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“Speculative Imaginations”: Listening to 1889, Then and Now

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  15 December 2023

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


In an examination of three cylinder recordings from 1889, this essay compares the context for their original production with the experience of hearing them again in 2019, thanks to IRENE, a twenty-first century suite of state-of-the-art techniques and equipment designed to recover sound from old recordings otherwise considered unplayable. This pairing offers an opportunity to examine how each period envisioned the technical opportunities and social purpose of these new sound technologies in their respective times. Inspired by the work of Sheila Jasanoff and others who have developed the concept of “sociotechnical imaginaries,” this analysis focuses on the role of listeners’ imaginations and asks how their notions shaped the meaning, use, and material aspects of recorded sound and playback. As a contribution to sound studies, this comparative look manifests the field’s attention to both sonic phenomena and the means by which we come to know and experience those phenomena.

© 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 Thanks to Claire Valero for her transcription. The Eiffel Tower record is NMAH catalog no. 241402.73J; sound file is available at (accessed Nov. 30, 2021).

2 Thanks to Patrick Feaster for drawing our attention to this box in 2011.

3 “Exhibition Notes,” Galignani’s Messenger, Nov. 7, 1889, clipping in scrapbook, folder 6, box 44, Hammer Collection, NMAH Archives Center; Edison’s gift to Eiffel in Blakeman, Edward, Taffanel: Genius of the Flute (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 137–38Google Scholar.

4 Carlene E. Stephens, “What Did 1889 Sound Like?” Oh Say Can You See: Stories from the Museum (blog), Behring Center, National Museum of American History, Dec. 20, 2019; (accessed Nov. 30, 2021).

5 Jasanoff, Sheila, “Future Imperfect: Science, Technology, and the Imaginations of Modernity” in Dreamscapes of Modernity: Sociotechnical Imaginaries and the Fabrication of Power, ed. Sheila Sheila Jasanoff, and Kim, Sang-Hyun (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 133 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

6 Birdsall, Carolyn and Tkaczyk, Viktoria, “Listening to the Archive: Sound Data in the Humanities and Sciences,” Technology and Culture 60 (Apr. 2019): S10 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

7 See, for example, Oudshoorn, Nelly and Pinch, Trevor, eds., How Users Matter (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

8 For an exploration of how material objects can stimulate new ways of listening, see Joeri Bruyninckx and Alexandra Supper, “Sonic Skills in Cultural Contexts: Theories, Practices and Materialities of Listening,” Sound Studies 2 (2016): 1–5.

9 Leon Botstein made these points in his essay “Music as Heard,” Musical Quarterly 82 (Autumn/Winter): 429.

10 Lacey, Kate, Listening Publics: The Politics and Experience of Listening in the Media Age (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013)Google Scholar.

11 Classic histories include Read, Oliver and Welch, Walter L., From Tin Foil to Stereo: Evolution of the Phonograph, 2nd ed. (Indianapolis: Howard W. Sams, 1976)Google Scholar, and Roland Gellat, The Fabulous Phonograph, 1877–1977, 2nd rev. ed. (New York: MacMillan Publishing, 1977).

12 Summary of Edison’s invention of 1877 and response to it at Thomas A. Edison Papers, “Edison and Innovation Series—Tinfoil Phonograph,” (accessed Nov. 30, 2021).

13 Thomas Edison, “The Phonograph and its Future,” North American Review 126 (May–June 1878): 533.

14 Sterne, Jonathan, The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003), 289309 Google Scholar, 318–19, 332.

15 On the power of tinfoil recording fragments as souvenirs, see Gitelman, Lisa, “Souvenir Foils: On the Status of Print at the Origin of Recorded Sound” in New Media, 1740–1915, ed. Gitelman, Lisa and Pingree, Jeffrey (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 157–73. For considering recorded sounds as artifacts, see Jason Camlot, “Historicist Audio Forensics: “The Archive of Voices as Repository of Material and Conceptual Artifacts,” 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century 21 (2015); (accessed Aug. 12, 2022). For an introduction to the vast literature on the cultural contexts of collecting in the nineteenth century, see G. Thomas Tanselle, “A Rationale of Collecting,” Studies in Bibliography 51 (1998): 1–25.

