Monday, March 12, 2007
March 11, 2007
Edison the Inventor, Edison the Showman
By RANDALL STROSS
This article was adapted from “The Wizard of Menlo Park: How Thomas Alva Edison Invented the Modern World,” by Randall Stross, a contributor to The New York Times. The book, to be published on Tuesday by Crown Publishers, examines the reality and the myths surrounding the Edison legacy.
THOMAS ALVA EDISON is the patron saint of electric light, electric power and music-on-demand, the grandfather of the Wired World, great-grandfather of iPod Nation. He was the person who flipped the switch. Before Edison, darkness. After Edison, media-saturated modernity.
Well, not exactly. The heroic biography we were fed as schoolchildren does have its limitations, beginning with the omission of other inventors who played critical roles — not just Edison’s gifted assistants, but also his accomplished competitors. What’s most interesting about the standard Edison biography that we grew up with is not that it is heroic but that it is outsized, a projected image quite distinct from the man who stood 5-foot-9.
Edison is famously associated with the beginnings of movies, which is where the modern business of celebrity begins. But he deserves to be credited with another, no less important, discovery related to celebrity that he made early in his own public life, accidentally: the application of celebrity to business.
No one of the time would have predicted that it would be an inventor, of all occupations, who would become the cynosure of the age. In retrospect, fame may appear to be a justly earned reward for the inventor of practical electric light in 1879 — yet Edison’s fame came before light. It was conferred two years earlier, for the invention of the phonograph. Who would have guessed that the announcement of the phonograph’s invention was sufficient to propel him in a matter of a few days from obscurity into the firmament above?
After “Edison” became a household name, he would pretend that nothing had changed, that he was as indifferent as ever. But this stance is unconvincing. He did care, at least most of the time. When he tried to burnish his public image with exaggerated claims of progress in his laboratory, for example, he demonstrated a hunger for credit unknown in his earliest tinkering. The mature Edison, post-fame, is most appealing whenever he returned to acting spontaneously, without weighing what action would serve to enhance his public image.
One occasion when Edison cast off the expectations of others in his middle age was when he met Henry Stanley, of “Dr. Livingston, I presume” fame, and Stanley’s wife, who had come to visit him at his laboratory in West Orange, N.J. Edison provided a demonstration of the phonograph, which Stanley had never heard before. Stanley asked, in a low voice and slow cadence, “Mr. Edison, if it were possible for you to hear the voice of any man whose name is known in the history of the world, whose voice would you prefer to hear?”
“Napoleon’s,” replied Edison without hesitation.
“No, no,” Stanley said piously, “I should like to hear the voice of our Savior.”
“Well,” explained Edison, “You know, I like a hustler.”
Edison had retained the patent rights and business stakes in the phonograph, so when the business came into its own, he approved the construction of expanded manufacturing facilities adjacent to his laboratory to handle the orders that poured in. This was followed by still more growth, and more building: an entire block adjacent to the laboratory was filled with five-story hulks. By 1907, as the company erected its 16th building, Edison boasted of “the largest talking machine factory in the world.”
An advertisement for Thomas Edison’s phonograph in 1899 was geared toward the upper class. But other Edison ads were intended to draw in the middle class. [photo Library of Congress]
Edison and his copywriters courted the urban middle class with advertising that made prospective customers feel as entitled to enjoy the pleasures of recorded music as anyone. “When the king of England wants to see a show, they bring the show to the castle and he hears it alone in his private theater.” So said an advertisement in 1906 for the Edison phonograph. It continued: “If you are a king, why don’t you exercise your kingly privilege and have a show of your own in your own house.”
Other advertisements developed the theme of the phonograph as the great leveler. In 1908, a man in formal wear and his slender wife stood on one side of a table, upon which sat a phonograph; on the other side stood four servants, wearing smiles and expressions of curiosity. The caption said the Edison phonograph had brought the same entertainment enjoyed by the rich within the range of all. The credit for making the phonograph “the great popular entertainer” was to be bestowed upon Thomas Edison. “He made it desirable by making it good; he made it popular by making it inexpensive.” Another advertisement promised that the phonograph would “amuse the most unresponsive,” adding reverently, “It is irresistible because Edison made it.”
IN truth, the Edison phonograph fell short of being irresistible; nor did it lead the industry in technical innovation. It was the Victor Talking Machine Company that made discs a practical medium. The disc’s flat dimensions offered a more convenient means of storing many songs than the three-dimensional Edison cylinder. It was Victor that came up with a disc that offered four minutes of capacity when Edison’s cylinder’s had only two minutes. And it was Victor that introduced the Victrola, which hid the horn of the phonograph within a wood cabinet, transforming it into a piece of fine furniture — and a very profitable item for its manufacturer.
