When part of your daily routine is to sift through the papers of the world’s foremost inventor, you begin to expect the unexpected. Still, it’s hard not to be surprised when you come across designs for a steam-powered snow remover or an electric cigar lighter or at times a surrealistic poem in the unmistakable handwriting of the great man himself—Thomas A. Edison. But perhaps the most surprising and enigmatic document of all is what we at the Thomas A. Edison Papers dubbed “The Scorecard.”
Having spent the better part of three decades as a professional jazz musician, at least on a part-time basis, I’m well aware that jazz could not really exist and continue to progress in the way it does without recording. If there were no sound recordings, a musician could only study improvised soloing and comping by attending live performances. Jazz musicians must, of course, experience the music live to develop their own chops, but there would be no way to really dissect solos down to the bones without sound recordings. Jazz musicians often make transcriptions of recorded solos to better understand them. But with no recordings, no transcriptions would exist. Jazz improvisations, when they are truly innovative, are simply too complex and fleeting to notate as they are heard live. And it might be said too that even a transcription is only a rough approximation of what a jazz musician has played. It can’t possibly capture all the nuances—of tone, timbre, rapid dynamic shifts, approach to swing, etc. So jazz simply could not have developed as it did had the musicians not had access to recordings of Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, and John Coltrane and in my own case (I’m a drummer) to those of Art Blakey, Philly Jo Jones, Vern Fournier, Elvin Jones, Tony Williams, and Rutgers’ own Ralph Peterson, Jr., just to name a few.
So it was with a great deal of interest that I read through the 1888 correspondence between Thomas Edison and the composer, pianist, and conductor Edgar Stillman Kelley concerning Edison’s then-new “perfected” phonograph. Kelley was interested in coming out to Edison’s spanking-new laboratory in West Orange, New Jersey, to experiment with this improved phonograph. So in May 1888, he sent a note to Edison to see if the inventor was up for a visit. “Many machines have been invented to reproduce in visible form the tones produced upon the pianoforte,” Kelley offered, “. . . but none have been practically successful—The main idea being to preserve musical improvisations.”
There it was! I felt like this was really the beginning of it all, a necessary moment that nearly a century later would allow me to spend countless hours trying to figure out what Art Blakey was playing on recordings like “Free for All” or “The Crisis” or just trying to soak up the swinging brushwork of Vern Fournier on Ahmad Jamal’s album Live at the Pershing 1958. And I’m talking a lot of listening. I wore out two LPs of Live at the Pershing before I was able to get this album on CD (which so far is holding up).
Kelley, of course, was writing well before the advent of jazz. He was interested in recording improvisations—snippets of music known as motifs—that might later be written down for the purpose of composing “classical” style works. Later, in 1911, when jazz was still in its raw infancy in New Orleans and virtually unknown outside of that city, Kelley recalled that after working at the lab with Edison’s new phonograph, he had “expressed the hope that the invention might be so applied as to enable composers to preserve their improvisations, whereas they at times lose some of their happiest inspirations through inability to record with sufficient rapidity the ideas as they occur to them.” Kelley was no doubt thinking of the kind of noodling composers do as they are puzzling out a new composition. With the phonograph, one might capture such an improvisation without having to immediately stop the flow of ideas to scratch it down on paper. With the phonograph, if the recorded music was later found worthy, it could be played back again and again and notated at leisure before being incorporated into a formal composition.
Kelley, while he is now a virtual unknown, was an important figure in American music in the late nineteenth century. Some writers considered him the successor of Edward McDowell. So this was not a nobody who had contacted Edison immediately after seeing an article on the perfected phonograph in the New York World. “While pursuing my musical studies in Germany,” Kelley explained, “I became deeply interested in your phonograph when it first came out, and witnessed a number of experiments with it.” This early interest was in Edison’s first phonograph, the tin-foil phonograph of 1877-1878, which appeared when Kelley was a student at the Stuttgart Conservatory.
As Kelley would later note, recordings made on the 1878 phonograph could capture with surprising accuracy the “rising and falling inflections of the orator’s voice as well as the melodic outline of musical selections. . . . But the tone colors of the various sound producing media were only remotely suggested bearing about as strong a semblance to the originals as does a blurry copy in charcoal to an oil painting.” In other words, it had little use for accurately documenting musical performances. While Edison’s early phonograph with its ability to record and playback the human voice astounded the world, the poor fidelity and the delicacy of the tin-foil cylinders made it little more than a remarkable toy. It failed commercially, and Edison himself soon lost interest in it.
