Phonozoic Text Archive, Document 134

The Poetry of the Phonograph:
Its Marvelous Feats and Capabilities -- Its Humors and Solemnities

Washington Post and Union, April 24, 1878


                The following extracts from a report of Hon. S. S. Cox’s late lecture on the Tenth Muse are to good to be permanently crowded out.  To impart valuable information in captivating periods is truly the Coxian method.

                “A teacher of the deaf and dumb is in love with a pupil.  He desires to converse with her.  That was natural.  To do this, he studied the law of sounds.  He makes an artificial ear.  He teaches the deaf and dumb to talk, although they could not hear.  He instructs them to divine thought by the motion of the lips.  Melville Bell is the Ohio teacher.  He is the discoverer of what he called “visible speech.”  He taught how to use the mouth for sounds, which served as letters and words – a process by which sounds caused by air waves of various density and rapidity were transmitted to any distance by telegraphic circuit.  Then follows the still more wonderful sound-waves from the electric wave, and lo! the telephone!  Then follows the method of Edison, which registers the tones of the voice, reproducing every word with exactness: and we have the phonograph!  Next comes the Ærophone, which increases the sound.

                “These machines are wonders.  The faster you turn the cylinder the higher the voice is pitched, and if it is turned irregularly it will sing you a falsetto.  By varying the velocity of the cylinder you make the voice a bass.  When you reproduce tone by electro-magnetism it is the human ear with its stretched membrane or diaphragm that is used.  It is the tympanum sent on a distant flight by a metallic conductor.  The idea of talking into a machine – an iron thing – seems absurd.  But I have talked with people not half so interesting [laughter] and whose tympanum was not nearly so refined and sensitive as this metallic sheet.  The dead metal is sensitive – more so than our nerve power, quicker than our speech-faculty.  Ear and tongue are one, and each, in the telephone, an improvement of the original.  If I may be excused for a personal allusion my first interest in this phase of poetic science was awakened by the account given in the New York Tribune of the first words spoken into the instrument in the Centennial building by Sir Wm. Thompson.  He picked up a chance paper; it gave an account of the St. Louis convention.  He read: “S. S. Cox has arrived.”  [Laughter.]  Owing to the sibilants in the name, the articulation was imperfect, but that is corrected now.  Edison, in a late number of Appleton’s Science Monthly, accounts for it, by the fact that to make such sounds you want to talk into a smaller hole with sharp edges.  Then, the consonants which hiss the ss-es so sharply are sounded with the serene sweetness of a summer sunset.  [Laughter.]  There is no doubt that the plate of the phonograph may be made durable.  It is separable from the cylinder.  Letters, instead of being mailed, may be sent by telephone, and they will talk out loud when you get them.  One may have a pigeon-hole full of love letters from different persons on tin-foil, and all the interjections, and sighs and protestations reproducable [sic] in tones.  This would be touching.  [Laughter.]  Even the prattle of childhood or babyhood may be preserved.  Think of it!  How pleasant to know in after years what was the tenor and effect of your first squall on entering life.  [Laughter.]  How pleasant the first lisp for milk or ma, mush or pa.  [Laughter.]  Another use would be not less marvelous.  There would be no dead languages.  Dialect, brogue and pronunciation would be restored by a turn of the cylinder.  All the sounds of nature, from the enlivening chirrup of the Nebraska grasshopper to the hoarse thunder of Niagara; all the music of the world, from the thrilling trills of Patti to the turbulent diapason of a Congressional chorus.  [Laughter.]  If one may hear out of “ear shot;” if one may hear a sound shot under the ocean, from one hemisphere to another, if soon one’s words may be made into lightning and then transformed back into audible words, why may not the dead speak to the living?  The phonograph completes the circle by covering the tenth muse, with something more than the fading wreaths of poetry.  Why may we not soon learn to hear one another think?  Or perhaps, transfuse one mind with another?  Marvelous muse of Mechanism!  What Wagner shall sing thy music of the future!  When not only the voice of those absent or dead can speak to the present and the living, when not only the gentle tones of friends can be frozen like the voice in Munchausen to thaw under other conditions, thus crystallized for future use and comfort, but the voice of the orator and the harmony of the opera, may give immortality through charming sound to mind and soul!  What wonder, then, if in some still more interesting future the same muse may immortalize other poems of feeling through other methods?  Why may not “John Anderson my Joe” and his elderly spouse reproduce the days not merely by a memory, but by actual feeling when they were first acquaint?  Aye, revive again the very hawthorne fragrance which gave its sweetness to their early love, and roll forward from the past and its abyss the hours which, on angels’ wings, “flew o’er him and his dearie.”

