Phonozoic Text Archive, Document 145

Rene Bache,
Music for the Million Bottled by the Phonograph.
Brooklyn Times, September 21, 1890.


                Washington, September 18.—Can monkeys talk?  The question was made, day before yesterday, the subject of what was probably the funniest scientific experiment ever conducted by the Smithsonian Institution.  Prof. Garner, one of the honorary Curators, had charge of the test.

                The conversational power of monkeys has for years past been a special hobby of Prof. Garner, and it occurred to him that it would be a good idea to take down some of their remarks by means of the graphophone.  Accordingly, he procured a portable instrument and secured the co-operation of the Secretary of the Smithsonian and of about a dozen other men of science attached to that learned establishment in the carrying out of this remarkable trial.  It was a great sight to behold the group of eminent doctors and Professors gathered in front of the monkey cage at the Zoo in the rear of the Smithsonian Building, seriously waiting results, when Prof. Garner ground away at the hand graphophone with its crank attachment and the keeper of the animals poked the monkeys up with a stick to make them tallk [sic].

                One monkey was tame and the other wild.  The wild one could not be induced, by the most vigorous poking, to make any remarks worth mentioning.  An occasional scream of rage was all that could be elicited from him.  The tame monkey did nothing but chatter and gibber most unintelligibly, as it seemed, to the rest of the audience; but Prof. Garner was inclined to think that this was really conversation worth taking down, and so he ground away vigorously at his instrument, using up half a dozen cylinders in obtaining the records he desired.  A big tin horn, attached to the graphophone, was inserted through the door of the monkey cage during the performance.

                Prof. Garner was very far from imagining that he would be able to understand this monkey talk when repeated to him by the machine.  But his notion was to record the remarks of one monkey and grind them out through the horn for the benefit of the other monkey, so as to observe what sort of responses the second one would make.  By comparing the original observations and the replies, he hoped to get some few clews that would eventually enable him to translate the monkey language.  Unfortunately, the wild monkey would only scream angrily, and thus the experiment was, in a measure, a failure, though the Professor is convinced that he has obtained on his cylinders some really useful simian observations, if he could only tell what they were about.  This is, in fact, the only difficulty remaining and he does not despair.

                The Marine Band, which may be called the President’s own, inasmuch as it supplies all the music at the White House, is rendering itself immortal just at present by having its most harmonious strains bottled in large quantities.  When the performers in this wonderful band are dead and gone people will still be able to hear it play.  Every afternoon it gives a concert in a room on E street, below Seventh, to which no listeners are admitted save five phonographs.  The instruments stand in a row on tables and each of them is equipped with an enormous brass horn.  In front of the horns the band discourses the loveliest airs in its repertoire, which are thus recorded on wax cylinders imperishably for the entertainment of people in all parts of the United States, who have simply to drop a nickel in the slot and listen to the concert. 

                You would be very interested to see the manner in which this business of bottling music is carried on.  Wizard Edison runs a music bottling factory on an extensive scale at Orange, N. J., where thousands of fresh airs are turned out on wax every months.  The companies that handle his talking and singing machines in various parts of the country all do such bottling on their own account, each company having its specialty.  For instance, the Washington company is making a specialty just at present of band music; the Kentucky company goes in almost exclusively for negro business—plantation dialogues, with banjo solos interspersed, and scenes on the levees—and so with the others.