16 Edison, “Phonograph and its Future,” 531.

17 Edison, “Phonograph and its Future,” 527.

18 Raymond Wile, “The Development of Sound Recording at the Volta Laboratory,” Association for Recorded Sound Collections Journal 21 (Fall 1990): 208–25; Martland, Peter, Recording History: The British Record Industry, 1888–1931 (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2013), 57 Google Scholar.

19 Rene Rondeau, “Edison at the 1889 Paris Exposition,” The Antique Phonograph 31 (June 2013): 3–8.

20 For a business history of the North American Phonograph Company, see Raymond R. Wile, “The North American Phonograph Company: Part I (1888–1892),” Association for Recorded Sound Collections Journal 35 (Spring 2004): 1–36.

21 Wile, “North American Phonograph Company,” 1–3; Feaster, Patrick, “‘The Following Record’: Making Sense of Phonographic Performance, 1877–1908” (PhD diss., Indiana University Bloomington, 2007), 143–47Google Scholar.

22 Morton, David, Off the Record: The Technology and Culture of Sound Recording in America (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2000), 22 Google Scholar.

23 Emily Thompson, “Machines, Music, and the Quest for Fidelity: Marketing the Edison Phonograph in America, 1877–1925,” The Musical Quarterly 79 (Spring 1995): 137; Lisa Gitelman, “How Users Define New Media: A History of the Amusement Phonograph,” mit communications forum, December 19, 1999, (accessed Nov. 30, 2021).

24 Douglas, Susan, Listening In: Radio and the American Imagination (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013), 15 Google Scholar.

25 Raymond Wile, “Growing Hostilities between Edison and the Phonograph and Graphophone Developers,” Association for Recorded Sound Collections Journal 22 (Spring 1991): 8–34.

26 Berr, Emile, et al., L’Exposition de 1889. Guide bleu du Figaro (Paris: Le Figaro, 1889)Google Scholar.

27 Fauser, Annegret, Musical Encounters at the 1889 Paris World’s Fair (Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2005), 3 Google Scholar.

28 Bennett, Tony, “Exhibition, Truth, Power: Reconsidering ‘The Exhibitionary Complex’” in Documents 14: Daybook, ed. Quinn Latimer, and Szymczyk, Adam (Munich: Prestel Verlag, 2017), 313 Google Scholar.

29 For social unrest in France at the time, see Horne, Janet R., A Social Laboratory for Modern France: The Musée Social and the Rise of the Welfare State (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002), 5664 CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For the Third Republic’s political crises, see Gildea, Robert, The Third Republic from 1870 to 1914 (London: Longman, 1988), 1623 Google Scholar; Fauser, Musical Encounters, 3–4, 103–04, 208.

30 Exposition Universelle de 1889, “The Graphophone,” The Paris Universal Exhibition Album (London, Paris, New York: W. Stiassny and E. Rasetti, 1889), clix–clxii: Smithsonian Collections Online, (accessed Dec. 1, 2021). G. M. B., “The Great Exhibition,” Electrical Review, June 8, 1889, 5.

31 Exposition Universelle de 1889, “Edison’s Display at the Paris Exhibition, 1889,” The Paris Universal Exhibition Album, cxvii–cxli. For a short biography of Hammer’s life in invention, see Eric S. Hintz, “In Uncle Sam’s Service: WWI Inventor William J. Hammer,” Blog, Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, National Museum of American History, June 15, 2017; (accessed Nov. 29, 2021).

