Perfecting Sound Forever
The Point of Commencement
The chain reaction began in the White House.
Shortly before noon on February 20, 1915, Franklin K. Lane, the secretary of the interior, was concluding his remarks in praise of the pioneer spirit, in front of 50,000 people who had gathered at the Tower of Jewels in San Francisco to wait for the start of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. "The waste places of the Earth have been found and filled, but adventure is not at an end," Lane said. "Here will be taught the gospel of an advancing democracy--strong, valiant, confident, conquering--upborne and typified by the important spirit of the American pioneer."
When he finished, a telegram was sent to President Woodrow Wilson. This was Wilson's cue to press a key covered with gold nuggets, which completed an electrical circuit over a telegraph line with a navy radio telegraphy station in Tuckerton, New Jersey. A relay key was automatically activated, causing powerful electrical waves to emanate from an 835-foot tower. They traveled across the continent and were received by two antennas 400 feet above the ground, on top of the Tower of Jewels. From there, the current traveled through insulated wires to a delicate receiver in the grandstand, near the speaker's platform. The receiver activated another electrical signal that traveled through the expo grounds. It opened the door of Machinery Hall, made water flow from the Fountain of Energy, and triggered several explosions.
Back at the White House, Wilson's guests, who included the California congressional delegation and several members of his cabinet, burst into applause. Wilson himself was more reflective. He said, "This appeals to the imagination, rather than to the eye."
The Tower of Jewels was the centerpiece of San Francisco's new walled city, carved out of 635 acres and 76 square blocks, for which 200 buildings had been demolished. The irony of this urban clear-cutting was that although the expo officially commemorated the opening of the Panama Canal, everyone knew its real purpose was to celebrate the rebirth of San Francisco from the ashes of the devastating 1906 earthquake. To do so, the city had effaced itself once more, beating nature at its own game, just as surely as the Panama project had laughed at geography.
The expo's city was right on the bay, a setting that had been carefully chosen for its symbolism. "It will be set actually beside salt water," William D'Arcy Ryan, one of the fair's planners, had declared in 1913, "on the ultimate frontier of the race's march eastward from its cradle in Asia, on the final coast where only the sea intervenes between it and what the surveyors call 'the point of commencement.'" Uniting the oceans in Panama, building a city on a restless fault line--progress obeyed no frontiers. One local reporter called the expo nothing less than "the height of the tide of modern civilization," like the canal itself "an idea that was really a product of the consciousness of the whole West."
The Palace of Machinery and the Palace of Fine Arts occupied opposite edges of the grounds, symbolizing the expo's exhaustive celebration of science and industry, art and culture. Measuring 1,000 feet long and 136 feet high, and containing a fully functioning industrial plant, the Palace of Machinery was the world's largest building forged from wood and steel. The expo's largest exhibit, built by U.S. Steel, followed the path of iron ore as it was wrested from the mines and forged into steel. When fairgoers grew tired of the relentless march of progress, they could retire to the Joy Zone, site of all manner of amusements, including the Bowls of Joy, a terrifying attraction that launched riders around the inner surface of two enormous cones. The Joy Zone also pointedly contained many of the exhibits devoted to non-Western cultures, such as the Mysterious Orient.
The expo felt global in scope during the day, but thanks to Ryan, the director of General Electric's illumination lab, it was otherworldly at night. Angled lights concealed in foliage threw beams off the palaces at skewed angles. Submerged lights made the pools on the Court of the Universe glow an eerie green, while statues of the "rising sun" and the "setting sun" were lit on top of sixty-foot poles. The fountains of the Court of the Ages were adorned with serpents that appeared to spit green steam. Out in the bay, abattalion of U.S. Marines operated the Scintillator: forty-eight searchlights in seven different colors that shone through a veil of steam created by an actual locomotive, imitating the aurora borealis in the sky above the city.
The real center of light was the Tower of Jewels, hung with 102,000 actual jewels, barely visible during the day but breathtaking at night. These Novagems--cut glass in ruby, emerald, white, pink, purple, and aquamarine--swung in the breeze from the bay, refracting the beams of strategically placed lights. Each night, crowds gathered to witness "the burning of the Tower." Red lights mixed with fires lit along the colonnades to make the metal structure look like it was melting, a graphic reminder of the city that burned in 1906.
The Panama-Pacific Expo took over San Francisco for ten months in 1915, and then simply vanished. Every structure was razed, except for the Palace of Fine Arts and its weird staircases to nowhere. The demolition was the expo's final symbolic act, the planners' ultimate demonstration that the fair was barely corporeal, more like the hallucinatory product of a collective dream. (William Saroyan, who visited the fair as a child, remembered it as "a place that could not possibly be real.")
During those ten months, 18 million people visited the expo. They came not just to see palaces and exhibits but also to catch appearances by famous Americans. William Howard Taft, Teddy Roosevelt, and George Washington Goethals--the famous "canal genius" who oversaw the work in Panama--attracted huge crowds, but one man outdrew them all. He was the man without whom those Novagems might have twisted in a dark night, "a white-haired man of peace," in the gushing words of the San Francisco Chronicle, "epitomizing more in industrial achievement than any other in the world's history."
