The Oldest Record

Recently we had the pleasure of viewing “Oz, the Great and Powerful,” the prequel to the 1939 classic movie, “The Wizard of Oz.” In it a shiesty, selfish carnival magician of questionable character named Oscar Diggs yearns for greatness like his hero, Thomas Edison. He revels in the inventions of Edison, showing examples of his moving pictures and marveling at the invention of the phonograph.

Being a record collector, the movie made me wonder myself about that early invention of Edison’s and the earliest recording that must have been sold. My research led me to find that initially Edison sold his recording machine to businessmen. With it they could record dictations which their secretaries could play back slowly to type correspondence and such. But that’s not what I was looking for—I wanted to find the first song that was recorded to be sold to the public. What I found surprised me.

Edison first had the idea in 1877, but it didn’t come into fruition until 1890—a doll that could talk. And while the goal was accomplished, it didn’t quite have the mass appeal for which he had hoped and to say it had a few bugs would be an understatement! First, it wasn’t cheap to make the doll and it wasn’t cheap to buy. A basic doll with a simple slip was $10 and one dressed like most little girls would want was $25—equivalent to a whole month’s salary or more. Intended for a child, the doll’s body was metal creating a toy that weighed four pounds—ummm duh.

The playing mechanism was similar to a phonograph, complete with hand crank. The direction was to crank with a gentle, steady speed which was not likely to happen when a child was operating the device. Also, the recording was made in such a way that it did not hold up to repeated use. Each recording had to be individually recorded since a way to duplicate the recording had not yet been invented. Young women were hired to sit and sing the same nursery rhyme over and over and over and over and over and over—you get the picture. The final product on some of the dolls was a less than ideal rendition of Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star and sometimes the exasperation in the young woman’s voice made it sound more like Mary had a %$&# Little Lamb—more scary than appealing to a young child. So in terms of monetary success, this venture was a flop.

But in hindsight, this invention was amazing! In fact, this was the first recorded song made to sell to the public and the young women who sat for endless hours repeatedly singing the same nursery rhymes were America’s first recording artists! The disks did not weather time well, but in 2011 scientists were able to create a way to listen to the oldest known disk, pictured above, by scanning and digitizing the images and the MP3 version is available on The Thomas Edison National Historic Park website for all to hear. The 123 year old recording of Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star has not been heard since Thomas Edison was alive—but you can hear it today. Now that really is a feat worthy of hero, maybe even the great and powerful Oz!

Ben Brown for Sienna’s Sandbox on Ruby Lane


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