Edison’s offerings may have lagged, but such was the demand for kingly entertainment enjoyed at home that the Edison Phonograph Works prospered along with Victor and Columbia, the companies that with Edison comprised the dominant three in the industry. Edison’s cylinder, which cost about 7 cents to manufacture, sold for 50 cents, providing a nice gross margin that covered all manner of strategic missteps. One of those was Edison’s conviction that there was no need to switch to discs. When he finally gave in and brought out discs, he could not bring himself to relinquish cylinders, so resources had to be spread across two incompatible formats. Nor would he permit his standards for sound quality to be compromised. He insisted that his discs be twice the thickness of those produced by the competition and much heavier, which provided for better sound but made them far more cumbersome.
Edison was adamant that Edison recordings would be played only on Edison phonographs. His competitors, Victor and Columbia, shared the same playback technique, etching a laterally cut groove that sent the needle moving horizontally as the record played. Their recordings could be played on one another’s machines. Edison, however, adopted his own design, a groove that varied vertically, called at the time a “hill and dale” cut. An adapter permitted Victor records to be played on an Edison Disc Phonograph, but Edison forbade the sale of an attachment that permitted his records to be played on competitors’ machines.
Edison had never shown a talent for strategy, and he did not give the subject close study. He spent most of his time working on problems related to industrial chemistry, principally those related to batteries, and, secondarily, those related to mass production of cylinders and discs. Yet he did take time to make decisions about music, personally approving — and, more often, disapproving — the suggestions of underlings about which performers should be recorded. His dislike of various musical genres and artists was strong and encompassed almost everything. Popular music — “these miserable dance and ragtime selections” — had no chance of receiving his blessing. Jazz was for “the nuts;” one performance reminded him of “the dying moan of dead animals.” But he was no elitist. He also dismissed the members of the Metropolitan Opera House as lacking tune. Sergei Rachmaninoff was just “a pounder.”
In 1911, Edison wrote a correspondent that he had had to take on the responsibilities of musical director for his company because the incumbent had made what Edison deemed to be awful decisions, permitting players to play out of tune and, most egregiously, tolerating a defective flute that “on high notes gives a piercing abnormal sound like machinery that wants oiling.”
To Edison, the technical problems posed in recording sound by purely mechanical means, prior to the development of the microphone, were far more absorbing than business issues. He allocated his time accordingly. He spent a year and a half overseeing research on how to record and clearly reproduce the word “sugar” perfectly. Two more months were needed to master “scissors.” He wrote, “After that the phonograph would record and reproduce anything.” This was not wholly true. Recording an orchestra with pre-electric acoustic technology presented insoluble problems. He did his best, ordering the construction of the world’s largest brass recording horn, 128 feet long, 5 feet in diameter at the end that received sound, tapering down to 5/8 of an inch at the other. Its construction required 30,000 rivets alone, each carefully smoothed on the interior surface. It was a marvel of metalwork, but as an instrument for recording sound, it never worked very well. (It did serve its country well, however, being sent off for service in World War II in a scrap drive.)
Edison’s partial loss of hearing prevented him from listening to music in the same way as those with unimpaired hearing. A little item that appeared in a Schenectady newspaper in 1913 related the story that Edison supposedly told a friend about how he usually listened to recordings by placing one ear directly against the phonograph’s cabinet. But if he detected a sound too faint to hear in this fashion, Edison said, “I bite my teeth in the wood good and hard and then I get it good and strong.” The story would be confirmed decades later in his daughter Madeleine’s recollections of growing up. One day she came into the sitting room in which someone was playing the piano and a guest, Maria Montessori, was in tears, watching Edison listen the only way that he could, teeth biting the piano. “She thought it was pathetic,” Madeleine said. “I guess it was.”
EDISON, though, was undaunted by the limitations of his hearing, which would make for an inspirational tale, were it not for the fact that he was the self-appointed musical director of a profit-seeking record business, whose artistic decisions directly affected the employees of the Edison Phonograph Works. His judgments and whims met no obstruction.
Workers spread word daily about Edison’s mood. “The Old Man is feelin’ fine today” was welcome news. But if the word was “the Old Man’s on the rampage,” employees dove for cover, “as in a cyclone cellar, until the tempest was over.”
Not just his employees but also the general public angered Edison. He was exasperated by a public that clamored, he said, “for louder and still louder records.” He believed that “anyone who really had a musical ear wanted soft music.” And it was those customers, the “lovers of good music,” whom Edison in 1911 said would be “the only constant and continuous buyers of records.” This was wishful thinking. What was plainly evident to everyone else was that the only constant in the music business was inconstancy, the fickle nature of popular fads. The half-life of a commercially successful song was brief. By the time Edison’s factory shipped the first records three weeks after recording, the flighty public had already moved on.
Even then, in the founding years of the recorded-music business, the economics of the industry was based upon hits, the few songs that enjoyed an unpredictably large success and subsidized the losses incurred by the other releases. On rare occasions, Edison grudgingly granted this. Then he would concede that the popular music he disdained was in most demand, and he took what comfort he could in the thought that the “trash” his company reluctantly released did help to sell phonographs and indirectly help him to provide “music of the class that is enjoyed by real lovers of music.”
