Edison, for the record

The Composer's Datebook from American Public Media
Saturday, August 12, 2017

Some have claimed that it was on today's date in 1877 that the American inventor Thomas Edison recorded his own voice reciting, "Mary had a little lamb" on a tin-foil cylinder of his own design. Now, other historians date the precise birth of the phonograph a bit earlier, others months later. In any case, the Edison Speaking Phonograph Company wasn't established until January of 1878.

Initially, recording music wasn't Edison's top priority for his invention: He thought his phonograph might be profitable as an aid to stenographers, or for families who wanted to record the last words of beloved relatives.

It took a little over a decade for classical music and the phonograph to seriously interact. In London in 1888, a bit of a Crystal Palace performance of Handel's oratorio "Israel in Egypt" was captured on an Edison cylinder. In Vienna, Johannes Brahms, seated at the piano, recorded a snippet of his famous Hungarian Dance No. 3, prefaced by a few words that for years people assumed were uttered by the composer himself—although the latest research says somebody else provided the spoken intro.

The voice of British composer Sir Arthur Sullivan was captured, however, commenting (and we quote): "I am astonished—and terrified—at the thought that so much hideous and bad music may be put on record forever!"

Well, Sir Arthur, I'm afraid there's no going back now…