19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century, No 18 (2014)

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Thomas Edison’s Poetry Machine

Matthew Rubery


The tradition of spoken-word recording began with Thomas Edison’s invention of the phonograph. Hence, this article makes the case that 1878 is a more important year to the history of literature than has yet been recognized for its experiments with verse and sound-recording technology. Although the tinfoil phonograph’s first decade has been well documented by media historians, literary critics have singled out 1888 as the noteworthy year since that is when Edison’s improved phonograph made it possible to record prominent figures including Alfred Tennyson and Robert Browning. Taking Edison’s original tinfoil phonograph as an alternative starting point reveals how the 1878 phonograph demonstrations, despite technological limitations, undertook acoustic experiments that enabled audiences to discern new forms of meaning, pleasure, and pathos in even the most well-known material. The recordings considered here include ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ as well as scripts by Tennyson, Caroline Norton, Edgar Allan Poe, Shakespeare, and others. Such recitals illustrate the extent to which Edison’s talking machine influenced the reception of texts while at the same time giving rise to performances unheard of in previous cultures.

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