Appropriate noises observing the centenary fo the phonograph are being made all around, but it is not exactly inappropriate to put on in Washington a show like the Library of Congress' "'A Wonderful Invention': A Brief History of the Phonograph from Tinfoil to the LP."
This is becuase in this supposedly sleeply Southern town of the late 19th century Washington scientist achieved two of the handful of technological accomplishemnts that made possible the evolution of the phonograph from the crude little tool Edison invented into a medium that has utterly changed our culture.
True, first pride of place goes to Menlo Park N.J. For it was at Edison's laboratory there, sometime in late autumn of 1877, that Edison wrapped a sheet of tinfoil around a newly-designed cylinder, set the needle, turned the crank, uttered into the mouthpiece that immortal banality, "Mary had a little lamb," then reversed the machine and, to his and everybody else's amazement, heard his words repeated back to hi. But Edison, who was partly deaf, saw the crude "talking machine" primarily as Georgetown, where in the mid-1890s a business dictation device rather than a purveyer of mass culture. Thus it would fall mostly to others to refine the phonograph.
One of the first came from Alexander Graham Bell's laboratory in he and two associates set out to find a material to produce a better sound then the tinkly tinfoil. The result was the result was the Bell-Tainter cylinder, which substituted cardboard coated with wax and gve sharper, better defined sound. The company with which they marketed it, American Graphophone, is still with us - as Columbia Records.
But the more important event was achieved in 1887 by Emile Berliner, a German refugee who started out here a penniless dry-goods store clerk and got so rich from inventing an improved phone transmitter that he could putter at leisure in his Columbia Road mansion. One of those putterings was the disc, which challenged Edison's cylinder as a reproducing tool and was eventually to become the dominant form that recordings were to take. He called it the "gramophone" just as Edison called the cylinder the "phonograph." The importance of Berliner's accomplishment was not immediately grasped by most but its significance is stated succinctly in Roland Gelatt's "The Fabulous Phonograph": "The gramophone was a simpler, more rugged mechanism, it could lay claim to the immense superiority of easily duplicated records made of tough, resistant material (they didn't figure out a way to mass-produce cylinders until years later): it reproduced sound with far greater volume and, consequently, was better suited for home entertainment.
It was Berliner who had at last sensed the cultural potential of reordings, and after a long battle with a stubbon Edison, Berliner triumphed. He set up the United States Gramophone Co. at 1410 14 St. NW. and that venerable organization, too, is still with us - as RCA Victor. It's our misfortune that the two companies that were to control American recording for most of the century chose to leave town.
The Library's show, which runs until Sept. 30, is also an appropriate centenary gesture becuase it draws upon one of the most formidable collections of records and record lore ever assembled. The record library now has700,000 recordings (librarians say the BBC library in London is the only one larger) and there are countless books, prints, photographs and manuscripts.
Such museum shows about the lively arts tend to suffer from the fact that they are static, but what they are about is not. In "A Wonderful Invention" the Library has somewhat circumvented this problem by setting up 6 listening booths with numerous earphones from which visitors can sample 58 brief selections from a fabulous collection. A few examples: Edison himself reciting "Mary had a little lamb": Sousa conducting "El Capitan" in 1899: a Passamaquoddy Indian chant recorded in 1890; a Warren Harding speech, and a full representation fo Caruso (the phonograph's first great star) Ponselle, Gershwin, Crosby, bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong.
Two of the most arresting rarities from the collection were demonstrated to reporters yesterday. Rembert Herbert sang a sonorous "Rose of Tralee" into a turn-of-the-century Edison machine, and the sound that came back out might as well have been coming from Mars. Also demonstrated was a "stoviol," an amplified sort of violin that came from the acoustic recording days when instruments had to be amplified becuase the sound on the disc couldn't be.
The 100 items in the show include models of early talking machines, wax cylinder and disc recordings, music company catalogs and labels, patents, advertisments, and so on.
All told, "A Welcome Invention" is a welcome show, reminding us that one of the things we have to be thankful for is to be living in the record century.