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Thomas Edison and the sound of electricity

Join us at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, where we’re examining this painting of Thomas Edison as part of our Smithsonian Treasures project.

Painted during Thomas Alva Edison’s visit to Paris for the Universal Exposition of 1889, Abraham A. Anderson’s portrait depicts the wealthy entrepreneur at the height of his career.

World-renowned for his inventions-including the phonograph, incandescent lamp, and movie camera-Edison, who received numerous honours in Europe, presided over one of the most popular exhibitions at the exposition.

Particularly intriguing to audiences was Edison’s phonograph, the recent improvement of which Anderson chose to picture.

Although Edison patented the device in 1877, earning himself the title of the “Wizard of Menlo Park,” eleven years passed before he achieved sufficient clarity of sound to make it commercially viable.

Using the word “specie” as a test, Edison laboured until it could be properly transmitted. “When that was done,” Edison reported, “I knew everything else could be done, which was a fact.”

“In this piece I was interested in exploring Edison’s early wax cylinder phonograph recordings, as depicted in the painting.

“As the first recording technology designed to be listened back to, these wax cylinders arguably begin the trajectory that leads us here, to the proliferation of public access to audio recording, to Skype calls, to hearing loved ones and colleagues over distance, whether a street or an ocean away.

“In the painting of Edison, I find the broken cylinder in the foreground particularly evocative of a continued struggle with the inbuilt fragility and unreliability of recording mediums through history, and a reminder of our human persistence to have our voices heard.

“The two recordings most decipherable in the piece are both Edison: the first is the earliest known recording of his voice (Around The World On A Phonograph, 1888), and the second is the first public recording he made of his own voice (Let Us Not Forget, 1919). The drone texture in the first half of the piece is a sample from the first, when he says ‘goodbye’, and the orchestral drone is the introduction to “It’s a long way to Tipperary” (both stretched ~60x using PaulXStretch).

“All cylinder recordings are courtesy of the USCB Cylinder Audio Archive (I highly recommend having a listen around that site). Other samples throughout the piece are from my own malfunctioning audio equipment.”