32 The Papers of Thomas A. Edison: Competing Interests, January 1888–December 1889, ed. Daniel J. Weeks, Alexandra Rimer, Theresa M. Collins, Louis Carlat, Paul B. Israel (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2021), Project MUSEdoi:10.1353/book.84205; William Joseph Hammer to Francis Robbins Upton, May 22, 1889, Thomas A. Edison Papers Digital edition; (accessed Nov. 28, 2021); and “Edison at Home Unspoiled by Glory,” Oct. 7, 1889, clipping,,174,1218,930/1218,930/0/default.jpg (accessed Nov. 28, 2021).

33 Paris and Its Exhibition: Pall Mall Popular Guide (London: Pall Mall Gazette Office, 1889), 89–90; G. M. B., “The Great Exhibition,” 5.

34 Adelbert Theodor Edward Wangemann to Thomas Edison, July 14, 1889, Thomas A. Edison Papers Digital Edition, (accessed Aug. 13, 2023). Edison’s claim is in an interview for “A Live Yankee in Paris: Inventor Edison’s Report of The Great Exhibition,” Morning News (Savannah, GA), Oct. 9, 1889, 5.

35 For a sense of these demonstrations, see Proceedings of the First Annual Convention of Local Phonograph Companies of the United States held at Chicago, May 28 and 29, 1890 (Milwaukee: Phonograph Printing Co., 1890).

36 The First Book of Phonograph Records, entry for Jun. 13, 1889, 19; (accessed Nov. 28, 2021); Edison to Hammer, May 16, 1889, Thomas A. Edison Papers Digital Edition, (accessed Nov. 28, 2021).

38 Fauser, Annegret, “New Media, Source-Bonding, and Alienation: Listening at the 1889 Exposition Universelle,” in French Music, Culture, and National Identity, 1870–1939, ed. Kelly, Barbara (Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2008), 51 Google Scholar.

39 Feaster, Patrick, “‘The Following Record’: Making Sense of Phonographic Performance” (PhD diss., Indiana University Bloomington, 2007), 263, 304, 667 Google Scholar.

40 Telegram from Walter Henry Miller to Henry Giesmann, Aug. 16, 1889, Thomas A. Edison Papers Digital Edition, (accessed Nov. 28, 2021).

41 Adelbert Theodor Edward Wangemann to Thomas Edison, July 14, 1889, Thomas A. Edison Papers Digital Edition, (accessed Nov. 28, 2021).

42 “Edison,” Bulletin Officiel de l’Exposition Universelle de 1889, Aug. 31, 1889, 1 ; (accessed Nov. 30, 2021).

43 Fauser, Musical Encounters, 279, 297–312.

44 Louis Figuier, “Le Pavillon des Téléphones,” L’Exposition de Paris 1889, 3–4 (1889): 11, translated and quoted in Fauser, Musical Encounters, 309.

45 William J. Hammer, “A Flight over Paris,” pamphlet reprinted from Aero Club of America, Navigating the Air (London: William Heinemann, 1907), 157–70, William J. Hammer Collection, Acc. NASM.0074, National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution. Rufus G. Wells, “An American Balloon Trip over Rome,” Aeronautics 7, no. 3 (1910): 111.

46 Record is NMAH catalog no. 324554; sound file at (accessed Nov. 30, 2021).

47 Used with permission. Thanks to David Winter of Paris, France, who used custom audio equalization on the Smithsonian sound file, for this transcription.

48 Thomas Edison, “The Perfected Phonograph,” North American Review 379 (June 1888): 645.

49 This awkward name for the Volta machine persisted for a short time to distinguish between the recording (phonograph) and reproducing (graphophone) functions of the Volta machine. See NMAH cat. 287825, marked: “The Phonograph-Graphophone m’f’d by the American Graphophone Company for Jesse H. Lippincott, Sole Licensee/ Type C No. 03042.”

50 NMAH cat. no. 58498.47; sound file of recording at (accessed Nov. 30, 2021).

51 Leslie J. Newville, “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, 69–79, (accessed Nov. 30, 2021). Biography at “Guide to the Charles Sumner Tainter Papers, “Smithsonian Institution, (accessed Aug. 13, 2023).