It was billed as Edison Day--Thursday, October 21--a celebration of the thirty-sixth anniversary of Thomas Alva Edison's invention of the incandescent lamp. By 1:30 in the afternoon, ninety minutes before Edison was to be honored in Festival Hall (home of the world's second-largest pipe organ), its 4,000 seats were filled, leaving 10,000 people stranded in the streets outside.
"From the day that he first made an incandescent lamp glow," Charles Moore announced from the stage, "his name has been stamped on history'spages in a plane by himself. It is fitting that he should come here and we should burn incense to him." As Moore read a series of telegrammed tributes, Edison, by this point in his life nearly completely deaf, whispered to his wife, "I'm glad I can't hear him. I'd feel so foolish."
When Moore finished speaking, it was time for Edison to receive an honorary medal. As his wife attempted to pull stray threads off his coat, Edison rose and walked slowly to the stage, trailed by Thomas Insull, his secretary. The crowd was surprised to discover that Edison had nothing to say to them. That had been one of his conditions for participating in this tribute, that he not have to say a word. Instead, he let Insull do the talking. As Insull delivered a speech praising his boss, Edison sat with his head down, occasionally cracking a small smile.
When it was over, as he left the hall, a riot nearly broke out, as people jumped over barricades and sprinted past guards to try to shake the old man's hand. (In the confusion, Edison somehow lost his hat.) He was driven to the Court of the Universe, where he was named Man of the Century. Then it was on to the AT&T exhibit at the Palace of Liberal Arts.
Back in West Orange, New Jersey, where it was already evening, 162 of Edison's friends and family were gathered at his home, waiting for a connection to San Francisco to be made over the recently completed transcontinental telephone line. Outside, 5,000 tiny lights were strung along the street, and spotlights swept the sky.
Edison perked up a little. He'd been looking forward to this part of the day, ever since Miller Reese Hutchinson, the chief engineer at Edison Laboratories, had come up with a novel way to show off the Edison Diamond Disc Phonograph.
At 5:15 on the West Coast, 8:15 in the East, the chief engineer of Edison Labs announced from West Orange, "Mr. Edison is on the wire." The guests in West Orange picked up telephone receivers fastened to their chairs and heard Edison confirm the connection. Hutchinson delivered a speech without opening his mouth or tapping a telegraph. He'd prerecorded it onto a Diamond Disc, which he now placed on a phonograph next to his phone. The disc spun and Hutchinson's voice was heard:
We are all distinctly Edison. This address, for instance, is being made to you by your greatest favorite, the Edison Diamond Disc Phonograph. An Edison Granular Carbon Telephone Transmitter istransforming the sound waves into electrical impulses which, after following the tortuous paths of copper beneath rivers and bays, over valleys, deserts, plains and mountains, are being reproduced in San Francisco as articulate speech ... By the invention of your friend, Dr. Alexander Graham Bell, speech may now be transmitted all over the world, and through the intermediary of your invention, the Edison Diamond Disc, permanent records are being made of the voices of great statesmen, wonderful human songbirds and the renditions of famous musicians, all of which will be transmitted down the ages to future generations of men and women whose great-grandsires have not, as yet, been born.
As Edison's engineer in West Orange monitored the transmission of his own voice, after every few lines he would announce to the guests, "Mr. Edison is hearing it perfectly." When it was over, for the first time in two days, Edison had words for those who honored him. He leaned over the phone, and spoke loud and clear:
It may seem strange to those who know my work on the telephone carbon transmitter that this is the first time I have ever carried on a conversation over the telephone. Trying to talk 3,400 miles on my first attempt at conversation seems to be a pretty big undertaking, but the engineers of the Bell System have made it easier to talk 3,400 miles than it used to be to talk 34 miles. In my research work I have spent a great many years listening to the phonograph, but it gives me a singular sensation to sit here in California and hear the new Diamond Disc Phonograph over the telephone all the way from Orange, New Jersey. I heard the record of Hutch's talk very plainly. I should now like to hear a musical record. If you have one handy, I wish you would play Anna Case's bird song.
Hutchinson did happen to have a record handy. He had been told by Edison to be prepared to play some music by Case. After removing the disc with his speech from the phonograph, Hutchinson put on a Case record. Case's voice traveled that tortuous path of copper beneath the rivers and the bays, over the valleys and deserts and plains and mountains, through the phone, and into Edison's crippled ear. As the music played, word wentback to West Orange, this time in the ghost language of the telegraph's dots and dashes, so as not to interrupt the music: "Mr. Edison is hearing it perfectly."
Edison looked like he was enjoying himself for the first time in days. All the paeans to progress that surrounded him, all the Novagems and the lights that made them shine, and all Thomas Alva Edison wanted to do was listen to a record.
"The phonograph knows more about us than we know ourselves," Edison had declared back in 1888. For someone who had a preternatural ability to give the world what it needed, this was a striking admission. The phonograph was a puzzle. Unlike the telegraph or the incandescent lamp, it solved no apparent problem, fulfilled no apparent need. It was a blank slate awaiting a use and an ideology--"an invention, pure and simple," Edison said. The first of Edison's creations to work in its first incarnation, the phonograph entered the world nearly fully formed, waiting for its secrets to be unlocked. "This is my baby," Edison announced, "and I expect it to grow up to be a big feller in my old age."