                “Suppose some Dr. Schleimann or Cesnola, in prowling among the tombs of Greece or Cyprus, should find not merely the manuscript, but the embalmed eloquence of Demosthenes and Æschynes in their contest for the crown, and should, by a turn of the crank, let us have it in very tone and truth, it would be accounted marvellous [sic], but it is simple compared to other phenomena now, all too familiar to be marvellous [sic].  An exhibition of Cicero, hurling his anathema against Catiline – if it were enfranchised in the Academy of Music or Lincoln Hall – would it not empty the galleries of Congress, even if a doorkeeper struggle were on debate?  What an audience would rush to hear the unsealed eloquence of Samuel Adams or Patrick Henry with all its patriotic fire and indignant resonance.

                “Think of the home utilities of this invention!  A wife dies; her husband takes a second.  By the poetry of mechanism, the wife anticipates the event, lays up in metallic foil a few choice ærial vibrations seasoned with healthy indignation.  It is arranged to be let off with velocity, on a high key, at intervals, into the inconstant’s ear!  For, it being understood that to make a sound, a stream of thrills is shot out from its source at the rate of 1,100 feet per second; and as the air waves are short, long or complex, so is the noise.  Add, therefore, to these thrill-waves of 1,100 feet per second, the intense feeling of the husband and his second and you have a scene from the comic drama of Mechanism.  How the membraneous drum of the husband’s ear would tingle with old associations.  How it would disturb the calm current of domestic bliss,”  Suppose he were in the act of kissing No. 2, and the machine should accidentally go off, and a voice scream, “Obadaiah, what on earth are you doing!”  [Laughter].  What consternation.  No. 1, however, would have one advantage, being insulated in another world.  He couldn’t “jaw back.”  Hence he would be doubly unhappy.  Life and death are full of compensations.  Besides, a mode has been found out, by which the volume of sound can be largely increased.  What consequences flow from this?  It gives commerce advantages.  It may save ships and lives.  It would abolish the trumpet, fog-horn and steam-whistle.  Already the machine is being tested, whereby the engineer on the locomotive may announce to the train of passengers, the coming station.  What advantages would accrue to the pulpit and choir of the church.  All the minister would have to do, would be on Saturday night, to speak his sermon against the diaphragm of a telephone!  The choir might sing their hymns after the same method.  Sunday morning the cylinder is brought in and by reversed revolution, the service goes on.  No other physical power would be necessary, than the dog power that is harnessed to a churn.

                “Why should it not be utilized in public affairs?  Instead of the dumb show when the inaugural is read from the east portico of the Capitol, the President could simply speak into the telephone and fulminate over acres of listeners.  This might even be accomplished without his personal presence.  In a few months Edison tells me he will have a voice to be heard all over Washington.  How would it operate in Congress?  Admirably in a night session “for debate only,” and tolerably on other occasions.  Not only would the extraordinary noise of the House be overcome, but the weakest lunged member would have equal advantage with the loudest.  All would become Stentors.  The personal presence of members might be dispensed with and the constitution satisfied by a quorum of telephones.  Pages or supernumerary doorkeepers might be utilized to turn the crank and evoke from the already overburdened tin-foil, heavy speeches on pig-iron, musical sentences on silver and solemn obituaries over departed statesmen.  All this amidst the thundering echo of the galleries, from each independent citizen with a pocket telephone!  Nothing of this kind is improbable under the auspices of this new muse of mechanism.

                “If during the last few months, science has liquefied the most permanent of the refractory gases, under a pressure of 280 atmospheres, why should we marval [sic] at so simple a result, as the enlargement of sound in our ordinary atmosphere?  It is no less simple a process than that of the familiar ear trumpet.  Makes a bigger ear – that’s all.  Bulwer in his “Coming Race,” did not draw wildly on fancy, when his hero heard the opera of birds in the heart of our subterranean nature.  They sang duets, and trios and quartettes and chorusses [sic],   – all as if one piece of music.  Nature is thus prodigal no less with her forces than her music; Bulwer but anticipated the telephone and phonograph.  I hold in my hand this strip of tin foil.  Last night, in my presence a friend sung into the tympanum of the phonograph, the nursery rhyme, “Dickory, dickory, dock;” then, by another turn of the cylinder, he whistled upon the membrane of foil, “Yankee Doodle.”  Then readjusting the point of contact, he ground out of the dents, both the song and whistle in the grooves, intertwisting them into one strand, yet each distinctly audible and separable upon the human ear.  I could not help but wonder whether the instrument would survive some of the turbulent incoherencies which distinguish a field day in Congress.

                “This invention would rise to its highest domestic interest, I think, at a party of ancient maidens.  What a record of gossip might be made, if one of these instruments were wound up and set a going under the tea-table?  And yet these phenomena are not so wonderful as the spectroscope, which tells the very elements of the farthest fixed star by little bars!  The one is at home and in our midst, doing familiar service; the other ranges through the fartherest [sic] stellar spaces, and by recording its observation, makes the nebulæ no longer hypothetical, but gives intelligent and staunch unity to the Universe of God.”