Essays and Articles by Patrick Feaster

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"'A Compass of Extraordinary Range': The Forgotten Origins of Phonomanipulation,"ARSC Journal 42:2 (Fall 2011): 163-203.
Abstract: "It’s often assumed that the original goal of phonography was to 'reproduce' recorded sounds as transparently and faithfully as possible. However, certain transformative manipulations – speed-shifting, reversing, segmenting, mixing, and sampling – were actually integral to phonographic theory and practice from the very beginning, spanning numerous spheres of application, speculation, and experience." This article describes and examines the significance of dozens of examples of phonomanipulation predating the First World War.

"Speech Acoustics and the Keyboard Telephone: Rethinking Edison's Discovery of the Phonograph Principle," ARSC Journal 38:1 (Spring 2007), 10-43.
Abstract: "The usual account of the 1877 invention of the phonograph fails to take into consideration the abstract ideas about speech acoustics that guided Edison's experimental work in that period. This article presents an alternative view of the origin of the 'phonograph principle' centered on turning-points in the evolution of Edison's broader strategies toward mediating and manipulating articulate speech. It argues that the phonograph was largely a byproduct of Edison's unsuccessful plan to build a keyboard telephone, an instrument that would have allowed users to 'play' individual speech sounds over a telephone line rather than speaking them into a mouthpiece."
Discussion: See Letters to the Editor, ARSC Journal 38:2 (Fall 2007), 226-228; ARSC Journal 41:2 (Fall 2010), 252-254.
Update: The argument about the keyboard telephone has held up well, but my views on the laboratory notes dated July 17 and 18, 1877, have changed; cf. "'Perfectly Reproduced Slow or Fast': A New Take on Edison's First Playback of Sound."
Errata: See the PDF file linked above, especially the notes regarding the discrepancy in the numbering of endnotes and my account of the Reis telephone.

"'Perfectly Reproduced Slow or Fast': A New Take on Edison's First Playback of Sound,"The Sound Box 29:1 (March 2011), 3-7.
Court depositions reveal that the dates written on Thomas Edison's laboratory notes and drawings don't reliably correspond to the dates on which these documents were actually created. I argue that this observation enables us to resolve a puzzle that surrounds Edison’s earliest known notes about the idea of phonographic sound recording: a note dated July 17, 1877, may actually be the second half of a note dated July 18th: "theres no doubt that I shall be able to store up & reproduce automatically at any future time the human voice perfectly reproduced slow or fast by a copyist & written down  This can be applied telegraphically thus...." Another page dated July 18th contains a row of dots that might be a drawing of the indentations created by Edison's first-ever attempt to record the human voice.

"Framing the Mechanical Voice: Generic Conventions of Early Sound Recording," Folklore Forum 32 (2001), 57-102.
Description: "Patrick Feaster's study of recorded sound programs in the United States demonstrates how individuals bring prior interpretive norms to bear on their experience of new technologies. In his discussion of early phonograph conventions, Feaster illustrates how genre, belief, vernacular performance traditions, and even 'linguistic profiling' all influenced the ways in which the phonograph was presented to individuals and interpreted by them."
Update: Contrary to my claim on page 90, there was an alternative live minstrel show structure in which the phrase "gentlemen, be seated" came after the introductory music; see The Following Record, page 553.
The correct date for
The Proceedings of the 1890 Convention of Local Phonograph Companies is 1974 (1890)—not 1974 (1891) or 1980 (1890).

“‘Fellow Townsmen and My Noble Constituents!’: Representations of Oratory on Early Commercial Recordings,” coauthored with Richard Bauman, Oral Tradition 20:1 (2005):35-57. Also anthologized in Readings on Rhetoric and Performance, edited by Stephen Olbrys Gencarella and Phaedra C. Pezzullo (State College, Pennsylvania: Strata Publishing, May 2010): 277-294, which introduces it by stating that we "consider the implications of the relationship between political oratory as a live performance and as a record of that event by examining the late 1800s and early 1900s. At that time, Thomas Edison's invention of sound recording still was an emergent communication technology, and U. S. commercial sound recordings often included recitations of political and ceremonial speeches." In the same spirit, see also "Oratorical Footing in a New Medium: Recordings of Presidential Campaign Speeches, 1896-1912," coauthored with Richard Bauman, Texas Linguistic Forum 46 (2003): Texas Linguistic Society Proceedings.