But doing what, exactly? Not necessarily recording and playing music. Edison, who designed the phonograph to record as well as reproduce sounds, assumed the natural purpose of the machine would be as a dictation aid. What ideas Edison did have regarding the phonograph's musical applications had little or nothing to do with music as a prerecorded commercial object. Most of his proposed uses--recording the voices of loved ones and famous people, teaching elocution, early versions of answering machines and books on tape--emphasized the act of preserving information, with little regard to how that information actually sounded. Fidelity wasn't the goal; permanence was. In the courtroom, the phonograph would bear witness to someone's exact testimony. A document would remain forever unaltered: "As it may be filed away as other letters, and at any subsequent time reproduced, it is a perfect record."
For a brief moment, Edison's phonograph was a sensation, the invention that made Edison a real celebrity outside of the scientific community. Unlike his other creations, Edison liked to demonstrate the phonograph himself in public, in front of audiences that included Congress and President Rutherford B. Hayes. But the fledgling Edison Speaking PhonographCompany did poor business. Stenographers and secretaries found the phonograph unwieldy, tinfoil was a flimsy recording medium, and the sound of recordings, shaky to begin with, quickly decayed with subsequent uses. Once the initial hoopla had died, the phonograph was still a novelty, a "pure invention." Edison put it on the shelf, where it sat for the next ten years.
He never forgot about it, though. Although he put most of his energy toward developing the electric light, Edison continued to brainstorm ideas for developing the phonograph. Meanwhile, Alexander Graham Bell took up some of the slack, conducting phonographic experiments of his own, which culminated with his invention, in 1886, of the suspiciously titled Graphophone. Feeling territorial, Edison resumed work on his phonograph, insisting that Bell's work had nothing to with his renewed interest.
In 1888, Edison emerged with an improved phonograph. Edison still thought the phonograph's primary function would be preservation of sounds, but he was beginning to consider the possibility that many of these preserved sounds would be music. He imagined that "in the far-off future, when our descendants wish to conjure our simple little Wagner operas with the complex productions of their days, requiring, perhaps, a dozen orchestras playing in half-a-dozen keys at once, they will have an accurate phonographic record of our harmonic simplicity."
A memo sent by Edison's aide William H. Meadowcroft reveals the company's evolving conception of what the machine could do: "It seems to me that your Phonograph ought to be absolutely invaluable to professional singers, for the reason they can study the effect of their own singing. Of course I do not mean to assert that a singer cannot hear his or her own voice, but it is a fact that they cannot understand and study their own defects as thoroughly as they could by the use of the Phonograph." A subtle shift was occurring in the Edisonian conception of the phonograph: the machine was now good enough to preserve the complexity of music for all eternity, and could even reveal some of music's defects.
Edison was beginning to suspect that the phonograph was an even more complex "truth-teller" than he had imagined eleven years earlier. The more Edison thought about it, the more he decided that the phonograph was revealing the auditory logic of the natural world, the science that we ourselves were not equipped to perceive on our own. Put a handful of sand on a piano and play a piece of music, he said--doesn't the sand organize itselfinto a pattern based on the vibrations? Well, look at the surface of a recording, etched with impressions that appear "with a nicety equal to that of the tide in recording its flow on a beach." The indentations were science we could see, transformed by the phonograph into science we could hear: "In the phonograph we find an illustration of the truth that human speech is governed by the laws of number, harmony, and rhythm. And by means of these laws, we are now able to register all sorts of sound and all articulate utterance ... in lines or dots which are an absolute equivalent for the emissions of sound by the lips ..." (Emphasis added.)
The phonograph's intelligence was beginning to reveal itself. And it was already clear to Edison and his team that even if they didn't know exactly what the machine knew about us that we didn't know, it was obviously smarter than most of the public. William Lynd, representing Edison's company, toured the new phonograph around Great Britain and was amazed at the morons he encountered. There was the old woman in Worthing who insisted there must be a band playing behind the curtain, and the "fossilized specimen of humanity" in Lincolnshire whose questions about the phonograph did not reveal the requisite awe: "If he had referred to a patent boot-tip or an American potato peeler," Lynd wrote, "I should not have felt inclined to kick him; but the man who, after hearing for the first time a machine talk like a living human being, and repeat a full orchestra without experiencing a feeling of admiration for the instrument and its inventor, ought to be preserved in a glass bottle as a specimen of nature's imitations of humanity."
For Lynd, there was no limit to these people's cluelessness. "I have met with many stupid persons," he declared, "but the man who, when asked to speak before the Phonograph, turned round to me and ... said, 'What must I do? Shall I blow into it?' certainly 'took the cake.'"
There was a more ominous threat to Edison's phonograph than the public's tin ear and vacuous imagination, one that would take a few years to gestate. In 1888, the same year Edison's machine reemerged on the world scene, Emile Berliner, a telephone technician from Washington, D.C., invented a talking machine of his own, which he called a gramophone. The phonograph and the gramophone worked on the same general principle: during recording sound entered a horn and impacted a diaphragm attached to astylus, which etched an analog of the vibrations onto a soft surface; during playback, the stylus retraced those grooves, caused the diaphragm to vibrate, and the sound was amplified naturally by the horn.
