Sunday, May 11, 2014


   I wrote this piece in 2002 on the behest of a fellow who was doing a book on Diamond Disc Records. The book had very limited sales and was read very little.  Therefore I thought I would put the piece I wrote for the book here, so others could enjoy much of what is not talked about when it comes to Edison and his role with the Diamond Disc Record.

In this piece I included much of my research and studying of Edison's private notes on singers, artists, composers, musicians in general. It is a very interesting glimpse into the private world of Thomas Edison and what he thought and felt about music, singers, instrumentalists and more. I had put this out with hundreds of his comments. many listed for the first time. This article was the result of many years of research and going though hundreds of his private books and using notes from them. Also finding evidence of Edison's preference of a speed of about 70 rpm for his records, as strange as that sounds.

In this you will also see his bias on many of the recordings made by Victor.  This is a large chapter to a book and will take many reads to get it all down. I hope you enjoy it.

JFS  5/11/2014

            Thomas Edison while in many ways providing the greatest help and was also almost single-handedly the greatest detriment to the diamond disc record and the recording activities of the Edison Company. He was a perfectionist when it came to sound production (as he heard it). This is the major decisive factor  which drove the diamond disc to stretch the limits of sound production in the early days of the 20th century.
    Edison’s hearing has been a matter of debate for years often leaving historians wondering exactly what he heard, and what brought about some of the decisions he consequently made. His hearing was bad, this is very true, but there were times he heard much more than we actually give him credit.

                                                              When Edison got involved in the “ recording biz” as he used to call it, he was in his early sixties. He was always somewhat involved in the recording industry, but not to the extent he was when he lead the charge onto the battlefield called “disc recording”. Edison had always been involved in this part of the business but by the time the disc record was first commercially developed he devotes nearly all of his energy to this cause.(The rest of his research went toward cement, storage batteries, business machines and motion pictures).

 This chapter was compiled from the notes of Thomas Edison. Edison’s notes are everywhere. He wrote thousands of letters as well as comments on letters sent to him. He would write notes on newspapers and journals of the day. Comments would be written in his employee’s notebooks. No scrap of paper was safe.

Marginalia would be inscribed on the pages of novels as well as books on history, religion, music, and science. Even encyclopedias and dictionaries were open season for his pencil. His output was incredible and covered every subject imaginable. No subject was taboo to him. He would make these notations for his own reference and pleasure. These were his thoughts and not for the public to see. Here Edison said exactly what he thought and was often very blunt; in many ways the very opposite of how he was perceived by the public. He seemed to always have a pencil in his hand.

It is sad to see newsreels of Edison from the last few years of his life. We don’t get to see him as others did. We see a very old man  not in the best of health and deaf as a post. That was Edison in 1930, but not the Edison who spearheaded diamond disc recording twenty years earlier. His work on the diamond disc occurred at the peak of his popularity, he was still healthy and he was far more inclined to speak his mind than he had been in his earlier days.

 The Edison of 1910 was not the Edison of the good old days of Menlo Park either. He had in a sense become a bit of a caricature of himself.  In this period of his life he also had the time to write more. We find that a good deal of his documentation dates from the 1910-1930 period, with the bulk of it dating from the mid-1920’s,  when he spent a good deal of time at home.

I had the opportunity to study Edison from several rare perspectives. First, his youngest son Theodore Edison (1898-1992) helped me tremendously with countless hours of interviews (often by phone at odd hours) over an 8-year period. Additionally, I was able to spend years studying his writings not only in his lab notebooks, but, in his own private library.  It was in these books at his home called Glenmont, (part of the Edison National historic site), that Thomas Edison really comes alive. He does not mince words and you can also feel a little of his inner struggle to merge his personal tastes and views with those commonly held at the time. He wonders why he feels different from others in his views and likes. What follows is a combination of his comments and thoughts from lab notes and his own personal notes much of which has never before been put into print. I have taken the liberty of filling in the blanks in Edison’s writing. He would, depending on his mood write in many different ways. He would sometimes curse up a storm in his writings, listing the various Damns and Hell’s. Sometimes he would only write D--- or  H--- (or other words). To make the reading easier I have filled in the blanks (my additions in parentheses). This makes the 40% of the time he wrote D---, easier to understand.

This is only one chapter and just the tip of the iceberg. The Edison Papers project at Rutgers University will eventually list many more of these. But they are now releasing Edison’s much earlier works and writings.  When they release his later documents, it will be an entertaining read. So we may call this a teaser of what is yet to come. Enjoy… and remember that we all are human, and yes we all make mistakes. Thomas Edison had his views as we all do. We must not look upon these writings with scorn, but rather with an understanding of what made a man tick and what made this very special man do and say what he did.

  Edison’s favorite form of recording was the cylinder as it was a constant speed recording from start to finish. He felt that the disc was inferior to the  cylinder. He was very aware that the disc was slowing down as the needle worked its way to the center as the size of the record itself was changing. Therefore he believed that the cylinder was better and that he would avoid all contact with a disc record.  The consistently shaped grooves of the cylinder had no such problem.  However the public was not as concerned with the fact that cylinders played at a constant speed; they were concerned with ease of operation and storage. There really was no way to solve the storage problem inherent with cylinders but discs were a far simpler matter in that regard.  By 1910 the state of affairs in the cylinder world was starting to crumble.  Research on disc recording was conducted in secret at the Edison Laboratory without Edison’s knowledge. There was even a weak attempt to gain a controlling share in the Columbia Graphophone Company. Columbia was at the time the only company that was producing discs and cylinders in the United States.  It could have been the best of both worlds, but Edison never moved to absorb their concern.

