A Spiral Way: How the Phonograph Changed Ethnography

A Spiral Way: How the Phonograph Changed Ethnography

A Spiral Way: How the Phonograph Changed Ethnography

A Spiral Way: How the Phonograph Changed Ethnography


The invention of the cylinder phonograph at the end of the nineteenth century opened up a new world for cultural research. Indeed, Edison's talking machine became one of the basic tools of anthropology. It not only equipped researchers with the means of preserving folk songs but it also enabled them to investigate a wide spectrum of distinct vocal expressions in the emerging fields of anthropology and folklore. Ethnographers grasped its huge potential and fanned out through regional America to record rituals, stories, word lists, and songs in isolated cultures. From the outset the federal government helped fuel the momentum to record cultures that were at risk of being lost. Through the Bureau of American Ethnology, the Smithsonian Institution took an active role in preserving native heritage. It supported projects to make phonographic documentation of American Indian language, music, and rituals before developing technologies and national expression might further undermine them.

This study of the early phonograph's impact shows traditional ethnography being transformed, for attitudes of both ethnographers and performers were reshaped by this exciting technology. In the presence of the phonograph, both fieldwork and the materials collected were revolutionized. By radically altering the old research modes, the phonograph brought the disciplines of anthropology and folklore into the modern era.

At first the instrument was as strange and new to the fieldworkers as it was to their subjects. To some the first encounter with the phonograph was a deeply unsettling experience. When it was demonstrated in 1878 before members of the National Academy of Sciences, several members of theaudience fainted. Even its inventor was astonished. Of his first successful test of his tinfoil phonograph, Thomas A. Edison said, "I was never taken so aback in my life."

The cylinders that have survived from these times offer a


The imagination of Thomas Alva Edison was fertile but not fanciful. He was a forward-looking pragmatist. No sooner had he developed a working model for a talking machine than he was listing for entranced reporters the "illimitable possibilities" and "numerous probabilities" by which the so-called phonograph would improve the future of mankind, and, not in the least incidentally, reap a fortune for its inventor (Edison 1878:527). What a richly tinted vision of a new era he painted! Like many nineteenth-century optimists, he anticipated changes in the trappings and protocols of a familiar world, not the transformation of that world into something wholly new. His projections dwelt complacently on the twin realms of industry and domesticity so dear to the late-nineteenth-century spirit. For the improvement of one's hours of business, the phonograph would provide a tireless mechanical amanuensis: the businessman of the future would record his correspondence onto wax cylinders, from which a secretary would later type the letters. Outside the office, the phonograph would provide instruction in languages, serious entertainment through recordings of the best music, and perhaps -- the genius of Edison stooped reluctantly to the thought -- the voice of a child's doll (1878:531-36; Read and Welch 1959:11-24). The machine was a genie who would streamline the business world, and then enrich and enliven the hours of leisure purchased by this efficiency by capturing and preserving "fugitive sound waves" (Edison 1878:530).

A man of affairs and futurist whose mind only restlessly inhabited the present, Edison understandably overlooked in these vivid depictions a use for the phonograph that was intrinsically backward looking, one that would bring only slender profit to the infant recording industry. No gaudy campaign breathlessly promoted the phonograph as a tool to preserve the religious and aesthetic expressions of cultures undergoing radical change in the 1890s. Unheralded then, and largely overlooked now, this process of preservation . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.