 1880s. In fact, in 1890, Edison’s company manufactured The Edison Concert Phonograph, which was designed exclusively to play music (Read and Welch 1976, 88).  Although musical recordings were made with the earliest phonographs, there was no mass distribution of musical recordings until 1897.
This is not to say that musical recordings were unpopular. On the contrary, the most successful phonographic development during this period was the coin-slot, a prototype of the modern jukebox. The coin-slot gained popularity throughout North America and Europe between 1890 and 1908. As Fred Gaisberg (an associate of both Emile Berliner and Charles Tainter) notes, these devices were:
created… by showmen at fairs and resorts demanding records of songs and instrumental music. Phonographs, each equipped with ten sets of ear-tubes through which the sound passed, had been rented to these exhibitors. It was ludicrous in the extreme to see ten people grouped about a phonograph, each with a tube leading from his ears, grinning and laughing at what he heard. It was a fine advertisement for the onlookers waiting their turn. (Quoted in Read and Welch 1976, 108)
As this description indicates, the coin-slot gained popularity through savvy marketing that emphasized the machine’s voice, its status as “spectacle” and “event”, and the chance to hear music for a relatively small price. The coin-slots were, in effect, the first example of a “record player” — that is, a machine designed only to reproduce sound, not record it. Subsequent developments in phonograph technology would copy the coin-slot’s success and focus specifically upon the spectacle of hearing pre-recorded music. This notion of spectacle became central to the phonograph’s shift from the male-dominated business world to a domestic sphere largely defined and controlled by women. This change, however, was slow in coming; as Carolyn Marvin notes, throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, women were viewed as “parasitic consumers of men’s labors,” whose “frivolous electrical [telephone] conversations about inconsequential personal subjects were contrasted with the efficient, task-oriented, worldly talk of business and professional men” (Marvin 1988, 23–24). To a degree, such logic can be viewed as a reaction to the very threat which women posed as emerging participants in a mass culture which, at the time, was perceived as a realm of “dreams and delusions and of merely consuming rather than producing” (Huyssen 1986, 55). The fear of consumption, of falling into dreams and being “unproductive”, links mass culture with a feminized space of submission and passivity as opposed to a masculine space of power, authority and action. The separation between these spheres was pronounced, which is why the phonograph’s shift from public to private life is so crucial in understanding the period’s ambivalence towards the machine. During this period, the phonograph “gave rise to public discourses that sought to negotiate this new relationship between mass entertainment and domestic space” (Kruse 1993, 1).
5. While the phonograph’s cylinder device was initially more popular than the gramophone’s disk recordings (due to specific difficulties in maintaining sound continuity on a disk), the gramophone’s disks eventually became the standard model used sometime after 1900, and even Edison’s own phonograph company eventually began selling disk recording devices. Over time, the names “phonongraph” and “gramophone” were used to describe the flat disk record player.
Edison’s machines were bulky; they did not look as if they belonged in a household because they appeared not as a fixture in a living room but “as a sort of visitor, who was not expected to stay” (Read and Welch 1976, 178). Likewise, the devices “were for the most part also recording machines, and this feature… implies design for portability. Then, as now, the portable instrument of whatever type never seems to appear ‘at home’ in the living room” (Ibid., 178–9). Like the Walkman and the Discman, the early phonographs were created with motion in mind. Because it was an object designed for portability, æsthetic questions were secondary; consequently, it was considered “obtrusive” to the “divided” space of the Victorian home, in which the “experience” of “private, familial, and social life within conventionalized and highly formalized settings” was a priority (Spigel 1990, 90). However, three events eventually changed the public perception of the talking machine. The first event was the mass marketing of Berliner’s gramophone, a device that was similar to Edison’s phonograph but used flat disks instead of the phonograph’s bulky cylinders. (5) The second event was the development of the music recording industry. The third and most important event occurred in 1901, when the Victor Talking Machine Company (later the Recording Company of America, or RCA) released the Victrola.
The development of the Victrola accomplished two things: it remade the talking machine to resemble a piece of furniture, and it used advertising to reimagine the device not as a tool but as a voice. The Victrola was built into a small wooden cabinet, from which both the turntable and the horn were hidden from sight. Because this device was intended for home use, it could only play records, not record them. As such, the device did not need the obtrusive horns and tubes that were necessary to record sound; rather, it could hide all mechanical apparatuses within its case, thereby creating an æsthetically beautiful addition to the living room. The “feminization” of the device centred upon making the instrument appear to be a work of art; as an ad from a London journal (Fig. 1) makes clear, this was accomplished by aligning the instrument not with its technical achievements but with its voice. The ad consists of a woman standing beside the ocean and touching a gramophone, while mermaids hover in the water below her, gazing longingly at the machine. The horn on the device sticks out into the middle of the painting, directly above a large sun, whose rays spell out the words “Gramophone.” The design itself positions the gramophone in a mythic context, complete with mermaids who resemble the Sirens, which are described by Homer in The Odyssey as singing so beautifully that men forget about navigation and crashed their ships into rocks. In this case, however, the mermaids are not singing but rather listening to the beautiful voice of the gramophone. This advertisement does not foreground the device’s physical dimensions (it is proportionally dwarfed by the women and the text) but its mastery over sound, which is linked to women’s roles as peacemakers within the home.
The gramophone supplants the phonograph by ensuring both domestic bliss and acoustic joy. This is perhaps most famously expressed by the RCA Victor logo, which features Francis Barraud painting, “His Master’s Voice.” This logo is successful because it perfectly captures the uncanny lure of phonographic sound: namely, the perfect reproduction of a person’s voice, to the point that even the master’s dog cannot tell the difference between the machine and the person. While this suggests that one’s voice is the sole definer of one’s “self”, the machine’s relation to the human voice does not disrupt but reinforce the master’s identity. The painting suggests that, if you cannot be there to take care of your dog, you can leave a part of yourself behind for the dog to listen to and obey. The irony of this painting is that the Victrola was designed only to play records, not record them, meaning that the power to record is not applicable in everyday life but resides in the hands of those capable of recording and distributing records.
6. While this has been true throughout the history of the recording industry, the advent of the home computer, the rise of the Internet, and the development of music recording and processing software are beginning to change this. These technologies allow individuals to create professional-sounding music and distribute it all over the world for an incredibly cheap price.
With the gramophone emerges the notion of the outside world living and speaking within the private home. Sound itself, moreover, refashions identity to accept one’s recorded voice as a facsimile of one’s body. By positioning the talking machine within the home, recorded sound begins to function as a language, eliding the actual “written” transcripts found on disks and cylinders. While the RCA logo accomplishes a restructuring of domesticity so that it can accommodate mechanical appliances generally found elsewhere, it accomplish this by negating the phonograph as a material object: that is, as a writing tool. Although machines capable of recording sound continue to exist, they have become less and less significant in the cultural logic defined by the recording industry. (6) Since the turn of the century, the phonograph and gramophone have been associated with mass-produced music. The disturbance suggested by the phonograph’s rewriting of bodies and language, therefore, is normalized by the redefinition of the machine as an instrument of culture. This “disturbance” continually returns to unhinge reality and redefine human subjectivity as a product of technologic advancements.
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Michael Heumann holds a PhD in English from the University of California, Riverside. He is currently an Associated Professor of English at Imperial Valley College in California. He also records music under his own name and various pseudonyms.
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