By 1912 Columbia had even given up on the cylinder and announced that the disc was king.   Edison was not in a hurry to change from the cylinder format but was unusually agreeable once he discovered that work on a disc record was progressing in secret and, much to the alarm of some, he encouraged and spearheaded the project.

   This work started a remarkable product that would change everything about the art of acoustics and tonal range.  The Diamond Disc record and phonograph were in many respects Thomas Edison’s re-invention of the phonograph and recording. It differed in many ways from any other system yet developed and was also so technologically superior that its quality today is still something to marvel at.  The main thing Edison wanted with his recording system was an over engineered product that would outperform any other talking machine of the time. In this he was successful, and through his guidance the record and machine became the miracle of the age.

Sadly, after working with his team he decided to become the phonograph’s guardian. He felt that he had the sense and the musicianship to understand the public’s entertainment wants and needs in the recorded field. It was he and no other save for certain circumstances that dealt the final blow to a song that did not meet his criteria. He was also very fond of certain songs and styles of music.  He would go out of his way to see that a song that caught his fancy soon made its way to the recording studio. He felt that there were many melodies that had not been discovered. This led to many bizarre experiments in backwards recording, but as far as we know, no new tunes of merit were discovered.

 Edison listened critically to the cylinder recordings released by his company in the years prior to the disc and found that many of them did not meet with his approval.  This was a moot point however as the recordings had long since been released. He felt that they were quite often harsh and not at all mellow. The cylinders were made to have a bright sound which was something Edison did not care for and refused to allow on his new disc. He also had very little praise for the recordings made by the Victor Talking Machine Company of Camden, New Jersey. He would spend days listening to Victor records and write notes about them. He used in this process a special cardboard square that he cut out to put over his good ear and he marked it the “Victor Ear Tickle”.

 He felt that the Victor Company went out of its way to create a false quality to the sound of the records. He was right as the Victor Company worked hard to get room resonance in the recording to create a “ringing” quality. It was a sound that drove Edison crazy and he often told his recording engineers that the last thing he wanted was a record that sounded like a Victor!  When they produced records that were “Victor-like” to Edison he made sure they knew it. He would reject the recording and send notes that would be peppered with quotes like this:

   “REJECTED:   Sharp, brassy, coarse. Like old wax cylinder stuff. This don’t go on the disc and don’t want any more of this combination instruments. The Victor can have the monopoly”.  

   “Victor is sharp, ours should be mellow. The public continually speaks of this, it’s our selling point and I want it”. 

“Explosive and where explosive very sharp-has a Victor ear drum tickle”.

“Sharp, rotten, squeaks, rejected for disc and cylinder. Victor type of recording!”.
 Many of his days were taken by listening to singers on a Victor disc machine. He would listen to hundreds of Victor, Columbia and Fonotipia recordings. He often would comment on how many of these recordings should be soaked in lime to get rid of them!

   He also found that Victor machines were exacting a heavy toll on the records themselves. He conducted tests to see how long it took to reach a breakdown in the records made by Columbia and Victor. He found that after 30 plays there was significant wear to the grooves of the records. He also believed that they were scratchy sounding.
While looking for new tunes for his records he also critiqued the victor records he was listening to. Here are a few of his comments:

La Boheme 96002 Quartet Act 3
“Only fair”.
“Farrar should not be permitted to sing on a phono, she will jump out (of) any record”.

Victor 95209 Alda, Jacoby, Caruso, Journet.
“Ridiculous noise”.

Victor 95210 same artists
“Caruso is getting big tremolo, Tune N.G., All N.G.”.

Victor 74294  Fritz Kreisler
“Absurd, they don’t appear to be able to record and reproduce violin. No overtones of violin are reproduced. All fundamentals”.

Victor 17058 Harry MacDonough and Amer. Quartet
“His chattering tremolo is getting worse and also his clothes pin on nose is getting tighter”.

Victor 74296 McCormack
“Voice or tune not good”.

Victor 17075A  Al Jolson
“Coney Island beer saloon singer. Not for us”.

The process used in the recording studios at the time helped create the sound Edison wanted, or at least the sound the recording department thought that Edison wanted. There were great clashes between Edison and his weary recording department.   There were many recordings made that were thought of as wonderful by not only the recording department, but the recording artists themselves, that were rejected by Edison for some reason or another.

Edison would pick the tune and then he would listen to the final result as the test returned from New York. Many times the song that he liked on the test was not much like the recording that came from the N.Y. Studio  Here is an example.

If thou didst love me not  Mary Carson  2659C

“Hold This. As this is a ROTTEN tune as I hear it and I once passed tune as a GOOD tune. I(t) must be BUTCHERED. Don’t use this type of instruments for accompanying. Try this song but at least 2 other singers. I want to experiment and find out why with piano and our girl here I pronounce a tune good and when I get it back from N.Y. on disc with a professional and a band to accompany that it sounds rotten. I wouldn’t for an instant pass if it sounded this way when I originally heard it. Apparently no leader or this is not a song for Carson”. 

 Things that caused Edison to reject a record could be one or more of the following.