But the exhibition of Alexander Graham Bell and Charles Sumner Tainter’s wax-cylinder graphophone in New York City in 1887, rekindled Edison’s interest in improving his own phonograph design. It was this redesigned “perfected phonograph,” which used a wax cylinder, that Kelley wanted to see. “I feel certain,” he explained, “that it may become an aid to the members of the musical profession.”
By the end of May or early June at the latest, Kelley had paid his visit to Edison’s new lab in Orange, New Jersey. He brought with him a number of other musicians to test whether the new phonograph could capture with sufficient fidelity the tone colors necessary to turn recorded music from blurry charcoal copies to proverbial oil paintings of sound. After experimenting for several hours, Kelley was satisfied that this new machine would transform not only how people heard music, but how they learned it, composed it, and performed it. And though he might not have realized it in 1888, the phonograph and its successors would go on to play a seminal role in the creation of whole new genres of music—jazz first and foremost.
An unexpected piece of the past.
We preserve quite a bit of material related to Thomas Edison here at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. The national collections include objects related to famous successes like incandescent lamps, phonographs and motion picture equipment as well as lesser known inventions such as electric pens, alkali batteries and Edison-effect lamps. We also preserve failures like the talking doll since even Edison struck out on occasion.
As one might expect given Edison’s many projects, every now and then something unexpected turns up. I learned of one such piece in 1999 while talking to James O. Weber of York, Pennsylvania who offered to donate “an old motor made by Thomas Edison.” My initial reaction was skepticism but then Weber told me he went to high school in Sunbury, PA and the motor was used at that school. That caught my attention. Edison’s first 3-wire station began powering Sunbury’s electric lighting system in 1883. (Edison Papers 7, 39ff; Carlat and Weeks; Jehl, 937, 1003, 1096-99). The photos Weber subsequently sent showed a small, almost miniature, version of an early bi-polar direct current motor that had obviously seen much use. Weber’s story about the motor suggested that this small device might have something to teach us about Edison’s fledgling electric utility business.
Weber received the motor from Harry L. Keefer (1902-1978), his former science teacher at Sunbury High School. Francis Jehl, in Menlo Park Reminiscences, referred to Keefer as “the Edison Historian of Sunbury.” (p.1101) An article in the Sunbury Daily Item reported that Keefer had “organize[d] the Edison Science Club of Sunbury High School.” Weber assisted Keefer in class demonstrations and recalled that Keefer used the motor as a non-functioning model for classroom demonstrations. He could not remember precisely how Keefer obtained the motor but believed that Edison sent it for classroom use. Weber stayed in touch with his teacher after graduation. Late in life, Keefer gave him the motor “because he knew I was interested in such things.” Later, Weber looked at the old motor and thought of the Smithsonian.
This motor is indeed a rudimentary example. For example, armature construction is a science of its own with drums of various cross-sectional shapes and coils wound in complex configurations. We have a variety of early armatures in the collections that show ways engineers learned to coax more power out of their designs. The armature on this motor could hardly be simpler, a single coil wrapped lengthwise around the drum. Built this way, the armature could produce little power but like a good teaching tool would clearly show the principle of winding.
The question remains of how Keefer came by the motor. Did Edison give the motor to him when Keefer, then a high school student, visited the West Orange laboratory around 1916? (Keefer, 196) Might Edison have made a gift of the motor during a visit to celebrate Sunbury’s sesquicentennial in 1922? Or did Edison perhaps send the motor to Sunbury earlier? A cardboard label accompanying the motor may give a clue: “Electric motor. Used in early experimenting at Edison’s Sunbury Plant. E. Vine St. near N. Fourth St.” The motor seems far too basic for Edison’s level of technical knowledge in 1883 so it may have served another purpose.
When Edison and his team first came to Sunbury, they needed to teach others how to operate the new equipment. Steam engineering and gas lighting were mature technologies by then but electric lighting and bulk power generation were still in their infancy. Edison’s team had learned lessons the hard way but few others understood the nuances of how to run their system. As Louis Carlat and Daniel Weeks wrote, “concerns about the capability of local skilled and semiskilled labor to operate the machinery with only a few weeks of training would haunt [Edison’s] experience not only at Sunbury but in a number of other plants.” (p. 312) Edison understood that he was promoting a new industry that would require workers to learn new, highly technical skills. So perhaps the motor came to Sunbury as part of that training process and only later made its way to Keefer’s science class.
We may never know the answer, a situation not uncommon when studying the past. Historians are constrained by sources that are seldom as complete as we’d like. But every so often a new piece of the past surfaces–a letter, a photograph or a small motor. One more part of the much larger puzzle.