This business was not so easily mastered, however, and the contempt with which Edison regarded popular music did not help him understand his customers. They would purchase the records of particular performers whom they had heard of but shied away from the unknown artists. Decades later, economists who studied the workings of the entertainment industry would identify the winner-take-all phenomenon that benefited a handful of performers. The famous become more famous, and the more famous, the richer. Everyone else faces starvation. This was the case at the turn of the 20th century, too.
The management of the Victor Talking Machine Company understood these basic market principles long before Edison absorbed them. Shortly after the company’s founding in 1901, Victor signed Enrico Caruso to an exclusive contract, paying him a royalty that was rumored to be 25 percent of the $2 retail price of a Caruso record. His estimated annual earnings from royalties in 1912 was $90,000, at a time when the second most popular singer earned only $25,000.
At the same time Victor was writing checks for the leading talents of the day, Edison brought out his checkbook reluctantly and rarely. One exception was when, in 1910, he signed the woman who way back on a wintry night in 1879 had visited his Menlo Park laboratory: Sarah Bernhardt.
In the Edison Phonograph Monthly, the company’s internal trade organ, much was made of the difficulties that had had to be overcome in order to land an artist such as Bernhardt. She had had to be persuaded to discard her “professional aversion to exploiting her talent in this manner.” The monetary terms supposedly were not an issue. The sticking point was her concern that crude recording technology would leave posterity with a sound inferior to her voice. According to the company’s publicists, a demonstration of the phonograph persuaded her that Edison would produce “perfect records.” The company urged dealers to write their local newspapers and reap free publicity: “No paper will refuse to publish the news, as everything that the immortal Bernhardt does is eagerly seized upon by the press.”
We do not know whether Bernhardt ruled out commercial considerations. (She did endorsements for commercial products like a dentifrice for a fee, but she did draw the line when P. T. Barnum offered her $10,000 for the rights to display a medical curiosity: her amputated leg.) We do know that Edison hated the negotiations with recording stars, which entailed monetary demands far in excess of what Edison considered reasonable. He complained that despite their talk about their love for their art, “it is money, and money only, that counts.” Even the large sums paid to the most famous failed to secure their loyalty. He grumbled that artists would bolt “for a little more money offered by companies whose strongest advertising point is a list of names.”
EDISON convinced himself — without consulting others, in typical fashion — that he could simply opt out of competition for stars. He tried a small-budget alternative, scouting undiscovered voices among local choirs in Orange, N.J., and Newark. He wrote a correspondent in 1911, “I believe if you record church choir singers and musical club, glee club, etc., singers, that we shall be able to discover a lot of talent just suitable for the phonograph.” He was pleased to have found locally two tenors who “can beat any opera tenor except Caruso.” Over time, Edison did add Anna Case, Sergei (“the Pounder”) Rachmaninoff and a few others. But he permitted competitors to snatch up other performers like Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Fannie Brice and Al Jolson. The first record to sell one million copies was Vernon Dalhart’s hillbilly ditty “The Prisoner’s Song.” Not surprisingly, it was a Victor recording, not an Edison.
The fame of the performers whom Victor Talking Machines astutely signed did more than bolster record sales; it also added great luster to Victor’s brand. A “Victrola” soon replaced “phonograph” as the generic term, a development that caused Edison considerable distress.
Edison dealers grumbled among themselves, too. The Topeka, Kan., agency, for example, complained in early 1915 to the one in Des Moines, “We have no artists of any note on the Edison.” It fell to Edison’s salespeople to explain their absence on the Edison label. A sales manual from this time laid out the company’s defense, which directed the public’s attention to “the great Wizard” who personally tested voice samples using techniques of his own devising and selected “those voices which are most worthy of re-creation by his new art.” Only the voice, not the reputation, mattered to the Wizard.
So determined was Edison to strip artists of their vanity and unreasonable demands that he refused to print the name of the recording artist on the record label. When his dealer in Topeka asked him to reconsider, Edison let loose a torrent of pent-up opinion:
“I am sure you will give me the credit of having put a tremendous amount of thought into the phonograph business after the many years that I have been engaged on it. Not alone to the technical side of the business have I given an immense amount of thought but also to the commercial side, and I want to say to you that I have most excellent reasons for not printing the name of the artist on the record. Your business has probably not brought you into intimate contact with musicians, but mine has. There is a great deal of ‘faking’ and press agent work in the musical profession, and I feel that for the present at least I would rather quit the business than be a party to the boasting up of undeserved reputations.”
Edison wrote this in 1913, when he was 66 years old. His confidence in his business acumen had, if anything, grown over time. And in taking this stand, he reveals a nature that could not see the inconsistency: Here his own companies used his fame as the Wizard to market his inventions, prominently displaying his name and driving off anyone who threatened to infringe the trademark. But he could not abide others — in this case, his own recording artists — using fame, even though much more modest, for their own commercial interests.