A blast from the past

The Prague Post

The Czech Museum of Music acquires an original Edison phonograph

For sheer novelty, there is no better viewing in town than the antique instrument collection at the Czech Museum of Music. The collection recently got even better with the addition of a prized item: an original Thomas Edison phonograph.

“The phonograph is highly important to the museum, because it has remained in an almost authentic state,” says Markéta Kabelková, a member of the museum’s department of musical history. “Preservation of this exceptional machine and unique collection of cylinders supports one of the main aims of the museum — preservation of the tangible essence of musical history.”

Edison’s invention of the phonograph grew out of his fascination with telegraphy. In 1877, he was working on a machine that would automatically record telegraph messages by making indentations on a cylinder wrapped in tinfoil. He sketched out his idea, and his mechanic John Kreusi supposedly built the prototype in 30 hours.

Sound was almost an afterthought, and Edison was amazed at how clearly the machine reproduced his voice. While recorded music was one of the uses he envisioned for the new contraption, he thought its primary role would be for dictation and other language-related uses.

The phonograph came into the museum’s hands as a generous donation from GE Money, as a celebration of the company’s 10th anniversary in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. It wasn’t a randomly chosen gift.

“We wanted to express the idea that in some aspects we [GE Money and the Czech Museum of Music] resemble each other,” explains Roman Frkous, GE Money’s communications leader. “GE Money also has great historic roots, but its face is youthful, trendy and, we hope, also a bit artistic.”

Given that image and aim, Frkous says it wasn’t difficult to come up with the phonograph as the bank’s gift of choice. And it comes with an important historic footnote.

“Thomas Alva Edison was one of the founders of General Electric, the company to which we belong,” Frkous notes.

GE Money acquired the phonograph at an auction in Germany and had it repaired. The staff at the museum is quite pleased with the results.

“The phonograph has a high level of technical standard,” says Vojtech Mojžíš, curator of music recordings at the museum. “The machine still works; it can record and play.”

The phonograph uses specially designed cylinders. The museum has in its possession about 1,100 such cylinders, which makes the donation even more special for Mojžíš.

“Our cylinder collection includes amateur Czech recordings of local opera and other singers from the first decade of the 20th century,” he says.

Among those are recordings made by a National Theater singer Čeněk Tondal, who loved to throw parties. He’d invite colleagues to his house and record them singing. After a long and winding trip, his cylinders ended up in the Czech Museum of Music.

“Tondal’s cylinders first went into a radio station’s archive,” Mojžíš explains. “They didn’t know what to do with them, so they donated them to the National Museum, who didn’t have anything to play them on. Eventually they came to us.”

Don’t expect to hear the cylinders on the new phonograph, though. The museum is meticulous at preserving every bit of music it can get its hands on, whether recorded or printed. Kabelková says playing the old cylinders on the machine would be damaging to both.

“The cylinder is similar to a record, but more complicated,” Mojžíš says. “Cylinders were expensive; records were easier to produce and that’s why they were replaced.”

Sound quality wasn’t initially an issue, as the phonograph’s primary appeal to the office market extended well into the 1920s. The quality of music recordings was quirky at best.

“It was a primitive standard of sound recording,” Mojžíš says. “Brass instruments generally recorded well, but not all did. Piano is bad; whistling is almost perfect.”

As curator of music recordings, however, Mojžíš is delighted with the donation, as it fits many of the museum’s purposes.

“We are very grateful to have it,” he says. “It’s an important example of the evolution and documentation of the history of sound recording.”