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  • Canned LiteratureThe Book after Edison
  • Matthew Rubery (bio)

The history of recorded sound begins in verse. Thomas Edison announced his plans to mechanically reproduce the human voice in a letter to Scientific American published on November 17, 1877.1 Three weeks later, Edison’s associates assembled a simple device on which Edison recorded “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Whatever disagreements exist among historians as to the exact events of that day, there is no disputing that the words of this nursery rhyme were among the first spoken by the phonograph.2 Their fame makes it all the more surprising that histories of the phonograph have had so little to say about the prominence of the spoken word at its initial demonstrations in America and Europe.3

No recordings were made of the exhibitions, unfortunately, but press reports enable us to reconstruct the sequence of events at many of them.4 A typical demonstration began with an explanation of how the machine worked, followed by displays of recording and playback (Figure 1). The program opened with a greeting from the phonograph (“The phonograph presents its compliments to the audience”) before moving on to some combination of recitations, songs, music, and random noises. Members of the audience were then invited to speak their own effusions into the phonograph, and the exhibitor sometimes brought the evening to a close by handing out torn-off slips of tinfoil as souvenirs. At nearly all of the demonstrations, the spoken word played a prominent role in showcasing recorded sound to audiences who had never before heard speech mechanically reproduced. Historians are only telling half the story when they describe the talking machine as if it were a singing machine.5 Recent scholarship has begun to correct this imbalance by showing how the discourse of recorded sound developed in relation to print media.6

A witness to one of the initial phonograph demonstrations posed the question on every reader’s mind: was it possible to record a novel “so that books can be procured in this form and by being placed on the Phonograph the entire story be told to the listening ear?”7 Unfortunately, the wish was [End Page 215] years ahead of the technology. There was little hope of recording an entire novel in 1878 since tinfoil cylinders were restricted in playing time to a couple of minutes and were extremely difficult to reproduce.8 The first recordings that might be thought of as literary were not made until a decade later, when Edison’s improved phonograph made it possible to record the poets Alfred Tennyson and Robert Browning; recordings of full-length books had to wait until philanthropic initiatives for blind people in the 1930s.9 However, it is a mistake to think that the phonograph’s limitations in its own time constrained speculation about its future. Even if the inaugural recordings consisted of nursery rhymes and snippets of verse, the advent of phonograph technology made it possible to conceive of a recorded book fifty years in advance of its actual completion.

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Figure 1.

“New Jersey.—Professor Edison exhibiting the phonograph to visitors, at his laboratory, Menlo Park.” From Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, March 30, 1878, 68.

This essay takes up the question asked by Edison’s contemporaries about the impact of sound-recording technology on print: “Are we to have a new kind of books?”10 From the phonograph’s first utterance, observers were powerfully drawn to the notion of a new kind of book existing in recorded form, to be heard rather than read. It has been said that the brief excerpts of verse and prose initially recorded on the phonograph had little to do [End Page 216] with the concept of “the book” since recordings of full-length novels were not made until the next century.11 My findings tell a different story. They show instead how the very possibility of sound recording led audiences to reevaluate what the book was capable of doing in the first place. The pattern is a familiar one to media historians. The introduction of a new technology leads to renewed awareness of established technologies at the...