But while the principles were the same, the technologies were quite different. Edison's phonograph used cylinders. The stylus etched its pattern according to a hill-and-dale method, meaning the stylus moved up and down as the cylinder revolved. The groove maintained a fairly constant width, but a variable depth. The gramophone used flat discs. As it spun, the stylus vibrated from side to side, within a groove that maintained a fairly constant depth with a variable width.
Initially, the gramophone didn't seem like much of a challenge to the phonograph. Edison's early plans for the phonograph had called for discs, but he had concluded that vertically etched cylinders offered superior sound reproduction. His thinking was that the hill-and-dale method gave the stylus more freedom of movement, allowing it to trace a more faithful analog. Why would anyone want anything but the most perfect sound? He had reason to be confident. The Berliner Gramophone Company was short-lived, while the phonograph's popularity as a musical device grew, as coin-operated phonographs, proto-jukeboxes, began to appear. Total phonograph sales increased tenfold between 1890 and 1900, spurred by a rapidly growing urban population in the United States. It looked like Edison would own the new century.
During the next decade phonographs moved from arcades into homes. The first commercially available recordings appeared in 1901, also the year a new version of Berliner's gramophone appeared, marketed by the Victor Talking Machine Company. This time the gramophone was a much more viable alternative to Edison's phonograph. Inferior sound quality notwithstanding, there were plenty of reasons for the public to prefer discs. They were easier to mass-produce, and thus cheaper, and they were more durable, more user-friendly, and could hold four minutes of music, twice as much as an Edison cylinder.
Victor benefited from a synergistic relationship between its hardware and software. One of the artists signed to Victor's record division was Enrico Caruso, the Italian tenor whose phenomenally popular recordings, beginning in 1902, made him recorded music's first global megastar.
Around the same time, Victor introduced the Victrola, a gramophone with its horn inside the cabinet rather than thrusting into the air, whichgave it an air of elegance and class. The Victrola became the first talking machine to really capture the fancy of the public. Soon enough, "Victrola" became a colloquial term for talking machines, including Edison's phonograph, a development he found profoundly irritating. During the bank panic of 1907 and 1908, sales of talking machines declined by 50 percent. When the economy improved, Victor's sales picked up while Edison's remained flat. Victor, the more urbane company, was becoming more popular in cities, while Edison remained popular in rural areas, perhaps because he himself was so beloved by Middle Americans. They would prove to be Edison's last stronghold in the coming years.
Edison believed his phonograph and the cylinders it played were objectively better and refused to concede defeat. It was only a matter of time before the public wised up. To streamline his business, he reorganized all his companies under the rubric Thomas Alva Edison, Inc. (TAE), a name that suggested that the man himself was now a corporation, and that the corporation's main product was the man himself. (In a sense it was: his name often appeared on his cylinders more prominently than the artists'.) TAE introduced the Amberol cylinder. It was made out of a stronger wax and had twice the number of threads as the old cylinder, so that the Amberol held as much music as a gramophone disc. Edison was convinced the cylinder would rise again, but the executives at TAE weren't so sure about that. Unbeknownst to Edison, Frank Lewis Dyer, TAE's president, was overseeing secret experiments in disc technology, but it wasn't until 1909 that Edison was finally persuaded to take the disc threat seriously. He organized a research group within the company that was charged with developing a superior disc.
Although Edison was willing to forgo his beloved cylinders, he insisted that his discs work on the vertical hill-and-dale method. Edison's group concentrated on perfecting every facet of the phonograph. Edison, like future generations of audiophiles, believed that the key to perfect sound was to simplify the process, on the theory that any step that could be simplified or eliminated was one less chance for the original sound to be corrupted. The Victrola's stylus was attached to the diaphragm by a long fulcrumed lever, a fatal flaw, in Edison's view: if the lever were too light, it would flex and bend rather than transmit all the vibrations; if it were too thick it would damp down the vibrations. Better to get rid of it altogether. In Edison's machine, the stylus would connect directly to the diaphragm.
The first version of the Edison Diamond Disc Phonograph was unveiled in 1912, and the consensus among those who were familiar with the mechanics and physics of recording technology was that he'd nailed it. But Edison wasn't convinced. He threw himself into the work of perfecting the new machine over the next three years, becoming so obsessed that he experimented with 2,300 different styli.
Edison began taking a much more active role in the music his company released. He personally selected the artists and even oversaw the songs they released. "Press notices and the reputation of the artists has nothing to do with his decision," one writer noted, "for Mr. Edison weighs only the pureness of voice and the correctness of the interpretation or the musical ability." Edison was a harsh critic, filling his notebooks with brutal assessments of the music he reviewed:
What a pity it is that a woman with a voice like this should be educated by so brainless a teacher ...
If anything would make the Germans quit their trenches, it is this ...
Yet he could also bestow high praise:
This is the only clear-cut flute I ever heard--it is perfect in every note and has fine qualities all the way through ...