Room resonance
Instrument valve noise (such as flutes, clarinets etc.)
Piano pedal noise
No chorus
Too much accompaniment
Not on the list of tunes.
Bad tune
Bad singer/s
In bad taste (By the sea, by the beautiful sea, e.g.)
Not to his liking

Edison made it his business to listen to nearly every test recording.  He made a decision regarding each and every artist.  He was truly the jury, judge, and at times executioner. What he could hear was most remarkable. He would complain of hearing the thump of the pedal on the piano, or the clicks of the valves of a flute. He once said in his notes that he couldn’t hear a whistler… but could hear the lips!

Edison was at times the proud father of the phonograph and he seemed to be very careful of what he put onto his “baby”. He felt that certain songs were of a bad nature and suggestive and he refused to put them on his records. He felt that other songs were simply not worthy of being recorded. There were times his notes indicate that he would not record a number even if he could “sell a million of them”. There were many great songs that Edison rejected only to have his rivals issue them with great success.  He would also not allow tunes that were not in the ”tune book”, save for a few rare exceptions.  He would form a preconception of what a singer should sound like in a part or role, and often expected any singer that he hired to follow that style.

 His rule was virtually complete save for a few notes like “Hold, wife likes it”. 
 He listened to some songs and operatic pieces, which he called tunes as well and made decisions on them like this note on the Lucia Sextet.

Lucia Sextet June 15, 1912 
“Tune good – splendid
Voices interfere. We can beat this and must in time make this our star. We do not need so many voices”. 
 (I gather Edison was convinced after writing this that the Sextet should continue to have the required 6 singers.)

 He felt that all people heard music the same way.  He wrote this note in a music book that contained the phrase Music and Melody, “ We have Slavs, Chinese, Japanese, and Greeks here at the lab. They all in a test pick out the same fine melody. Every American is made the same way, and all like the same kind of music and dislike critic’s music”. 
We can plainly see through Edison’s naive commentary that he in no way comprehended the market that he should have been catering to. He understood many parts of it, but there were a great many holes in his understanding. This would have a devastating effect on the “Biz”.

 There were many recordings that he favored and would write things like.

This will be a star
Congratulate him on his performance
This is real music
Accepted (this was something that barely passed)
Passed (this was better)
Passed but oh..(Not at all to his liking)
Passed-Hurry (this meant he liked the song very much)
Passed-Rush (this meant that the record needed to be on the shelves of dealers now)

Edison also would send little notes to recording artists through the recording labs in New York telling them that they should come and see him. This was so they could receive training and advice on how to sing/play/speak and make good records. Here is a comment on the pianist/composer Rudolf Friml’s test record.

“Won’t sell, every note is 50% fret noise and 50% music. If Friml has time he might come over and I’ll give him some pointers”.

The recording studios were well designed to produce what we would call today a dead studio. This was the opposite of all the other companies and was part of Edison idea of sound reproduction. He was far ahead of the pack in his concepts as an engineer and designer. He left little to chance and investigated each and every aspect of sound. The recording horns were numbered as to their size and material. This was the same with all the other recording companies as well.

His work on acoustics was methodical as he worked on one style horn after another, testing hundreds. The work was incredible as he pushed his staff along on his quest towards recording perfection. They designed horns of various sizes from those the size of a thin pole to the largest, which was 125 feet in length and over six feet at its bell! This monster of a horn was made of brass and was constructed in the West Orange Laboratories machine shop. The large horn was installed in the Columbia Street Recording Studio in West Orange and it was here that Edison’s ideas about the long horn were tried out. He found that the long horn had a deeper mellower sound and this pleased him.

However, the beginnings of the 125-foot horn were anything but mellow. There were echoes to deal with and it was found that the horn was terribly directional. It was also interesting that the piano recorded so well with the horn (in fact the only things that were ever recorded and released by the company using the monster horn were piano solos and small groups).

These recordings were often done with Lauder pianos from Newark, New Jersey. The pianos had to be changed often as Edison said they had lost their sound from being pounded by jazz musicians.  He often got upset with his private pianist Ernest Stevens for playing jazz on one of the sacred pianos from the studio. At least Stevens didn’t pound on the keys, saving him from further wrath.  There was never a release of any orchestral recordings made with the 125’ horn.  There were experiments putting things in the horn such as storage batteries and Ice. Edison did this to see if there was a difference in the sound quality. There were no improvements in the recordings.  It was also the sad duty of the recording department’s Will Hayes to clean out the horn after the recording experimentation was done.

The 125’ horn and remodeled studio were  put together between 1923 and 1924. There are notes in the studio logbooks of the alterations of the studio on Feb. 17, 1923. The studio floor was set up in squares as well. The squares put in on Feb. 19, 1923 We find in a note from Feb. 26, 1923 Studio floor being blocked off and numbered in one foot squares #1 to #868. We find that on November 12, 1923 carpenters started lining part of the shed covering bell of large horn. We also see that on January 16, 1924 carpenters working on coverings of cow hair for the studio. The experiments on the long horn started in 1923 and continued till 1925.

This was preceded by work on 30, 32, 35, and 40-foot horns used at the studio. In fact, there was research going on with horns of many various lengths. However the only other long horn recordings released were with the 40-foot horn in the 1922-23 period. Theodore Edison commented that his father was going through many books on sound and acoustics as he came to the theory of the long horn. He mentioned that it was in many ways like the work that Bell Labs was doing with the folded horn or matched impedance. This would be for Edison a last hurrah in the field of recording. He would detach himself further from recording as the decade reached its mid point. By 1926 Edison  moved to another front… Goldenrod rubber research. By the late 1920’s the music room was filled with goldenrod plants, evidence that Edison’s work on recording was finished by that time. The phonograph division struggled on for a short time and finally goes under in October of 1929.