                While the Marine Band plays into the five great horns an expert manipulates the machines.  Each phonograph being supplied with a smooth and fresh cylinder of wax, the expert in charge shouts into each horn separately the title of the piece to be played.  When he has done this the electric motor is turned on again, the cylinders revolve beneath the recording needles, the band starts up at a signal and the music pours into the big trumpets until each cylinder is as full of sound impressions as it can hold.  Then the expert holds up his finger and the band comes to a full stop at the end of the next musical phrase.  The five full cylinders are taken off the instruments and put aside in pasteboard boxes, and five more fresh ones are put on.  After the title of the next piece has been shouted into each horn, the band starts up again at the signal and the process is repeated.  Now and then, if there is a little space left at the end of the cylinders, the band indulges in a wild burst of applause, stamping and shouting in approbation of its own performance.  This passes for demonstration by a suppositious audience, of course, when one hears the phonograph reproduce it.  All the cylinders are tested before being sold, to make sure that they are perfect, about 10 per cent. of them being rejected as defective.  Selling at from $1 to $2 each, there is a fair profit on them after the musical performers have been paid.  They are hired just as for public playing and at the same rates.  The Marine band makes $10 worth of cylinders every ten minutes, which mounts up during an afternoon’s playing.  Quartets and solos are done the same way in the evenings.  The distance at which the players or singers stand from the horns depends on the volume of sound produced.  A cornet player, doing a solo, stands ten feet away, and even thus the notes are apt to be so loud and piercing to the ear, when reproduced by the phonograph, as to be positively painful.  A quartet stands two feet from the horns, while a solo singer gets as close as possible.  Every afternoon a big crowd gathers opposite the E street building to listen to the concert, and the employees of the branch Census Office in the rear have made a special request that the phonograph company shall leave its back windows open in order that they may get the benefit of the music.

                The darkey scene cylinders are rather a new thing and are very entertaining, many of them.  There is one called “Row at a Negro Ball,” in which you hear the fiddle and the banjo, listen to the conversation of the guests, witness the progress of a quarrel over a dusky belle, and finally hear threats, accompanied by the drawing of “razzers,” and a pistol shot, with the subsequent flight from the police.  Another scene represents a banjo concert, interrupted by cries of “Fire!”  You hear the engine pulled out, excited conversation and the sound of horses’ hoofs on the pavement.  “Git up thar!” shouts the driver, the bell rings louder and louder, the whistle toots, a stream is thrown on the fire, and confusion reigns for a space until the flames are extinguished and the peaceful plunk, plunk of the banjo is once more heard as an accompaniment to the song, “Don’t You Hear Dem Bells?”  The vividness with which all this is rendered is positively wonderful.  Real darkies are used for the darkey scenes, and the company here has a wonderful whistler employed to do whistling solos.  All the harp solos come from Iowa.  In this way music of all kinds is gathered from every part of the United States.

                Mr. Edison is now turning out at his New Jersey factory the first batches of the phonograph cylinders for mailing purposes.  Already ordinary phonograph cylinders are sent by post to a considerable extent by people who have machines and who like to hear each other’s voices, in correspondence.  But these cylinders of the common sort are too large for convenience and require several postage stamps each, going necessarily as first class matter, like any other letters.  The mailing cylinders, however, are such little things—only about three inches long by two-thirds of an inch in diameter—that one of them, inclosed in its pasteboard case, only takes one 2-cent stamp to carry it as far as San Francisco from Washington.  The case itself is cylindrical, with a cotton pad at each end and also at each end a round wooden projection fitting into the end of the cylinder, so that the outside of the latter does not come into contact at all with the interior of the mailing case.  Such a mailing case will serve to carry very many cylinders before it wears out.  One of its ends screws on, so that it is something like a bottle.  The Wizard believes that the most important use of the phonograph in the future will be for epistolary purposes, phonograms being sent by mail instead of letters.  Each of these little mailing cylinders can be peeled, thin as it is, half a dozen times by the usual attachment of the phonograph for that purpose.  It costs only 3 cents to begin with, and you can hardly get note paper for less than half a cent a sheet.  The cost of the necessary mailing cases will not exceed that of envelopes in practice.

                Mr. Edison thinks that eventually all newspapers will be set up by a combination of the phonograph and typesetting machine.  Editors will read off into phonographs all the copy brought in, editing the copy as they go along by changing it to suit themselves in the reading and by mentioning the punctuation marks, the paragraphs and the capital letters.  The compositor will put the cylinder with his “take” on another phonograph and, listening to the dictation from the machine, will translate it directly into type by the keys of the piano-like mechanical type-setter.