In Chapter 1, I follow the phonograph earliest years as an exhibition novelty. During this period the technology was framed by its handlers as a “talking machine” which mimicked—generally poorly— the sonic events which took place around it. As a talking machine, the phonograph was understood as a descendant of a long line of automatons which had walked, talked and played chess on European and American stages for centuries, and was even afforded a certain degree of “agency” in written accounts. Importantly, the mechanical, sociological, and economic factors which reinforced the “talking machine” understanding of the phonograph were the very same set of parameters which doomed it’s profit-generating abilities. After enthusiasm for the technology abated around 1879, it largely disappeared from public consciousness,
In Chapter 2, we follow Edison and a new field of competitors represented by Alexander Graham Bell and his associates as they sought to capitalize on the phonograph’s potential as an aid for business dictation. In this period, another understanding of sound recording pushed to the forefront of phonographic discourse, emphasizing the scriptive nature of recording and playback. The idea of the phonograph as a “sound writer” had been implicit from Edison’s earliest public pronouncements on the future of the machine and even in the name he gave it. Rather than an autonomic mimic of trumpet solos and dog barks, subjects now understood the phonograph as the ideal amanuensis, capable of instantaneously transmuting spoken words into “text” in the form of dots and dashes on a wax cylinder. In the 1890s, however, the technical limitations of the phonograph as a business tool pushed the industry away from that marketing strategy and as a result, other modes of selling, buying, and knowing recorded sound took root in American life.
In the years just before the turn of the century, the phonograph industry shifted its efforts from business applications back toward the field of amusements, and Chapter 3 picks up the narrative at this juncture. Outfitting their talking machines with coin-in-slot attachments phonograph companies placed the devices in public places to dole out music, skits, comic routines, and even sermons for a nickel apiece to curiosity-seekers. To supply the nation’s phonograph parlors with material there arose the world’s first “recording industry” and as it evolved from a sideline in Edison’s laboratory to a labor intensive industry with thousands of participants, the recording industry forced a reconsideration of the phonograph’s ontological status. Consequently, the quaint phonographic scribe represented by the “sound writer” evolved into a consideration of phonography as a kind of “publishing.” As with the scriptive understanding of sound recording covered in Chapter 2, the emphasis on sound printing, militated against the identification of the recorded subject with the act of playback.
Chapter Four narrates the founding and phenomenal expansion in the years after 1900 of the Victor Talking Machine Company, the company which, more than any other, capitalized on and reinforced the cultural logic of home phonograph consumption. It focuses primarily on the “selling” end of the business, emphasizing Victor’s efforts to control the distribution and sale of its products and argues that the company’s project forwarded a particular “commercial aesthetic” predicated on the occlusion of price, scarcity, and, especially, competition. Such market signifiers cast doubt on the phonograph’s value both by highlighting the mercenary motivations of Victor and their dealers and by undermining the claims of artistic transcendence which Victor increasingly made for its products. In order to avoid these suspicious and unseemly associations, the company sought to rationalize its operations, making its national and international network of people, things and money operate seamlessly and quietly.
Chapter Five follows the phonograph out of the dealership to the domestic parlor. Unlike most other commodities of its time the sale of a phonograph marked only the beginning of the purchaser’s relationship with his dealer, as the value of the technology lay not so much in the machine itself but in the constantly expanding universe of records manufactured to “play” on it. The successful placement of a phonograph in the home, then, was expected to redound to the ongoing benefit of the industry, but only if the human and material linkages facilitating the two way traffic in cash and shellac were maintained. If the phonograph broke down or reproduced unsatisfactorily, for example, consumers would likely lose interest in it and cease buying new records. With this in mind, dealers worked diligently to keep their customers’ talking machines in good order, disseminating information about phonographic maintenance, running repair shops and even sending mechanics door-to-door to service poorly performing units.
Chapter 6 builds on the previous two chapters, showing how the material and discursive transformations which the phonograph industry effected in the name of commercial viability contributed to an altogether new understanding of recorded sound which we have called “sonic modernity.” To satisfy the demands of operational efficiency as well the psychological needs of the day, phonograph manufacturers sought to rein in the bluster and noise of its own operations. In so doing, they not only created a profitable business model but also facilitated a semiotic sundering of the phonograph from the technological, economic and social contexts of its production. With the phonographic apparatus and the network of human actors responsible for its existence largely occluded, recorded sound presented an interpretative puzzle. Who’s voice filled the parlor if not that of the now-eclipsed “talking machine?”