There was much experimental work done at the Columbia Street Studio. There were experiments on transcribing records, cylinder dubbing from disc, cylinder to disc dubbing and later long play and sample records. It was a major area of acoustic research for the Edison Company till the late 1920’s. It was there that the “Greetings from the bunch at Orange” was recorded on November 25, 1925. It states in the recording log that it was done with a short horn.

In 1912 Edison wrote up his 11 commandments as to recording policy. Some of the rules were very good some were truly strange and baffling. Edison was trying to have a strong measure of quality control over the tunes and the artists.

There was the “tune book”, in which all approved tunes were listed. i.e. tunes that Edison liked. If there had been a recording test done without an approved tune, Edison would explode and write a note like this one:

William Beck  baritone 6/5/16

“Holy Christ! Have you no memory, are you a bunch of degenerates in New York. How many times have I asked to have tests made with tunes we have, such as Evening Star for a baritone. I’m getting damn sick of this.”

 In the many rules and regulations that Edison set up perhaps the idea that no record would list the name of the artist causes one to wonder what was really going on in his head.  This rule was due to his mistaken belief that people did not buy a record because of the singer, but because of the tune. This led to a tremendous amount of confusion, not only among the buyers but also the workers at the Edison Company. They had to make special marks on the matrices to know who was on what. There were many of these early records with all kinds of marks at 12:00 sector on the label. This marking system made it easier to tell one matrix from the next. As time went on, this policy had to be changed.

The last rule was the most important having much to do with the artists and the tunes -Edison became Director of Artists and Repertoire.  Some of the greatest minds never know when they are standing on shifting sand and in this case Edison was totally oblivious to the fact. The most successful company in the nineteen teens and twenties was the Victor Talking Machine Company. One of the reasons for this was that they had a Director of Artists and Repertoire who understood what the public wanted.

 This was where Edison went off the beaten trail. He didn’t know what was good and what wasn’t with the public. He had no understanding of some types of music and rejected them totally out of ignorance. Certain songs and styles of music that annoyed Edison were often dealt a heavy hand.

Here is the complete list of rules devised by Edison on May 11, 1912.


1st..We care nothing for the reputation of the artist, singer, or instrumentalist. Except in a few rare instances where the person has established an unique and isolated position.

2nd. All that we desire is that the voice shall be as perfect as possible, free of conspicuous tremolo, clear without ragged sustained notes, free of subsidiary and false waves on these notes. Singers who can sustain their pitch so as to be used in concerted work, who have sufficient overtones to produce mellow and not sharp mechanical tones. Singers whose volume changes are violent and ill judged, so it makes it difficult to record are not wanted.

3rd. When good voices are bound to exclusive contract. 1 or 2 years with the option to extend, pay a regular salary for a determined and known portion of their daily time. Taking in view their other engagements.

4th. To discover these good voices that we can build up a body of good singers. Bassos, Baritones, Tenors, and corresponding female voices so we can have a soloist for any tune or concert any time or part of an opera. Also special voices for comic work.

5th. To have recording man who will travel the countries, make trials of voices at singing schools, local opera houses etc…and submit the voice to Edison for a while until the system is established, and to keep up this hunt constantly.

6th. All tunes which are to be used on the phonograph except the local topical songs which are fleeting are to be entered in the Tune book. Each tune to be rated as to its desirability from others used.

7th. Where artists are engaged to execute a definite number of pieces, they are to submit their repertory and we must judge as to the tunes we want. If we cannot find enough in their repertory, then we submit our list of tunes to see if any of these can be executed by the artist, if not we do not want him or her.

8th. Any new tune that is published which is melodious and which seems to have merit enough and is of such a character that gives a promise of sustained popularity over a long period should be sent to Granger to be judged to see if it worthy to be put in the tune book.

9th. No engagements of any kind is to be entered into with artists whose voice has not been sent to Orange and judged.

10th. It is not our intention to feature artists or sell the record by using the artists name. We shall use no artists names except in a few instances. We intend to rely entirely on the tune and the high quality of the voices and not on the names of the artists.

11th. With a regular corps of singers we will be enabled to rehearse, change the voices and style of accompaniments and make several duplicates of the tune and thus adopt the most perfect one. A couple of the best types of the tune as executed can be sent to Orange and masters made from these. The most satisfactory one can be selected. We will not object to making these extra masters providing we can get higher quality of execution.

  There has often been the belief that Edison kept Jazz out of his record listing, but this is not true.  Even though Edison said that Jazz was for “degenerates and nuts”, the genre received fair representation.  In fact he wrote of jazz saying that, “jazz is good when the tune and playing is OK”.    I have listed a few of his comments on jazz recordings.

Jimmy fox trot  8357 
Club De Vingt Orch.  Flash to be released April 1, 1922
Edison. “passed a-1 flash.  “Good base and snap   tune not very good”.

Every night I cry myself to sleep over you 9235A
Flash #2
“Don’t think much of this poor tune. Rhythm poor and sax player pretty poor. I mean the one playing the melody also weak”.

Where’s my sweetie hiding fox trot. 9805A
The merry sparklers
“Good Loud-Flappers will by this”.

Toodles 9867
Charleston 7
“No tune, Miserable cornet gives performance”. 

Bluing the blues 7099c
Lopez and Hamilton’s King of Harmony
“Poorest jazz I have yet heard only good to people who are utterly without a sense of music. Jazz is good when tune and playing is OK”. 