Don't get the TAE music staff started on Edison and flutes. There was the time Edison dropped by to tell them there was something wrong with the sound of the orchestra on a record TAE was releasing. He played it for several people in the office, all of whom confessed they couldn't hear a problem. "It's spoiling the music," Edison insisted. Everyone stood there awkwardly as the music played, straining to hear what it was their boss heard. Edison leaned over, sunk his teeth directly into the soft wood of the phonograph--the great inventor, one of the geniuses of his day, prostrate in front of his invention, actually bowing to it! As Edison's hearing had gotten worse, this is how he compensated. His teeth became a de facto stylus, letting him feel the vibrations with his body. He soon deduced the problem. "The keys on that fellow's flute squeak."
Edison's wood-biting routine was more than a gag. His research had convinced him that the three small bones in the ear that convey soundwaves from the middle ear to the inner ear were strikingly inefficient. "There is a good deal of lost motion in those bones," he said. "Part of every sound wave that enters the ear is lost before it reaches the inner ear. For that reason, no one who has a normal ear can hear as well as I can ... The sound-waves then come almost direct to my brain. They pass only through my inner ear. And I have a wonderfully sensitive inner ear. I do not know that, in the beginning, it was any more sensitive than anybody else's, but for more than 50 years it has been wrapped in almost complete silence. It has been protected from the millions of noises that dim the hearing of ears that hear everything. And as a result, when sound waves are projected into my inner ears, either through the skull or the teeth, the waves strike inner ears that are abnormally sensitive."
This wasn't a deaf man claiming that his weak ears had sharpened his other senses. This was a deaf man saying his deafness had made his hearing better. And why? Because his hearing apparatus was simplified, as sound took a shortcut, an end run around his outer ear and straight into his mind. The rest of us, we were all Berliners, with our needlessly complicated ears analogous to those pointless levers that connected the gramophone's diaphragm to its stylus.
Edison and his phonograph both knew what music sounded like because they heard its pure essence, unencumbered by the clutter of the world. "Nobody realizes how much music is spoiled by little sounds that do not belong in it," he insisted. "The average person--the person with a normal ear--is not conscious that he hears sounds. That is to say, he cannot call attention to any particular sounds that do not belong in the music. All he knows is that the music does not sound good to him." Edison's phonograph would save music by editing out the natural world that corrupted it. "Forty percent of the sounds that come from an ordinary disk phonograph do not belong in the music. I have invented a new kind of disk machine which, with a clean record, absolutely eliminates all these unnecessary noises ... I shall put before the world a phonograph that will render whole operas better than the singers themselves could sing in a theater. I shall do this by virtue of the fact that with a phonograph I can record voices better than any person in a theater can hear them. The acoustics of no opera house are perfect. Something is always lost between the singer and the auditor. I shall record the voices of singers in such a manner that nothing will be lost."
The rhetorical gymnastics are extraordinary, the ideas rendered in alanguage that would belong only to a huckster if the artistic ideas contained therein weren't so revolutionary. A Diamond Disc was not a representation of music, a documentation of a sonic event; a Diamond Disc was music, more real and authentic than the music it recorded. "Nothing will be lost"--and, in fact, something will be gained: music as it was meant to sound. Edison claimed the Diamond Disc Phonograph was a "musical instrument." Yet it also "had no tone of its own"--that is, it was completely flat, neutral, transparent, and not attuned to any particular frequencies.
Taking their cues from the old man, the TAE marketing staff began to spread the word that the Diamond Disc did not do something so gauche as "reproduce" music. What the Diamond Disc did was "re-create" music. The Diamond Disc would usher in a new era of artistic production. After more than a quarter of a century, Edison understood the secret knowledge possessed by the phonograph. This is why the phonograph knew more about you than you did. It knew what your world actually sounded like.
Edison knew the musicians would laugh at him--he was counting on it--but he knew in his skull and teeth and inner ear that music was in the same "backward state" in 1913 as electricity had been at the time he invented the phonograph. Electricity and light had changed the way the world looked and the way we saw the world. Now it was the turn of the auditory realm. "If music is worth anything--and in my opinion it is worth much--it is worth rendering perfectly," Edison said. "I am going to do for music exactly what I did for electricity when I invented machines to measure it. When I have accomplished my purpose, I shall be in a position to make a phonograph that will take the lead over all other musical instruments."
While passing through Des Moines sometime early in 1914, Anna Case decided to pay a visit to Harger & Bliss, the local Edison phonograph dealer. There were a few customers in the store, and one of them asked if she'd sing for them. William Maxwell, a TAE executive, would later relate the story as he heard it: "Miss Case sang with one of her Diamond Disc records, then she sang again and paused--resumed and paused again. Her hearers, when they closed their eyes, could not tell when she was singing and when she was not. While our distributors had all known that the tone of the Edison Diamond Disc was wonderfully true, none of them had realized that it was absolutely identical."