"The Origins of Ethnographic Sound Recording, 1877-1892," Resound: A Quarterly of the Archives of Traditional Music 20:1/2 (January-April 2001): 1, 3-8.
This essay surveys some of the "firsts," emphasizing how early recordists sought to challenge both the technological and contractual limits of sound recording in order to further their goals.
Errata: On page 5, I wrongly state that Jesse Walter Fewkes "is not known to have made any field recordings after" 1891, overlooking the Hopi recordings he made for Gennett in the 1920s.

"Les débuts de la phonographie et le son théâtral," Théâtre/Public 197 (October 2010), 32-37.
The desire to record sound automatically was linked to the sounds of the theatre even before it had been realized in practice, and this linkage continued into the era of the phonautograph, informing the ideas and experiments of Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville. The seemingly straightforward paradigm of sound "reproduction"a word now generally associated with the feat of rephenomenalization which Thomas Edison first made a reality in 1877obscures a diversity of senses in which phonography has in fact represented and transformed its subjects, including those connected with the theatre. This article surveys both the introduction of phonographic sounds into the theatre as substitutes for live sounds and the representation of theatrical subjects outside the traditional sphere of theatrical performance.

"Nathaniel Smith and ‘The Song That Reached My Heart’," The Sound Box 28:1 (Mar. 2010): 13-18.
"This is the story of the first selection ever listed in a phonograph record catalog, and it is also the story of one private phonograph enthusiast’s efforts to obtain some good records from Edison’s laboratory at the very dawn of the recording industry...."

    Muggsy's Dream
"Reconfiguring the History of Early Cinema Through the Phonograph, 1877-1908,"
coauthored with Jacob Smith, Film History: An International Journal 21:4 (December 2009), 311-325.
Abstract: "This paper invites a reconsideration of the history of early cinema in terms of the phonograph through four specific areas of inquiry: early practices and discourses of visualized phonography; genre and narrative on early phonograph records; phonograph performers as precursors to film stars; and phonographic representations of cinema-going and other adjacent popular entertainments. It responds to Andre Gaudreault’s broader call for the study of the 'intermedial status' of the cinema through a better understanding of the intermedial links between early cinema and adjacent media forms. The study of the phonograph in relation to cinema reveals the radical interdependence of the emerging media of the turn of the century and the richness of the archive of recorded sound for media and cultural historians."

"'Rise and Obey the Command': Performative Fidelity and the Exercise of Phonographic Power," Journal of Popular Music Studies 24:3 (September 2012): 357-395.
Abstract: "The history of recorded sound has often been approached in terms of audio fidelity, or faithfulness to an original sound, but this essay centers instead on what I call 'performative fidelity,' or faithfulness to the power associated with an originary act, as manifested in a variety of specific contexts between 1877 and the First World War. Performative fidelity, as I define it, exists to whatever degree the playback of a recorded action is accepted as 'doing' what the original would have done. In the case of musical recordings, the question has been whether a phonograph can reproduce not merely the sound of a musical performance, but the social power of a musical performance—something that has long been a subject of debate. However, I find that other domains of application offer yet more striking instances of the use of the phonograph to modify behavior, including the deployment of 'reproduced' sounds and speech to exert control over animals, colonial dependencies, domestic servants, telephone subscribers, and job applicants, as well as to challenge existing power structures, as when a community freed itself from reliance on the ritual authority of a circuit minister by resorting to 'phonograph weddings.' I conclude with an examination of strategies, controversies, and conflicts surrounding the use of the phonograph by prominent faith healer John Alexander Dowie (1847-1907), which makes for a particularly rich case study. What was at issue in all of these scenarios was a new politics of performance, broadly construed—an emergent and conflicting set of media ideologies that embraced or resisted the prospect of reproducing certain social and ritual acts."

"Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville: An Annotated Discography," ARSC Journal 41:1 (Spring 2010), 43-82.
This publication presents detailed descriptions of all fifty known surviving phonautograms recorded by Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville and assigns numbers to them for ease of reference. An introductory essay generalizes about their physical characteristics, method of recording, and modern techniques and principles of playback.
Discussion: See Letters to the Editor, ARSC Journal 41:2 (Fall 2010), 252-254.
Update: The "unlabeled syllable" mentioned under Scott #43, on page 73, is in fact labeled "Le," as closer inspection has shown.

"The Phonographic Funeral of Baby Burr,"The Antique Phonograph 29:4 (December 2011), 7-12.
In 1895, Abraham Stillwell, deputy coroner and undertaker at Gravesend, New York, used a prerecorded phonographic funeral service for Augusta "Gussie" Burr, a "fat baby" who had been on display at Coney Island before her death at the age of fifteen months.

Ben Harding's Voice"Daguerreotyping the Voice: Léon Scott's Phonautographic Aspirations," in Parole #1: The Body of the Voice / Stimmkörper, ed. Annette Stahmer (Cologne, Germany: Salon Verlag, 2009):18-23.
Excerpt: "Critics today who take the reproduction of recorded sounds for granted often have a hard time grasping Scott’s motives; for instance, one of them has playfully characterized the phonautograph as 'designed to record sounds but not to play them back, making it both the world’s first and most useless recording device.' But for a world that had no experience of playback to guide its expectations, Scott’s invention was no less complete in its functionality than a seismograph that records earthquakes but cannot recreate them. From the perspective of 1860, the feat of making the evanescent nuances of the human voice fix themselves on a sheet of paper was no weak half-measure, but a triumph of ingenuity with stunning implications.... Scott believed he was capturing subtleties of the living voice that were missing from conventional writing and musical notation – the same subtleties, in principle, that can still make a sound recording more valuable than a score or a script today."
Errata: On page 18, for "laying silent" read "lying silent"; on page 20, for "Ingram" read "Ingraham."

"Phonographic Treasures of the Smithsonian," The Antique Phonograph 30:1 (March 2012): 23-27 [part one]; 30:2 (June 2012): 21-25 [part two].
For ten weeks between October and December 2011, I carried out an item-by-item study of the early experimental sound recordings at the National Museum of American History, including all those associated with Alexander Graham Bell and the Volta Laboratory Association.  At the same time, I gathered together all relevant information I could find in the various series of notebooks and other written documentation at NMAH and the Library of Congress. This ongoing article series presents some highlights of the project.

“Musical Records of the Michigan Phonograph Company,” In the Groove 37:2 (April/May 2012): 7-11.
A newspaper article from the Detroit Free Press of June 1, 1890, sheds light on the commercial recording program of the Michigan Phonograph Company by describing a recording session which recordist George H. Greim conducted with Schremser's Fourth Regiment Band on the top floor of the original Detroit Opera House. Particularly noteworthy was the use of flashing green and white lights to keep the musicians in time with each other when the special spatial requirements of phonography prevented them from watching a conductor.
Errata: I twice refer to Greim as "Gleim."

"'It Could Write or Register the Sounds in a Distinct Language': The Recording Telephone of James Davis," The Sound Box 28:4 (December 2010), 12-16.
A forgotten North Carolina inventor named James Davis seems to have played a significant role in the pre-tinfoil history of sound recording, but it’s tantalizingly unclear just what that role was. A letter Davis wrote to the editor of the Raleigh Observer, published on April 6, 1877, is the earliest known account of a Bell-type telephone with sound-recording capabilities and purports to describe conceptual work he had done "more than ten years" before. As I argue, Davis might have envisioned the playback of recorded sounds before Charles Cros, and Thomas Edison might have first encountered the idea of recording telephone messages in an account of Davis’s work, launching him down the path that would eventually lead him to the phonograph.