Canary Cottage One Step.  Frisco “Jas” Band 5/24/17
Jas bands are very popular at present-though not the country. They play for dancing with a lot of “Pep.    Edison writes “This is OK”

Johnson “Jas” blues  Frisco “Jas” Band   5/24/17
“Only fair. The high instrument supposedly a violin is very wheezy and spoils all. If violin played lower key it would be OK”.

Those longing for you blues, Atlantic Dance Orch. 8527
“Crazy thing, has lots of novelties, can’t see how one can dance to this, it’s confused. Should say singer was poor. I didn’t understand a word he said. Should say best thing is to put this on order”.

Edison had many comments on band music. Here are a few comments on some of the band recordings he liked and those he didn’t.

Globe Fox Trot
Orch  9/10/15
“Passed,  some snap to these dance tunes now keep it up. This is what I have been after for a long time, the swings are sharp and clear cut”.

Isle d’amore Hesitation waltz
Orch. 3/1914
 “Passed, to be compelled to put this damn stuff on gives me a pain in the ass”.

Medley of War songs  Band 3073C
“Sounds as if about 5 instruments, why didn’t you have something besides brass. It sounds damn cheap and common. Rejected, rotten, sharp. Want lots of instruments and softer as well as louder. The patriotic band records are very poor you are sending”.

Maritana Overture part 2 Band 3071C
“Passed, good type of band”.

 Opera and classical music suffered more at the hands of Edison than perhaps any other form of music. The voice and various instruments were something that Edison thought he understood.  He instructed the singers to sing in a half voice and not sing as they would in a theater or opera house since this would show the defects (vibrato) in their voices. He had a good point here. Read this note he wrote about a singer and how she should be recorded by the staff.

Miss Herma Dalossy Dramatic Soprano  11/28/1913 (Tosi-Milan)

“Poorly recorded She was put to far away from the funnel to prevent blasting. This gives echoes-room sounds and makes very hard to judge voice. What should have been done is to request that she sing ½ volume or rehearsal voice, then she could have come close to the funnel and not blast and it would stop echoes and room sound. If you give them a hint to sing it softly just as if she was singing at home to her little daughter. I find that when they are close to funnel and sing, it blasts and I let them hear it and explain they should tone down the stage volume of their strong high notes to ½. Then they do it all right and we get a good record, which you should have done”.

He would be for many singers a critic who could never be satisfied. He considered himself well versed enough to give pointers on how to play the piano and how to sing. He tried to design on paper a violin that would have magnets on the neck so there would be no movement of the fingers, which would, of course, remove vibration. (This never materialized).   He had many comments to make on singers, composers and instrumentalists. Here are a few quotes that Edison wrote down in his lab books and his own private library.

On operatic voices he wrote
“95% of all voices have the tremolo. The great singers as a rule have none. Now 1920 there is not in the operatic or concert world more than 10 great singers who have no tremolo”.

He wrote further on this subject saying,

“98% of all singers trial on phono have tremolo, and the strange thing is that they are unaware of it and are always astonished when they hear it in the record of their voice. Hence it is not under brain control. The rate varies from 3 to 12 a second.  Some only have it on one note, some only on low others on high and some on every note. The effect is at times very disagreeable. Singers who have become very popular in most cases have but little tremolo”.

He studied many singers and did a major study on Elizabeth Spencer. She was one of Edison’s favorite sopranos, and he had doctors study her head to see why she sounded so nice to him. He also commented on the overtones of her voice. She was used in many experiments in the Columbia Street studios, and also for experiments with the long horn. When Edison was asked as an old man who was the best singer he ever recorded he responded, “Elizabeth Spencer when she was young”.

Edison also would completely lose his cool when a pianist would play as an equal partner to a solo violinist or vocalist. This was most evident when he was judging the merit of a performer to see if they met with his criteria. This meant that he was checking to see if they were playing/singing with a strong tremolo. The playing of a piano would make the judgment a hard one for him, as he would struggle to sort out the vibrations of each instrument. This comment was sent to the recording department, which was often the victim of Edison’s wrath!

Miss Amy Neil  violinist   Jan 7, 1921

  “As far as I can untangle the violinist from the damn piano she is a very good violinist. Why does the pianist start play loud when violinist goes on E string. I don’t want to hear the DAMN PIANO. It is only to assist the violinist. I do not want to hear it at all. Just where I wanted to study the double notes and E string it starts pounding. Some people have no sense or judgment.  278th REQUEST, to keep piano just loud enough to assist artist. I don’t need to hear it at all”.

He often had lots to say on other violinists. Here are a few of his comments:

Fred Mac Murray Violin  6-3-18
“First class. He don’t vibrate his fingers and spoil the music. It looks to me as if you had got a fine violinist here. Would also like to have heard something also with high notes”. 

David Mannes Violin  11-25-16
“This is the worst “Ave Maria” I ever yet heard, his violin strings are rotten. He vibrates fingers incessantly. He is weak in volume. His volume varies badly where it should not vary”.

Martha de la Torre  violinist  10-1-20
“First class Violinist. Can you make contract”?   

Evelyn Starr Violin   3-13-16
“She does not pull a steady bow, she exaggerates the infernal tremolo making it too conspicuous. How can any person judge of the capacity of a violinist by making a trial with a tune like this. I am going to make a damn strong kick if the lobster who is responsible don’t use what little brains he has in the future in these trials”. 

He had considerable commentary  about singers. Here are a few comments on tenors, (of which he had quite a bit to say).