What happened to Case in Iowa wasn't totally unprecedented. Ads for Enrico Caruso records often played up the "can you tell the difference" angle, and as early as 1908, Victor was staging concerts at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York, during which live orchestras would accompany recordings of opera singers. But Case's impromptu performance was something else altogether: proof that even under spontaneous, uncontrolled conditions, everything that Edison said about the Diamond Disc was true. That is, if you believed absolutely that what happened to Case in Iowa actually happened; the story did carry a whiff of the apocryphal. At some point between the Diamond Disc's invention and her visit to Des Moines, Case was said to have participated in low-key "recitals" at the library of Edison's lab in Orange, singing along with her records for small groups of invited guests, who proclaimed themselves unable to tell the difference between the real Case and the recorded one. And wasn't she rumored to be Edison's mistress? Maybe Edison--who believed so steadfastly that "press reports" could negatively affect one's ability to hear the "truth" just as surely as those tyrannical bones in the ears of the nondeaf--was conducting his own experiment in the powers of auditory suggestion.
Contrived or not, Case's gig was the beginning of a grand experiment and huge gamble by Edison. In the summer of 1914, Maxwell and other high-level TAE employees opened a phonograph shop that served as a "retail sales laboratory" at 589 Main Street in East Orange, New Jersey. The location was conveniently near TAE's West Orange headquarters, but it was also optimal because East Orange was "a broad-lawned flower-scented bedroom and boudoir," as Maxwell put it, "about the last place in which you would be inclined to start an exclusive phonograph store." East Orange was a perfect laboratory, a stand-in for the vast expanse of sleepy America that would have to be sold on the Diamond Disc.
Maxwell's crew made the store look and feel "classy," with tea tables, a makeshift ballroom dance floor, and tiger-striped velour divans in front of the record racks. They compiled a list of East Orange's two hundred most prominent citizens, and in September sent out invitations to the store's first "musicale," a demonstration of the Diamond Disc, "wherein Mr. Edison has overcome the limitations and eccentricities peculiar to all familiar types of talking machines." The seventy-four people who showed up heard eight songs; tea was served and dancing was encouraged.
The store started holding musicales twice a week, and high school studentswere hired for the home demonstrations. As the town's elites and aristocrats spread the word, the mailing list expanded. "The invitations to the earlier musicales were confined to so-called fashionable people," Maxwell recalled, "but, as soon as the store had attained the desired reputation of enjoying the patronage of the leading people in town, the management commenced to make its appeal to the public at large."
In February 1915, TAE put on the first highly publicized attempt to stage an event similar to Case's thriller in Des Moines, featuring the opera singer Christine Miller. "We know this is a daring experiment," the ads proclaimed, "but it proves better than anything our complete confidence in the purity and fidelity of tone in the New Edison." Other tone tests were held around New York, and one in Brooklyn reportedly drew 1,800 people.
The East Orange store began adding live musicians to the musicales to create smaller-scale tone tests, and the response rate to the mailed invitations shot up. The first tests usually featured a cellist, a flutist, or a violinist, but when the store held a test with all three, 343 people showed up and 50 were turned away. Maxwell briefly considered buying streetcar ads but realized the viral approach had the advantage of making the tests seem exclusive even though now they were not; the list of those who'd seen one had grown to 2,000. It was time to expand the tests' scope.
It was one thing to hold a big test in New York, the capital of high culture, and quite another to try it in sleepy East Orange. Many of the town's citizens found in their mail an invitation to a gala event on June 21: "The Civic Committee of The Woman's Club of the Oranges takes pleasure in inviting you to attend a Concert," featuring "Miss Christine Miller, The Celebrated Concert Contralto and Mr. Isidore Moskowitz, Solo Violinist of Edison Orchestra." "In addition to the program rendered by these living artists," read the fine print at the bottom, "several numbers will be played by Mr. Edison's new sound-reproducing instrument and, through the courtesy of the Edison Laboratories, Mr. Verdi E. B. Fuller will conduct a novel tone test by comparing the artists' rendition with the reproduction thereof of Mr. Edison's instrument."
The East Orange tone test was a smashing success, except for one small detail that would soon become a key part of all future tone tests. Maxwell noted later, "It was intended to try at this recital an experiment that had been successfully practiced at the experimental store at evening performances--that is, the darkening of the room when the tone tests were inprogress." Alas, "the lighting facilities of the hall did not lend themselves to this experiment."
After trying the tests in New York and sleepy suburban New Jersey, among tastemakers and the general public alike, it was time to let the sound reverberate across the land. Edison was ready to teach the world how to listen to music.
First he had to enlist some allies, the foot soldiers who would do the selling. Early in the morning on August 9, 1915, three hundred Edison phonograph dealers from around the country descended on West Orange for the first Edison Dealers Convention. For two days, they endured excruciating lectures on such topics as "The Right of a Manufacturer to Control the Retail Price at Which His Product Shall Be Sold" and why Victor's machines were jokes. After lunch on the second day, they sat through a sketch set in a phonograph store ("A lady enters requesting to hear a certain well-advertised artist, and intending to purchase a Talking Machine. She is finally won over to buy an Edison Diamond Disc"), and afterward Verdi Fuller walked to the front of the room. He told the dealers to imagine that they were an audience in a concert hall, assembled to hear some music. He introduced the soprano Alice Verlet and the violinist Arthur Walsh. Bored beyond belief at this point, the dealers certainly weren't looking forward to hearing some opera.