52 For numerous experiments with cylinders and discs beginning Feb. 3, 1890, see Laboratory Rough Notes Vol. 1 (photocopies bound in volume marked outside vols. 29, 30), Alexander Graham Bell-Joseph Henry Collection, Dibner Library, Smithsonian Institution.

53 NMAH accession 241402 and archival finding aid available at “William J. Hammer Collection,” Smithsonian Institution, (accessed Nov. 30, 2021).

54 NMAH accessions 162298, 57694, and 58498.

55 More research can be done on the physical nature of these early cylinders. Thanks to Eric Monroe and Mary Wilcop for pointing the way. See “Meeting Summary: Conservation of Early Experimental Phonograph Cylinders at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History,” Washington Conservation Guild, May 3, 2018; See also Mary Wilcop, Earl Cornell, and Peter Alyea, “Collaborating to Conserve Sound and Substrate of Rare Phonograph Cylinders from the Edison Laboratory,” and synopsis of talk delivered at American Institute of Conservation Annual Meeting, May 16, 2019 and (both accessed Nov. 30, 2021).

56 Mickey Hart, “Preserving Our Musical Heritage: A Musician’s Outreach to Audio Engineers,” Journal of the Audio Engineering Society 49 (July–Aug. 2001): 667–70; Fadeyev, Vitaliy and Haber, Carl, “Reconstruction of Mechanically Recorded Sound by Image Processing,” Journal of the Audio Engineering Society 51 (2003): 1172–85Google Scholar; Vitaliy Fadeyev et al., “Reconstruction of Recorded Sound from an Edison Cylinder Using Three-Dimensional Noncontact Optical Surface Metrology,” Journal of the Audio Engineering Society 53 (2005): 485–508.

57 “Support,” Project IRENE, (accessed Nov. 30, 2021). Federal funders include U.S. Department of Energy, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, National Endowment for the Humanities, Library of Congress, National Archives and Records Administration, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and the National Science Foundation. Other funds came from Harvard University, John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, Mellon Foundation, Smithsonian Institution, MacArthur Foundation, Museum of Science and Innovation Schenectady, the National Recording Preservation Board, the University of California, and University of Applied Science in Fribourg, Switzerland.

58 Additional funders include Mike and Linda Curb, Seal Storage Technologies, SEDDI Inc., and the Alexander and Mabel Bell Legacy Foundation.

59 For an overview, see Alec Wilkinson, “A Voice from the Past,” New Yorker, May 12, 2014; (accessed Nov. 30, 2021).

60 For comparisons with other processes, see Sarah Norris, “Toward an Ontology of Audio Preservation,” Journal of the American Institute for Conservation 53 (2014): 171–81.

61 “Guidelines on the Production and Preservation of Digital Audio Objects,” International Association of Sound and Audiovisual Archives, (accessed Aug. 13, 2023).

62 An excellent description of the process is here, “Understanding IRENE,” Northeast Document Conservation Center, (accessed Aug. 31, 2023).

63 Carl Haber, email message to author, Apr. 3, 2023.

64 Ingrid Monson explains this phenomenon and cites studies by Reiner Plomp and Richard Warren in “Hearing, Seeing, and Perceptual Agency,” Critical Inquiry 34 (Winter 2008): S38–S41. Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for this reference.

65 A complex discussion of the contrast between analog and digital recording in the compact disc age reflects this controversy in Eric W. Rothenbuhler and John Durham Peters, “Defining Phonography: An Experiment in Theory,” The Musical Quarterly 81(Summer 1997): 242–64. Thanks to David Suisman for this reference.

66 Sam Brylawski, “Preservation of Digitally Recorded Sound”; (n.d.) (accessed Aug. 14, 2022).

67 Jonathan Sterne, Audible Past, 216.

68 IRENE past projects at Project IRENE, “Past Projects,”; Barbara Tannenbaum, “Picturing Sound,” Superscript 5 (Summer 2015): 8.

69 For examples and sound files see: “‘Hear My Voice’: Alexander Graham Bell and the Origins of Recorded Sound,” Albert H. Small Documents Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, (accessed Aug. 13, 2023).