Quartet from Rigoletto 5629 Verlet, Alcock, Ciccolini, Middleton
“Pretty fair but unmusical at places where all sing due to the sharpness of Ciccolini’s voice.  Had his voice been mellow at this point it would have been good. Passed”.

Amore O grillo Madame Butterfly  Ciccolini and Chalmers
“Passed but this is not music. Ciccolini is getting so sharp that he drops every overtone and only emits fundamentals. Because he is straining his voice for an opera house and not for a quiet little room in a home. I have about made up my mind that EVERY Italian tenor is an all around general damn fool”.

Tosca E luccian le stele,Fontana
“Pretty good.  The S.O.B. has got Caruso skinned”. 

Oh so pure Martha 1283-3
Orville Harrold
“The tune saves him.  One note tenor-accepted.
The next time they get any of our money before I hear the goods. It will be a cold day in Hell”!  

In one of his books at home, a dictionary of musical terms he wrote out a list of what may have been ideas for the name of his Disc phonograph. The notes are of the period 1910-1915 since there are other comments on people with dates from that period. Here is the list. Sonatola, Harmonola, Imperola, Impressio, Legotalo, (ola perhaps) Leiderphone, Cantophone, Lyrograph, Lyrophone, Maestrola, Mignon, Musiola, Pandola, Orchestrion, Sonorola, Symphinola, Troubadour, Tandola, Trovatore, and Virtuoso.

Also when going through dictionaries of music he would always look to see if the phonograph was listed. He would often write in these books “Where’s the phonograph?”

Here are some of Edison comments from his private writings at home:

“They have loved art in the German way by letting their composers starve to death”.


“The organ music, the graveyard behind the church. The sexton’s sign, who has the address of the undertaker the solemn preacher and all makes one love organ music? Most people have so hard a time in this world that a little Rossini, Bellini or Verdi is appreciated, but it isn’t very classic”.

“Von B. came to the lab when in America and I recorded his piano playing. My asst.  a good pianist called Von B’s attention to the fact he struck a wrong note. Impossible sued Von B! But upon hearing it reproduced he fainted away and I poured a jar of cold water on him and sent him to East Orange. HE’S A CRANK”!

“How German like. Funny any real music came from such a man”.

“Musical mathematical genius”.


 “There is something wrong with Mozart’s melody, something unnatural. I cannot make it out yet”.

“It has been calculated that 2/3’s of all the tunes Mozart writes for the violin lie on the E – string. That is why Mozart is so unmelodious”.

“The mechanics of the ear have been called hideous stuff. It would be contrary to the structure of man and physical law, hence when this Mozart has made it to reform. To change bad music to damn bad music”!

The greatness of Don Giovanni.   “To me it is the opposite of this. I wonder what is wrong with my ear”?


“Schubert’s eyes were so bright as to at once to attract attention. This is an absolute indication of ability, the great reflective power of the eye”

.” Schubert did not get a good musical education. He struck luck in not getting this damn education”!


“He escaped being a Prussian. He never used TNT music”. 

“The music of his operas, 3 good, one not so good. As I have heard on the piano, this is real stuff”!


“His head was level”.


“Looks like a Prussian”.
“Musical Machanic”.

“This is the limit, noise would probably be the best music of all. Then educated critics could straighten out the discordance and defy the crowd”.

“Fine voice marred by a terrible tremolo. I turned him down for I couldn’t stand it”.


“Wrote real music and its good today”.
“ Practical man had common sense”.
“ Made natural man’s music”.
“A genius, wrote real music. Only a few inspired, but even the composed music is generally musical”.


“Can music come from such a crank”!

 “Wagner’s musical dramas, no form, acquired taste. Not natural like chewing tobacco.  But he could pull some beautiful things out of the air”.

“ Wagner could have been a great man, his instrumental music is beautiful. He could beat them all probably in this line, but he was a crank and wouldn’t do it”.  

 “Wagner should have left the music out and launched his operas as plain speaking dramas”.

 “Gluck’s music is in contrast to the laws of acoustics and psychology. Gluck and Mozart are birds of a feather. They have to learn this is not music”!


“There is no music in Chopin so bad as Mona Lisa is to painting”.
“The worst thing Chopin ever composed was better than anything in Don Giovanni”.
“The funeral March is grand, the Funeral march of Beethoven’s is also good when played on violin with viola to take the very low notes”.

“Won’t be appreciated in this century. But in the next century God will have remade and improved man’s hearing apparatus, then Strauss will be appreciated”.

“1914 still a pounder! Paderewski’s playing goes beyond the mechanical limits and throws on the strings and all other parts of the mechanism the most horrible discords”.

“An original inventor of abnormally new combinations of melody”.

“Verdi is the greatest of all composers. He has more original invention, more themes that are original than any other composer. In his later years he was driven to discord by Teutonic musical degenerates. Howling for discord which is now called art. The music that will live forever….etc..etc..”.

“Get all of his published music, he is a star”.

 “A glass of cold water will stop it generally in Sopranos for 3 or 4 minutes”.
“ Tremolo of the voice is unpleasant, and to me it is”.

 “N.G. except to a German brain where discord is resolved into melody”.

” Would like to find some, horrible music as far as I have heard”.

  “Get some they are good”!

“The reputation of music depends upon critics, who couldn’t compose a discord in most cases”.

What is absolute music? “It is music nobody likes but music critics”.