Verlet stood silently beside the phonograph as it played the introduction to Caro Nome. A minute into the aria, she began to accompany the record. When she was finished with her final selection, Verlet bowed, walked off the platform, and got a standing ovation. After Walsh did his demonstration, Fuller spoke again. He explained that tone tests were to be an important facet of the Diamond Disc's PR campaign. Fuller had already begun laying the groundwork for the first large-scale tone-test tour.
Think of it as the Monsters of Tone tour. As summer turned to fall, tone tests moved out from the Oranges and New York to the world at large. Most of these featured Christine Miller and usually local musicians. First up was Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, in front of a standing-room-only crowd of 1,400, for a concert that the local paper described as "perfect, it being almost an impossibility to decide the difference without watching the lips of the singer." Then it was on to Philadelphia; Montclair, New Jersey; and Newburgh, New York.
As word got around, the tour picked up speed. The day after Newburgh, 1,800 people sat and 200 people stood (250 were turned away) in the Cambria Theatre in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. ("It seemed almost unnatural to applaud a machine," the next day's Johnstown Democrat reported, "but so splendid were many of the records which were played that spontaneous applause followed their rendition.") A thousand people showed up in Oil City, Pennsylvania; 1,600 in Ithaca, New York; and 700 in Trenton, New Jersey, where the paper raved about the "perfection" of "Edison's latest wonder machine."
And so it went that fall, as Christine Miller and others moved westward "re-creating" music to rave reviews--in Detroit, Milwaukee, Omaha, Denver, San Diego, and Los Angeles. The tour headed up the Pacific Coast toward San Francisco. On October 21, Edison Day, Miller sang with the Diamond Disc Phonograph at the Panama-Pacific Expo, convincing an awed audience of fairgoers, expo officials, and music critics from several countries that the barrier between the voice and its representation had been broken, as surely as the Panama Canal united the oceans and unified the West.
For the next ten years, Edison tone tests continued around the country and around the world. By the time the last tests were held in 1925, Edison had proven his point about the Diamond Disc. Or had he? As his machine was wowing audiences, the music division at TAE was falling apart.
Even before the tone tests reached the Pacific Coast Edison had become somewhat bored with the Diamond Disc. Two months after he returned from San Francisco, The Edison Phonograph Monthly, the com-muniqué that gave merchants advice and marching orders, announced that it would no longer promote it: "A new baby in a household sometimes results in the elder child being neglected for a time, until the new baby is able to take care of itself. Our new baby--the Diamond Disc--has developed rapidly and no longer monopolizes our attention." The new child was Edison's old love, the cylinder. At the same time he gave the world the Diamond Disc, Edison, much to his executives' chagrin, had invented yet another permutation of that format. A bright-blue celluloid surface wrapped around plaster of paris, it was given the tantalizing name the Blue Amberol.
Although the Diamond Disc was just beginning its ten-year journey into the hearts, minds, and ears of America, for Edison, it was "Cylinder ExclusivelyHereafter," as the Monthly put it. But Edison was so perversely protective of his new baby that he actually discouraged his dealers from carrying it unless they could honestly say they'd be perfect parents: "We are trying to reduce our list of dealers handling the cylinder line. We want only dealers who will give the Diamond Amberola the representation it deserves ... We should rather have one live progressive dealer than half a dozen indifferent ones. We want a loyal legion of Edison Diamond Amberola enthusiasts."
The TAE could briefly afford this rejection of its own merchants. Sales of all phonographs peaked in 1915; between 1909 and 1919, overall production increased 520 percent over the previous ten years. In 1920, the apex of the tone tests, TAE's sales were strong, as the end of World War I allowed factories to return to peacetime levels of production. But cylinder sales never picked up, and in the twenties overall phonograph sales declined 45 percent. Because Edison held on to the vertical-cut hill-and-dale method, the company couldn't develop a "universal reproducer," which meant that Edison cylinders could play only on Edison machines, and Edison machines could play only Edison cylinders.
Everyone assumed Edison would discontinue the cylinder line, but he only grew more attached to the Blue Amberol (and the Blue Amberola phonograph). As the Diamond Disc tone tests swept the country, Edison began encouraging and publicizing comparison tests between Blue Amberol and other talking machines. "Score: Amberola 12; Talking Machine 1" blared one typical Monthly headline. Another issue ran a cartoon of two phonographs in a boxing ring, the Blue Amberol kicking the other machine's ass. And still, Edison kept separating the true believers from the fakers among his dealers. By the start of 1917, the message was clear: nice dealership, it'd be a shame if something happened to it. "There Is Going to Be a Housecleaning!" the Monthly announced at the start of 1917. "We are looking into each and every dealer's activities. Those who are not carrying representative stocks will be 'put on the carpet' ... Undoubtedly some dealers are going to lose their licenses." The missive's ominous sign-off was "A word to the wise--"
You really couldn't blame the dealers. Their customers weren't interested in the Amberola. It wasn't that they thought the disc sounded better than the cylinder; they just didn't care one way or the other. Setting an example that would be repeated by future generations of audio consumers,the typical music buyer was willing to forgo some elusive sonic pedigree for the convenience and lower cost of discs.