"E. Berliners Grammophon: The Beginnings of the German Talking Machine Industry," coauthored with Stephan Puille, The Sound Box 28:3 (Sept. 2010): 3-7 [part two] and 29:3 (June 2011): 3-7 [part four].
I collaborated with Stephan Puille on these two installments in his multi-part history of Emile Berliner's efforts to introduce the gramophone commercially in Germany in late 1889 and early 1890. Part two centers on the playback of two paper prints of gramophone discs recorded in 1889, while part four draws on a book of "Technical Notes" about the gramophone, printed in 1890, which I discovered at the Library of Congress, including a key linking the colors of paper labels to particular categories of subject matter.





"'Things Enough for So Many Dolls to Say:' A Cultural History of the Edison Doll Record," Thomas Edison National Historical Park (April 13, 2015).

"Theo Wangemann Biography," Thomas Edison National Historical Park (January 30, 2012). The first comprehensive biographical sketch of the world's first professional sound recordist.

"The Dawn of Recorded Sound in America," The Atlantic, Jan. 22, 2012. Explores the significance of a recently digitized experimental sound recording from October 1881.

"Comments on the Desirability and Means of Bringing Pre-1972 Sound Recordings Under Federal Copyright Jurisdiction," U. S. Copyright Office (January 2011). Notes that some current state laws would still accord copyright protection to sound recordings made and published over 150 years ago, but that there are discrepancies in how "ownership" is defined that have potential implications for their applicability to early recorded sound.

Media Preservation blog posts

Extracting Audio From Pictures. Some of the world’s earliest disc recordings, dating from the late 1880s, exist today only as pictures in books or magazines. The discs themselves were lost long ago, leaving little hope that their sounds could ever be heard again. But sound media historian Patrick Feaster has developed a method for extracting sound from these prints, bringing to life rare audio content thought lost to history.
The School of the Sky Returns. "I imagine you’ve heard of old-time radio drama before—The Shadow, The War of the Worlds, that sort of thing.  But did you know that, back during the Golden Age of Radio, radio dramas were being created right here at Indiana University—with students as the scriptwriters and performers?"
The Uses of Enchantment (with Mike Casey). The title of Bruno Bettelheim’s classic work on fairy tales—The Uses of Enchantment—provides a vivid touchstone from which to consider the enduring value of a time-based media collection in terms of four functions: experiential, research, instruction, and production.
A Step Forward (with Mike Casey). We chose the 253 lacquer discs in the Welles Collection at the Lilly Library as our first collection for the Indiana Media Preservation and Access Center (IMPAC) start-up project because they are actively degrading, at very high risk for loss of content, and highly valuable for research, instruction, and entertainment.

Recently Published

"The Artifice of Nineteenth-Century Phonographic Business Dictation," Velvet Light Trap 72 (Fall 2013): 3-16.
During the first half of the nineteenth century, the advent of photography as an automatic technology for capturing images inspired fantasies of an equivalent technology that would enable people to create written documents simply by speaking. This was the primary context into which the phonograph was born: when Thomas Edison hit upon its principle in 1877, his first impulse was to use it to streamline the production of conventional written documents. While past scholarship has focused on the failure of phonographic business dictation relative to phonographic entertainment as part of a narrative centered on the rise of the commercial recording industry, this essay redirects attention toward processes of composition and editing on which the phonograph’s social utility as a text-making tool depended. When the phonograph was used to generate a typewritten business letter, the goal was not to produce a “record” of a given speech event but to allow the dictator to compose a socially acceptable written document quickly and conveniently. The practical need to correct mistakes in recorded dictations led to the formulation of editing techniques that anticipated those associated with later “art” phonography and also predated comparable editing practices in film.

"Phonographic Etiquette; or, The Spirit First Moves Mr. Knowles," Victorian Review 38:2 (Fall 2012 [sic; published Fall 2013]): 18-23.

Patrick Feaster
photo: Ronda L. Sewald


Original content copyright © 2009-2012, Patrick Feaster.