Mark Twain's recently released autobiography mentions Mr. Clemens trying out one of the earliest wax cylinder recording devices, procured from Thomas Edison himself, in 1891. Clemens was a beta tester/early adopter, if you will. He said he recorded four dozen cylinders but found the device too unwieldy for literary work, and quickly went back to dictating to a secretary. None of those recordings are known to have survived; consequently, no one today knows exactly what Clemens sounded like. Can you imagine if even one of those cylinders were found and restored? What a treasure it would be to hear Mark Twain narrating his own writing!
Mr. Clemens didn't live long enough to make a Talkie.
Karen and I have an old hand-cranked phonograph that came to us through her family, a Pathe Actuelle made about 1924. It spent decades in a garage and, except for its beautifully glossy lid, most of its finish is dry, cracked and nearly black. I verrry painstakingly removed some spattered paint from the doors but we've otherwise left it alone, afraid to refinish it. I actually prefer it the way it is. Good honest wear.
I love this thing. I've learned that this model had an unusual design and there aren't many of them around. Instead of the familiar horn, a carefully suspended paper cone at the end of the tone arm amplifies and produces sound. I try to play it every few weeks just to keep the spring limber. Here's a little video of the phonograph in action that I just shot this morning for this post:
By the way, at about 1:05 into the recording you can hear a squeaky meow from Amber the Simple Cat, rubbing through my legs and wondering what's going on. Also by the way, yeah, that's Scotch tape holding the paper cone together. It was torn when we got it. I'm ashamed, but it was necessary until we come up with something better. An additional by the way: we installed our modern stereo equipment in the bottom of the phonograph cabinet, where records were stored way back when. I enjoy the irony.
Can you imagine what it would have been like to bring one of these machines into an early 20th Century home? Powered by nothing but a coiled spring (no electricity required), it would have opened a universe of songs, symphonies, lectures, stories. The World in a wooden box. People who'd never heard music more sophisticated than a small-town brass band suddenly knew Beethoven and Wagner. What a miracle! I imagine radio and television had a similar impact; the Internet may prove to. But I can't think of any other invention in the last hundred years that even comes close.
Every time I play our phonograph, I picture family and friends gathered around it 90 years ago, marvelling at the noise. I'm sure they danced to it; Karen and I find it impossible not to.