As Edison grew older, his belief in music and the powers of sonic communication only grew, merging with his interest in spiritualism and the paranormal. In 1920, he announced he was working on a machine to communicate with the dead. Not that he was necessarily endorsing the idea of a spirit world, he emphasized. It was logical to assume, however, that if one existed, we would need an exceedingly sensitive instrument to communicate with it, and Edison intended to build that instrument. The phonograph had unlocked the secrets of music; an even more sensitive phonograph might unlock the secret of life.
Edison gave thousands of dollars to psychology professors to study the "emotional effects" of the tone tests, and in 1921 awarded $500 to a Vassar professor for the Thomas A. Edison Prize, a contest for the best essay on "The Effects of Music." A psychologist at the Carnegie Institute of Technology developed a Mood Change Chart that Edison dealers were encouraged to use at Mood Change Parties, to show their "Analysis of Mental Reactions to Music, as Re-Created by the New Edison, the Phonograph with a Soul." Given various dichotomous emotions--"serious or gay," "depressed or exhilarated," "worried or carefree," "sad or joyful"--listeners were asked to chart how their mood changed as they listened to the re-creations.
Through the twenties, Edison continued to believe that what the world always needed was a better machine, that his relentless pursuit of audio perfection would put TAE back on top. He began paying even less heed to signing artists the public actually wanted to hear. "Last year, when you were the only picker of tunes, you refused to let us record the four biggest successes of the year," Walter Miller, Edison's business manager, complained to his boss in 1921. Punning, intentionally or not, he added, "I am convinced that this policy is not sound." By 1927, TAE's sales accounted for just 2 percent of the industry total.
The growing popularity of radio was proving to be a threat to the entire phonograph industry. Radio wasn't just competing with the phonograph industry for listeners; it was also affecting what people wanted music to sound like. Because radio required a microphone, the sound of music on the radio accentuated the role of electric amplification, and phonograph listeners began to want their records to have a louder, fuller sound. Edison, meanwhile, dismissed this desire as the "volume fad" and continued tofine-tune the sound of his records without regard to their ability to amplify sounds. "I don't think the radio will ever replace the phonograph," Edison said on the occasion of the phonograph's forty-fifth birthday in 1922. "I tried it for recording and found there was too much mutilation of sounds ... I believe I have the phonograph close to perfection." He mentioned that he'd nearly succeeded in recording pianos perfectly and was working on recording Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.
In 1924, Western Electric technicians came up with the first workable electrical recording system. Electrical recording was based on the same principles as acoustic recording, with an added layer of mediation. In acoustic recording, the mechanical energy of sound waves is inscribed on a recording medium. Electrical recording processes first convert that energy into electrical impulses.
Victor and other companies embraced--or at least accepted--the new technology, but as Edison saw it, this was just the Victrola's useless lever all over again, an unnecessary middleman that imposed a barrier between the real-world sound event and its inscription. Why would anyone want that, when the acoustic recording process, the direct impression of the world onto a record, still held such promise? He was proud to say that TAE was now the only "straight phono company."
When Edison finally decided that he needed to take the radio threat seriously, his solution was to begin marketing 12-inch 78 rpm records, which could hold forty-five minutes on each side. Unfortunately, the records sounded too faint for many people's ears and were too fragile to withstand repeated playing. As for innovating the phonograph itself, Edison's son Charles had to gently explain to his dad that the word phonograph itself was increasingly passé, and that whatever the company's next machine looked or sounded like, it better have a name that ended with "phonic." In 1928, Edison swallowed his pride and released the short-lived Edisonic machine, with an electrical pickup and a built-in radio. In October 1929, the month the stock market took its fatal dive, TAE released its last records.
On Edison Day at the Panama-Pacific Expo in San Francisco, after the old man had listened to Anna Case's voice coming to him from his home in New Jersey, he did something odd. As the Monthly later described it, "Mr.Edison put the same selection on his Diamond Disc at San Francisco, in order that guests at the Laboratory might hear as he had heard. The tones were sweet and clear and perfectly audible, without any strain to hear them; the high notes and trills being exactly as clear as if heard over a short distance 'phone, although not quite so loud." Even if the people at the AT&T booth in San Francisco and Edison's engineer in West Orange knew that Edison planned to do that, the crowd at the lab was surely mystified. But they sat and gamely listened as Edison force-fed them music over the wire.
Edison then endured a telephone conversation with well-wishers at the lab, but after getting off the phone with the chief engineer of AT&T, he decided he'd had enough, leaving his wife to talk with their sons Charles and Theodore in Orange. While the guests in New Jersey adjourned to the TAE executive building to watch a film about the making of the transcontinental phone line, Edison got ready for the last of the tributes to him. That night, 50,000 people came down to the Marina to watch a fireworks display over the bay in his honor. Edison sat patiently with Henry Ford and watched the sky light up from the north steps of the expo's Transportation Building. Every few minutes, the crowd would turn and wave at him up on the stairs, and they wouldn't stop cheering until Edison doffed his hat, like a guy reemerging from the dugout after hitting a grand slam.
On Saturday, two days after Edison Day and two days before 50,000 children were let out of school to see Edison before he left town, a tone test was held at San Francisco's Scottish Rite Hall. "Very successful," Verdi Fuller wrote in his notebook. "Attendance 944. Most appreciative audience yet. Acoustics and presentation perfect."
Copyright © 2009 by Greg Milner