Sandburg's Hometown

March 4, 2013

Edison with Talking Machine, April 1878 

"The Edison Talking Machine"

By Barbara Schock

Every summer, from 1887 to 1889, Carl Sandburg and his friends went to the Knox County Fair. To save money for the attractions at the fair, the boys walked from Galesburg to Knoxville. Admission to the fair cost 25 cents (equal to $6.29 in today’s money.)

One exhibit worth spending money on was the Edison Talking Machine. The boys handed over their nickels and put on the earphones. They could really hear a band playing. It was just amazing. Young Sandburg watched the faces of the listeners. Some were doubtful that a sound could be heard, but their faces expressed no doubt after they began to hear the band playing. Others marveled that sound could be reproduced.

In 1877, Thomas A. Edison and his laboratory assistants invented the first machine to play back sound recorded on a mechanical device. They were trying to reproduce telegraph messages which could be replayed on a second machine. At first they recorded on paper strips. Then they tried tinfoil. It worked better, but could be played only a few times. The machine had to be turned with a crank handle in order for it to work.

Edison was eager to describe his invention to the public. He went to Washington, DC, to demonstrate his machine for members of Congress. He was invited to the White House so President Rutherford B. Hayes could hear the sound from the machine. Scientific American magazine published an article and diagram about Edison’s new invention. The Pennsylvania Railroad ran special trains from New York City to Edison’s laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey. The public came to hear the new machine. He even signed a contract with the Ansonia Clock Company to make a talking clock.

Edison saw his recording device as useful for office dictation. After all the publicity, other inventors saw it as being useful for entertainment. The wax coated cylinder was developed in 1886 in a laboratory established by Alexander Graham Bell. In 1887, Emile Berliner patented a 5-inch zinc disc which could be manufactured at lower cost and the discs required less storage space.

By 1889, battery or electrically operated phonographs began appearing in San Francisco. The public paid a nickle to listen in special parlors opened for the purpose. As demand for cylinders increased, manufacturers had to re-record the master many times. They could make only 90 to 150 copies before the master recording wore out.

Double-sided discs went on the market in 1908. Edison began manufacturing discs in 1912 and ended manufacturing of cylinders in 1929. By that time, radio had become popular enough to cause a drop in sales of recorded music.

In the 1930s Carl Sandburg began making recordings of his writings. A set of four 78 rpm records included eight songs from The American Songbag. He recited sections from The People, Yes on a 1949 Decca long-playing record. A number of recordings were made of The Rootabaga Stories and Poems for Children. Sandburg read from his autobiography, Always the Young Strangers, for Caedmon Records in the 1960s.

As late as 1967, a 2-disc album was produced of Sandburg singing from his American Songbag. Columbia Records published Carl Sandburg Singing Flat Rock Ballads in 1972. The Great Carl Sandburg: Songs of America was published by Lyrichord on a compact disc in 1999.

The writing and singing of Carl Sandburg was reproduced by a variety of methods throughout his career and afterward. That barefoot boy at the Knox County Fair heard the results of an experiment which became a vast and influential industry.


Related Video: Thomas Edison's Incredible Talking Machine (Time Video)

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