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From Talking Machines to Music Machines: The Early Years of Recorded Sound and Playback in Pictures and Audio

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  15 December 2023

Carlene E. Stephens*
National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, USA


Between Thomas Edison’s invention of the phonograph in 1877 and World War I, inventors, entrepreneurs, performers, and listeners transformed the singular talking machines of the late 1870s to the ubiquitous music machines of the twentieth century. Through selected images, objects, and links to period sounds, this essay offers a chronological glimpse of interacting social, technical, and entrepreneurial forces at work. Combining visual, aural, and material sources in this way enlarges the historian’s toolbox for understanding the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Photo Essay
© Smithsonian Institution, 2023 outside of the United States of America. As a work owned by the United States Government, this Contribution is not subject to copyright within the United States. Outside of the United States, Cambridge University Press is the non-exclusively licensed publisher of the Contribution. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of the Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era (SHGAPE)

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1 Introduction to this special issue by Rebecca McKenna and David Suisman.

2 Sterne, Jonathan, The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003), 1516 Google Scholar. A more recent formulation of this is Yamada, Keisuke, “Cover Essay: Visual Images in Sound Studies,” Technology and Culture 64, no. 2 (2023): 303–07; doi:10.1353/tech.2023.0054 CrossRefGoogle Scholar .

3 Israel, Paul, Edison: A Life of Invention (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1998), 142–66Google Scholar.

4 Recording in the collection of Museum of Science and Innovation, Schenectady, NY; sound recovered with IRENE method of Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory in 2012. Tinfoil sound file: and more about IRENE techniques and equipment: (both accessed on June 10, 2023).

5 Newville, Leslie, “Development of the Phonograph at Alexander Graham Bell’s Volta Laboratory,” Contributions from the Museum of History and Technology, United States National Museum Bulletin 218 (Paper 5, 1959): 6979 Google Scholar. For a sound file of an experimental recording of Alexander Graham Bell’s voice from April 15, 1885: (accessed on June 11, 2023).

6 Israel, Edison, 280.

7 Lisa Gitelman, “How Users Define New Media: A History of the Amusement Phonograph,” mit communications forum, (accessed on May 17, 2023); Hoover, Cynthia A., Music Machines—American Style: A Catalog of the Exhibition (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1971), 3137 Google Scholar; “The Automatic Phonograph in St. Louis,” The Phonogram 1 (1891): 139.

8 Wood, Gaby, Edison’s Eve: A Magical History of the Quest for Mechanical Life (New York: Anchor Books, 2003), 111–63Google Scholar.

9 Sound file: “Jack and Jill; Edison Talking Doll Cylinder, Brown Wax; Smithsonian Institution,” Thomas Edison National Historical Park New Jersey, National Park Service, (accessed on June 11, 2023); Patrick Feaster, “‘Things Enough for So Many Dolls to Say’: A Cultural History of the Edison Record, Thomas Edison National Historical Park New Jersey, National Park Service,” (accessed on May 17, 2023).

10 Jacques Vest, “Vox Machinae: Phonographs and the Birth of Sonic Modernity, 1877–1930,” (PhD diss., University of Michigan, 2018); Kim England and Boyer, Kate, “Women’s Work: The Feminization and Shifting Meaning of Clerical Work,” Journal of Social History 43 (Winter 2009): 307–40Google Scholar.

11 Brady, Erika, A Spiral Way: How the Phonograph Changed Ethnography (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1999)Google Scholar; Hochman, Brian, Savage Preservation: The Ethnographic Origins of Modern Media Technology (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Troutman, John, Indian Blues: American Indians and the Politics of Music (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2009), 158–66Google Scholar.

12 “Center for Ethnomusicology Announces Hopi Music Repatriation Project,” Department of Music, Columbia University, and “Lakota Songs,” Densmore Repatriation Project, (both accessed on June 10, 2023).

13 Paul Charosh, “Introduction: On the Gramophone, Berliner Gramophone Records: American Issues, 1892–1900,” Discography of American Historical Recordings, (accessed on June 11, 2023).

14 Suisman, David, Selling Sounds: The Commercial Revolution in American Music (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), 101–24CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

15 For the process, see (accessed on June 10, 2023).

16 “The Gramophone: Early Sound Recording Devices,” See also the finding aid to recordings in the Berliner Collection at the Library of Congress, approximately a quarter of which are digitized and available online at (both accessed on June 10, 2023).

17 Suisman, Selling Sounds, 180–82.

18 Suisman, Selling Sounds, 91–92; advertisement, Saturday Evening Post, Apr. 26, 1924, 84.

19 Suisman, Selling Sounds, 277.

20 David Suisman, “Bert William and George Walker—Victor Releases (1901),” (accessed on June 10, 2023). See also Brooks, Tim and Spottswood, Dick. Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1890–1919 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004), 105–48Google Scholar.

21 “Edison Sheet Music Collection,” University of Michigan Library, (accessed on June 10, 2023).

22 Dorothy Richardson, “Have You a Song for the Soldiers?” Ogden Standard, Nov. 30, 1918, 13, (accessed on June 10, 2023).

23 “Seek Music for Soldiers,” New York Times, Sept. 15, 1898, 9; “Knowledge Exchange,” McKee Library, Southern Adventist University, (both accessed on June 10, 2023).

24 Crosby, Alfred W., America’s Forgotten Pandemic, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 50 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

25 For more images and reporting on recorded music as solace for soldiers, see Dan Schlenhoff, “The Phonograph Goes to War, 1915,” Scientific American, Nov. 6, 2015, (accessed on June 10, 2023). For a sampler of the patriotic songs popular during World War I, listen here: (accessed on June 10, 2023).

26 Kaplan, Daile, Lewis Hine in Europe: The Lost Photographs (New York: Abbeville Press Publishers, 1988)Google Scholar.