Here is a list of comments that Edison made about singers. You will notice that Edison has quite a sense of humor at times. He was also very much influenced by the events of the time and his humor shows it. What follows is Edison at his best as he has a little fun with some of the new songs and talent. He has fun with one in late April 1912. This is a week or two after the sinking of the Titanic.  He hears what he calls a “Bull baritone” and writes that “He should be put on the front of ocean liners to scare icebergs away”.

In 1915 Edison listens to a voice trial of Gertrude Cugut. He is in a playful mood as he writes to Mr. Judas, one of his musical directors who must have had the misfortune to have suggested this singer.

Edison writes, “This is nearly the limit, congratulate Judas on his fine appreciation of interpretation and elegant wobbling voice.   ROTTEN”.

He then listens to the voice of another candidate named Mrs. Rosetta Stephenson, soprano. Edison writes,
 “I withdraw Cugat and decide Mrs. Stephenson shall have the prize. If anything would make the Germans quit their trenches it would be this, My God This Is Awful-Has intelligence fled from our planet.    Is this a Judas star”.

Edison listens to a young man named Master Richard Heeley, counter tenor.
Edison writes,   “Sounds like a broken down Italian soprano. No timber, Oakland is 1000% better”.

He listens to Masonic trial record of one of their hymns and writes.
“Passed but Rotten    I will never join an organization that has such rotten stupid stuff as this”.

Sam Ash- tenor 1/29/1915
“No interpretation-no brains to submit a sample as a tune like this, recording dept. to send a tune like this.  Has a tremolo, should he make sustained note, the only sustained note he gave shows tremolo- has sharp tinge, cabaret tinge a la Murray in his voice. Couldn’t sing a sentimental song that would be effective to save his life.  Let Columbia have him”.

Florence Crosby-contralto 10/20/12
 “It’s too bad this woman has tremolo and a cat sound-She has such a deep fine contralto voice. I wonder if she could not get rid of it. Another defect she has, is a sudden change of volume. Who ever taught her should be placed over a wheelbarrow and whipped with a board. Can’t use her”.

Emma Van Holstein Soprano 10-7-24

“This type of soprano is useless to use-she sings in places so weak that (I) hardly hear, then she let’s out a yell like a wild Indian. Such interpretation is not dramatic its idiotic”. 

At 10 o clock at night Farrington 7/01/15
“Rejected  too silly”.

William R. Searproff  tenor  4-30-19
“Oh, no. Sounds like a Jewish cantor discharged for in competency”.

Mr. Tom Burke, Irish tenor  “The John McCormack of Europe”
“If he is the McCormack of Europe, Europe is in far worse condition than the papers make out. Not Wanted”.

5010 Mr. Leonard Brown Yiddish tenor
“No tune. Is there no melody in Jewish music. If they enjoy this they would enjoy small pox”.

Edison was happy to give great praise to someone if he felt they deserved it.  Here are a few:

Light cavalry overture
Xylophone solo  G.Green
Green is “some Xylophonist

OKEH Laughing record

“Walter, get two they are good. Our (laughing) record couldn’t be given away its altogether rotten. The Okeh has many kinds of laughing and few words. It’s a great novelty”.

9799B Victor Rosales

“This man has the finest voice that I have ever heard. When we have good tunes that fit his voice by all means use him freely. Am delighted with this voice “.  

Edison listened to his music differently than almost anyone else, at another speed than he proscribed. Edison usually listened to Diamond Disc records at the speed of about 70-72 RPM’s.  He wrote about this and said,
 “ PITCH While the corti rods in the ear are not fully grown in young people they like high pitch. When 25 years they like present French pitch. There after the rods get loaded and the older you get the lower the pitch. Old people run 80RPM phonographs to 70-72 RPM’s”.

Edison’s personal phonograph in his home in Glenmont was set to play at about 70 RPM’s. He listened to the recordings at a speed that was comfortable to him. I would like to take a story and correct it here. Yes there does exist a phonograph with teeth marks in it, but this machine was from the last days of Edison’s involvement. He was near 80 and very deaf. But to think of Edison in the early days of the Diamond Disc biting into a phonograph to test the records is absurd. I can imagine that there were times that he may have done it to experiment with his hearing. He could still hear well enough to listen to the recordings with his naked ear or with a horn. He often commented that certain recordings were so loud that they “near split open my ear”. Edison heard far more than we give him credit for. He also misled us into thinking that he heard nearly nothing. Edison heard what he wanted to hear. He seemed to hear very well when you were talking about him and amazingly deaf when he wanted to be.

Of course as he aged his hearing got worse. There were also a few operations performed on his ear that harmed his hearing more than it helped it. His hearing was correctable as proved by his son Theodore. He took his father to Bell Labs and had a curve made of T.A.E.’s hearing. Then he constructed a hearing aid to compensate for the hearing loss. This monstrosity as he called it worked very well. But it was a large box with vacuum tubes, a stethoscope-like headset and a microphone to speak into. He said his father put his head into the headset and someone spoke into the microphone he heard the high-pitched sounds that he had never heard before. In fact, Theodore said his father “heard pretty good through it”. But the thing weighed a lot and was “tremendous” in size. So we can see where Edison’s hearing loss centered. He had very few highs in his hearing and he would often lose the hissing sibilant. He could hear lower tones rather well and I believe this is what led him to push for a very mellow sound with low tones. It was a pleasing and comfortable sound for him.

