Edison Gem Phonograph, 1905
In 1877, Thomas Edison accidentally invented the phonograph while he was developing the telephone and telegraph. Occupied with his other invention, the light bulb, the phonograph was not manufactured and sold until 1887.
“Phonograph” was Edison's choice for the word to describe his invention. As far as Edison was concerned, only a genuine Edison sound reproducing machine was a phonograph. Other words used to describe a sound reproducing machine such as “gramophone” and “Victrola” were trade names of machines made by competing companies, Columbia and Victor.
When first produced, the phonograph was something of a curiosity. They were sold by entrepreneurs who made a living out of traveling around the country giving "phonograph concerts" and demonstrating the device for a fee at fairs. In the early years of its production, the prices for phonographs would have been too costly for the average family. “The Gem” phonograph, like the one in the museum’s collection, is an economy model, introduced in 1899. The peak years of production of the Edison phonographs were from about 1898 to around 1913.
The price for “The Gem” was about $7.50, and it soon became a fixture in many middle-class parlors. Much like today’s families gathering around the TV, in the early years of the twentieth century, families gathered to crank the phonograph and listen to music.
Encased in painted metal case, with the hand crank on one side, “The Gem” phonograph, is trimmed in black and gold, and set on an oak base. Acting as a speaker, the horn shaped attachment, is painted black with a brass bell-shaped end cap. On the back is a label with a number of patent dates, the latest being 1905.
These machines were rugged, reliable, and immensely popular. Edison, renowned for his various inventions and treated in the press like a celebrity, (he was called the “Wizard of Menlo Park,” the township where he lived in New Jersey), had a loyal base of customers, primarily in small towns and farming communities, which back in the beginning of the 20th century, constituted the bulk of America. Millions of Edison phonographs were sold, many sold by traveling salesmen, who went from town to town in wagons filled with phonographs and boxes packed with cylinder recordings.
Early phonographs played wax cylinders instead of the disc records we are familiar with today. The brittle wax cylinders were protected and sold in cardboard tubes, with cardboard lids. The containers and the shape of the cylinders prompted the nickname “canned music.”
Some examples of the music on the cylinders in the museum’s collection are:
#578 Moonlight on the Lake (C.A. White Male Voices (Knickerbocker Quartette) (sic)
#555 Coronation and Doxology Sacred (Edison Mixed Quartette) (sic)
#1054 I am with you (Robert Harkeness) Sacred (Harvey Hinderneyer and Donald Chalmers)
#1795 Dream of the Tyrolienne (Aug. Labitzky) Venetian Instrumental Quartet
The cylinder recording called “The Amberol Record,” manufactured in 1908, could play up to 4 minutes, compared to earlier cylinders that only played two minutes. Creating a unique name for his new long-playing cylinders, Edison made-up the word "Amberol" which he thought sounded similar to expensive amber. Made from black wax like his 2-minute cylinders, the new 4-minute cylinders were made with an improved, harder wax. Further improvements came in 1912 when a more durable plastic cylinder was produced called the Blue Amberol Record and they were advertised as an unbreakable cylinder with the best available sound on a recording.
Since recordings were limited to four minutes, the standard time for a commercial song of this era was about three and a half minutes. Long after cylinders are no longer played, the average length for most popular songs to this day is still about three and a half minutes.
To listen to a cylinder, it is necessary to place the cylinder onto the mandrel, or cylindrical metal form, turn the hand crank and a "reproducer" connected to the outside horn produces audible sound waves as it moves through the grooves on the cylinder. Amplified music comes out of the horn.
When first introduced the phonograph amazed and fascinated the public. Today the reproduction of sound is so commonplace it is easy to forget how astonishing the phonograph was. To hear the recorded music from a symphony or an opera or a popular ragtime tune for the first time opened up a new world for the public. The Edison Gem phonograph and the accompanying cylinders on display serve as an illustration of a bygone era when playing music at home was an important and significant source of entertainment.
The Edison Gem Phonograph was donated to the Western Illinois Museum by Mary Ellen McKee in 1990. McKee taught Physical Education for 28 years at Western Illinois University and passed away in 1995.