70 See public comments at (accessed Nov. 30, 2021).

71 For examples of sound recordings of Indigenous languages and voices, see for instance, National Science Foundation, “Rare Audio of Indigenous Languages Saved by Invention 100 Years Later,” and Virgie Hoban, “Project IRENE: Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Library Unite to Save Native American Voices,” Berkeley Library, University of California, (both accessed May 4, 2023).

72 Judith Kaplan and Rebecca Lemov, “Archiving Endangerment, Endangered Archives; Journeys through the Sound Archives of Americanist Anthropology and Linguistics, 1911–2016,” Technology and Culture 60 (April 2019): S189.

73 Hochman, Brian, Savage Preservation: The Ethnographic Origins of Modern Media Technology (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014), 178 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Audible Past, 315–25.

74 See, for example, Shakespeare quoted on the first graphophone in Galey, Alan, The Shakespearean Archive: Experiments in New Media from the Renaissance to Postmodernity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 169 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; the influence of the phonograph in poetry in Tackett, Justin C., “Listening Between the Lines: Poetry and Sound Technology, 1816–1914” (PhD diss., Stanford University, 2018), 149220 Google Scholar. See also Jonathan Sterne, “Shakespeare Processing: Fragments from a History, ELH (English Literary History) 83 (Summer 2016): 319–44, 10.1353/elh.2016.0022 (accessed 14 Aug., 2022) and “Media and Methods: Sound,” MIT Open Courseware,” (accessed 14 Aug., 2022). For an example from a collector’s forum, see “Hear Experimental Recordings from Bell’s Volta Lab,” The Talking Machine Forum, (accessed Aug. 14, 2022).

75 Tanya Basu, “How Genius Carl Haber Restores Long-Lost Sounds,” National Geographic, Sept. 25, 2013; (accessed Nov. 30, 2021).

76 Carl Haber, “Imaging Historical Voices,” International Preservation News 4 (Dec. 6, 2008): 25.

77 Bamberger, Rob and Brylawski, Sam, The State of Recorded Sound Preservation in the United States: A National Legacy at Risk in the Digital Age (Washington, D.C.: Council on Library and Information Resources and the Library of Congress, 2010)Google Scholar; Lewis, David R., “Making Sound Decisions: Institutional Responses to the Crisis in Audio Preservation,” University Libraries Faculty Publications 64 (2020)Google Scholar; (accessed Nov. 30, 2021); Judy Tsou and John Vallier. “Ether Today, Gone Tomorrow: 21st Century Sound Recording,” Notes 72 (2016): 461–83.

78 Lyons, Bertram, Chandler, Rebecca, and Lacinak, Chris, Quantifying the Need: A Survey of Existing Sound Recordings in Collections in the United States (New York: AV Preserve, 2015)Google Scholar.

79 Mike Casey, “Why Media Preservation Can’t Wait: The Gathering Storm,” International Association of Sound & Audiovisual Archives Journal 44 (Jan. 2015); (accessed Nov. 30, 2021).

80 Dietrich Schüller, “Socio-technical and Socio-cultural Challenges of Audio and Video Preservation,” International Preservation News 46 (Dec. 2008): 6.

81 Jeremy A. Smith, “Recent Efforts toward Collaborative Preservation of Recorded Sound,” Notes 72 (2016): 484–90.

82 Philip Mauro to Alexander Graham Bell, Mar. 11, 1904, Alexander Graham Bell Family Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress; (accessed Nov. 30, 2021).

83 Sterne, Jonathan, “The Preservation Paradox in Digital Audio,” in Sound Souvenirs: Audio Technologies, Memory and Cultural Practices, ed. Bijsterveld, Karin and van Dijck, José (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2009), 65 Google Scholar.

84 Rumsey, Abby Smith, When We Are No More: How Digital Memory Is Shaping Our Future (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2016), 132–34, 136, 147Google Scholar.