Edison had his taste and feelings toward music like anyone. To his credit there was quite a bit of decent recording going on. His mania for perfect sound reproduction forced his company and staff to reach for a quality that many only dreamed of.  The diamond disc was the result of research and development and the strange but determined work of a man who could hardly hear as others did. The notes that we have peppered through this short piece just open a door a little so you can see the real Edison. He was in so many ways bigger than life and in other ways so very human.  Whether you like Edison or not, you have to respect the amazing result of his and his team’s work. The Diamond Disc Phonograph and Record.

Monday, March 31, 2014

George Washington medal from New York's 100th anniversary of his inauguration in 1889 .

There was a massive celebration in New York City to honor the 100th anniversary of Washington's inauguration there on April 30, 1789. This medal was cast as many others were at that time. What is interesting about this medal is it honors Washington on one side and shows the Brooklyn Bridge on the other as the eighth wonder of the world. A unique piece of history from 125 years ago.

John Brown..Written by James Redpath in 1859 and published in 1860. One of the first major writings on Brown.

This book was written from the direct conversation with John Brown in 1857 and in his last days. The book was endorsed by Brown's widow and son. The author James Redpath, was a fiery abolitionist and was involved with working to get support for John Brown in Boston. This was at the recommendation of John Brown himself. At the time this was a hotbed of the anti-slavery crowd. Most of the monies made from this book, which is very sympathetic to Brown went to his wife and family. I have added the first few pages of this rare book and let you read yourself some of the raw feelings that were afoot in 1860. This book of course was written before the Civil War. At the time of John Brown's raid in 1859, his actions set off a chain of events that shook the slave owning community to it's core. 

It is interesting that the fledgling Republican party and of course Lincoln stayed as far away from this as possible. Brown was passionate and misguided. But his actions and thoughts were in line and would be one of the factors that would lead to war. The military panel that judged him was lead by Robert E. Lee. Of course Redpath mentions nothing about Lee here as at the time he was not a major figure. What is interesting here is that Redpath mentions George Washington's actions a lot. Of course in the thought of his actions against the British during the revolution. Robert E. Lee, who would be in charge of the execution of Brown was Washington's step great grandson through marriage.  

Redpath would be the author and ghostwriter for many books. Oddly, he would be the ghost writer for Jefferson Davis's autobiography and history of the Confederacy.     

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Civil War Tokens 1863-1864

Here are a few examples of Civil War tokens. Mostly made between 1863-64. All of them by private groups. The Civil War Token was based on the size of the one cent piece, which was hard to find at the time. This is why they were made.. They would be valued at one or two cents. Although it was truly not legal tender, as it was not made by the government. These coins would be made illegal in 1864. But for a year or so they were used as currency. The coins were made in the size of the new styled one cent coin. The flying Eagle cent (1856-1858) and the Indian Head 1859-1909) which are pictured right below this. After this you will see a few tokens that deal with the war. On the coins are things we recognize, such as the USS. Monitor and Abraham Lincoln. Others have the flag, oaths, threats, and even a nice picture of  the bust of Liberty in 1863.  They are interesting to look at and see what was money in 1863-64...During the height of the Civil War..

Our first one cent coins were even larger than today's quarters. Not too easy to carry them around. But one cent was a lot of money then, and you would not have too many with you anyway. Look at these...

The first one cent coins made in the USA were huge. They contained near a cent's worth of copper. Also based on the Penny which comes from England. The nations early coins tried to look like other currencies. I thought I would put a few examples of one cents coins. The production of the large coin ended in 1857. These coins would be replaced by the smaller sized Flying Eagle, which were the size of the modern one cent piece. Here I have five different styles of one cent pieces. All of them were made in the Philadelphia mint.

Shown here are a 1798, 1803, 1818, 1841, 1856. All are different and unique. Today when our one cent piece is made of zinc and coated with copper. It brings back the memory of a time when not only were the one cent pieces almost totally copper, but three times the size of a modern penny.

Saturday, January 04, 2014

A most unusual Spanish Mill Dollar, otherwise known as 8 Reals or Pieces of Eight.

This most unusual coin from 1797 was made by the government of Spain in Mexico. Mexico was under the control of Spain and also the Spanish were using the Silver found in the areas around Mexico and other parts of Central America.

 This type of coin was made for hundreds of years and would become the world's currency. In fact, many of these coins were made in Central America and then loaded onto Spanish Galleons. These ships would bring the silver to Spain where it would be used for many things. Specially to fund many of the activities of Spain at the time.. Many of the ships did not make it and sank with their most valuable cargoes. This happened many times and ships are still being found with this most precious cargo.  For every ship that was lost, many more made it and brought over to Spain millions of these coins over the years.

 These coins became as I said the standard currency of the world. The United States used these type coins to fund the American Revolution. They would also be legal tender in the United States till 1856. The silver dollar was based on this coin. In fact many of the coins in the United States were based on the Spanish coins of the period.. The 8 Reals was the basis for the silver dollar. it is the same size. The 4 Reals was the model for the half dollar and was the same size. Lastly, the two Reals was the model for the quarter and was the same size.

What's more about these coins and specially this one. Is that these coins traveled the world. On many ships going all over. This very coin you can see was in use for a while in China. It has what are called "chop marks" on it. These marks are Chinese characters that would be stamped on the coin to show it was a true silver coin. Every merchant in China would mark them. That is why this coin is so marked. This coin was from Mexico, was brought to Spain, was put into circulation and found itself in China. Where else it has been is only a mystery. But this is the best way to demonstrate how this coin was the currency of the world. 


A very well traveled 8 Reals coin from the Kingdom of Spain and currency of the world till the 19th century. So often we read about such coins in history, but rarely get to see them.  This is truly history in the raw, the real thing.