– Hal Wallace, Associate Curator of the Electricity Collections at the National Museum of American History.
Edison “Sunbury” demonstration motor, c1884. Catalog number 1999.0138.01, from James O. Weber. Electricity Collections, National Museum of American History.
Carlat, Louis and Daniel Weeks. “‘New and Untried Hands’: Thomas Edison’s Electrification of Pennsylvania Towns, 1883–85.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 139, no. 3 (October 2015): 293-321.
Israel, Paul B., Louis Carlat, Theresa M. Collins, David Hochfelder, eds. The Papers of Thomas A. Edison: Losses and Loyalties, April 1883–December 1884. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011.
Jehl, Francis. Menlo Park Reminiscences 3. Dearborn, MI: Edison Institute, 1938.
Keefer, Harry L. “Edison, the Scientist, in Sunbury.” The Northumberland County Historical Society Proceedings and Addresses XV. Sunbury, Pa.: The Society, 1 October 1946: 190-199.
“Dedicate Edison School Sunday; Carter to Speak,” Sunbury Daily Item, ca 1979.
Quick: which icon of late 19th century America described an overly-busy man as one “inebriated with industry”? Or insulted another for having “a genius for stupidity”? Or likened birds singing at sunrise to a “canary seed orchestra”? If this lively language put you in mind of Mark Twain, don’t feel bad that the author was actually Thomas Edison. The comparison occurred to me in reverse. Edison’s prose is pretty familiar from my work at the Thomas Edison Papers, so my scalp tingled recently when I recognized a similar voice while rereading Twain’s memoir of Life on the Mississippi.
Edison was no Twain: he wrote mainly to inform or instruct, not to amuse or spin a coherent story. But he also had a liveliness and a knack for making words sound like informal speech, traits that make Twain’s narratives so distinctively American. Edison could wrap a trivial event around a forceful verb, used unexpectedly, to freshen the action. When he went boating on a windy day and got splashed, it was because the “water broke loose from the iron grasp of gravitation.” A gentleman whom Edison asked for directions didn’t mumble in reply; rather, he “worked his articulating apparatus so weakly I didnt hear a word he said.” The same with adjectives or adverbs: hair neatly combed has been “laid out by a civil engineer.” A man in a place of responsibility is “clothed with authority.” Actually, that last phrase is Twain’s, as is the description of a treacherous bit of river where “twenty-nine steamboats had left their bones strung along” the bottom. But you see the point.
Edison didn’t usually stylize his writing this way, and I resorted to a bit of cherry-picking for those examples. They’re from entries in a diary that he read aloud as a parlor game with a group of friends on vacation in 1885. But the creative vigor in his voice jumps off his workaday pages, too. Quickly outlining a complex technical argument for an associate, he closed with: “Do you catch on with your intellectual grippers?” It’s there even in hasty directions. Drafting a set of patent applications in 1887 and 1888, he successively told his attorney to “Claim the Earth,” then to “Claim Everything,” then “the Solar System,” and finally to claim “Alpha Centauri Orion & the pole star.”
Those exaggerated commands are on the scale of Paul Bunyan, the woodsman of American legend, and they remind me that Edison and Twain both came from a time and place where vivid storytelling was a respected art. Born just twelve years apart, each grew up in the West (what we now call the Midwest), where a rich oral culture of humor and tall tales flourished before the Civil War. Edison’s “perceptible Western twang” was still evident years later. As a successful inventor, he became a magnet for newspaper reporters, who noted the ease with which he bantered and swapped stories with them—and with his employees.
Edison also shared with Twain a long connection with the newspaper business, which had its own traditions of spirited writing. Twain, of course, had been a reporter, and Edison had published his own paper as a boy. As a young man, Edison worked as a telegraph operator on the press lines, taking down stories filed from distant cities; working the telegraph sounders, he literally heard stories before they were printed. Telegrapher and reporter were both itinerant jobs, and Edison and Twain traveled extensively, no doubt picking up new linguistic habits from companions on trains and ships or in boardinghouses.
By the 1880s, Edison and Twain were in their successful middle years, each renowned for inventiveness—one with machines, the other with language. (Not for nothing did a newspaper call Twain “the Edison of our literature” in 1885.) Twain also was fascinated with new machines. A famously early user of the telephone, in 1888 he also sought out the new Edison phonograph—before it was ready—for dictating the manuscript of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, a cautionary tale about new technology. He also dabbled at inventing, though only one of his creations ever made him any money. That was a self-pasting scrapbook, a copy of which Edison bought on his 1885 vacation.
-Louis Carlat, Associate Editor.