The advent of sound recording both astonished and terrified Arthur Sullivan – astonished by its wonderful power, and terrified that “so much hideous and bad music may be put on record forever.”
For this comment, which has been put on record forever, we can thank George Edward Gouraud, an American war hero and a 19th century technology wonk.
George’s father, a French engineer, came to America in 1839 to introduce daguerreotype photography to the United States. Young George was born in 1842, and he was orphaned when both his parents died five years later. He fought for the U.S. Army in the American Civil War, and received the Medal of Honor for his bravery as a captain with the 3rd New York Volunteer Cavalry. He was later brevetted as a Lieutenant Colonel. After the War he became affiliated with famed inventor Thomas Edison, who was based in Menlo Park, New Jersey.
In 1873 George moved his family to England, to be Edison’s agent in Europe. Gouraud loved all the new electric inventions – he had so many electric marvels installed in his house at Beulah Hill, Upper Norwood, in South London that it became known as “Little Menlo,” after Edison’s place.
One of the cool new electric gadgets that Edison created was the “Perfected Phonograph” – perfected after more than a decade of experimentation (1877-1888) by Edison and a number of rival inventors (including Alexander Graham Bell), who worked to discover ways to capture and play back sounds. The “records,” as the wax cylinders were called then, were developed by both the Gramophone company and Edison. A patent-sharing arrangement allowed both to market the cylinders.
Gouraud received the Perfected Phonograph from Edison in 1888, and on August 14, 1888 he held a press conference at Little Menlo to introduce this latest technological advance to London. The event included a performance of Sir Arthur Sullivan’s “The Lost Chord” on piano and cornet – one of the first musical recordings ever made.
Sir Arthur Sullivan himself visited Little Menlo on 5 October 1888, as a guest at one of Gouraud’s “phonograph parties” for members of high society. After dinner, Sullivan recorded a speech to be sent to Thomas Edison, saying, in part:
I can only say that I am astonished and somewhat terrified at the result of this evening’s experiments: astonished at the wonderful power you have developed, and terrified at the thought that so much hideous and bad music may be put on record forever. But all the same I think it is the most wonderful thing that I have ever experienced, and I congratulate you with all my heart on this wonderful discovery.
In the years following, George Gouraud made several recordings of contemporaries, including Tennyson reading the Charge of the Light Brigade, and Florence Nightingale addressing her “dear old comrades of Balaclava.”
You may listen to the recordings online at https://www.nps.gov/edis/learn/photosmultimedia/very-early-recorded-sound.htm
Experts tell us that technology is advancing at an ever-increasing pace. It is amazing to me that almost 130 years ago, there was no way to record the sounds of the world around us. My aunt lived to be 100 years old, and her husband, my uncle, lived to 102 – so the invention of sound recording was made barely more than one long human lifetime ago.
Today, we can capture not only sounds but moving pictures as well with a press of a button on our phones.
What technologies have developed within your lifetime? Let me know in the comments.
Credits: Phonograph by Norman Bruderhofer, www.cylinder.de – own work (transferred from de:File:Phonograph.jpg), CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=427395
George Gouraud by Carlo Pellegrini – Published in Vanity Fair, 13 April 1889.This version from http://www.rare-prints.com/Vanity/little_menlo.htm, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10592645