Edison’s amazing talking machine

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WARREN — James Valesky brought his personal collection of Edison and Victrola phonographs to the Warren Heritage Center for his recent lecture, “Thomas Edison’s Amazing Talking Machine.”

“He invented the talking machine in 1877,” Valesky said of Edison. “It was actually by accident. They were working on other things — telegraphs, telephones and all those things — and he was thinking that, Ok, maybe we can capture this (sound) and record it in some way.”

Valesky, a history enthusiast and president of the Warren Heritage Center, explained that Edison attached a needle to a diaphragm and pressed the needle to a rotating cylinder covered in tin foil, and the recording was able to be played back.

“You could make out distinct sounds, but it was not high fidelity by any means,” Valesky said of early tin foil cylinder recordings. He said Edison put the idea “back on the shelf” for around two decades because he didn’t believe it was commercially viable — though Edison did take his machine on tour in 1878.

“He just amazed the world with how cool it was.”

At the turn of the 20th century, Edison started selling the machines to the public, Valesky said. He had first intended the machines to capture notes and speeches, like a dictaphone, but eventually realized there was a market for people to listen to music.

After the cylinder machines became popular, another format emerged — machines that played flat discs. Typically referred to as Victrolas, the predecessors to the modern record player were purely mechanical, with no electricity involved. More robust and more user-friendly, that style of player eventually became more popular than the more complicated cylinder machines, Valesky explained.

Valesky’s collection includes both Edison cylinder machines and Victrolas from the late 1800s and early 1900s, some of which are always on display at the Kinsman House. For his lecture, he brought in a factory-original 1905 Edison Home phonograph, which can play two minute and four minute celluloid cylinders.

His smaller Edison Standard machine plays two minute wax cylinders, which are easier to find in good condition than the celluloid ones, Valesky said.

The roughly 20 people in attendance at the lecture had the opportunity to examine cylinders and discs, and start and stop the machines.

“I don’t want people to be afraid of the machines,” Valesky said, adding the phonographs were made to be handled by the average person. “They’re very, very resilient.”

Valesky said he chose the topic for the lecture because people should understand the history and how items taken for granted today began with discoveries long ago.

The phonograph was important in its time not only because it led to modern sound recording and playing, but also because it allowed people to preserve sound.

“They’re like time machines,” Valesky said of the machines. “You were able to capture a moment in time and save it for future generations.”

Valesky’s talk last week was one in a series of recent Warren Heritage Center lectures at the Kinsman House on Mahoning Avenue in Warren.

“Overhearing people talking about the lecture after the fact, they were really enthused,” said Warren Heritage board member Melanie Vincent, an organizer of the nonprofit’s lecture series.

Vincent said the goal of the lectures is simply to spread knowledge.

The next scheduled talk at the Warren Heritage Center is “Victorian Valentines” at 6 p.m. Feb. 11. Warren historical players Dr. Ronald Brooks and Dr. Gregory George will talk about the origin of the modern Valentine’s Day celebration.

A two-day lecture series celebrating Black History Month is scheduled for 6 p.m. Feb. 21 and 22. On the first night, local artist Sonja Davenport will talk about African-American art. The next evening, a black history lecture by Warren Mayor Doug Franklin will be followed by a visit from Frederick Douglass, portrayed by Carlos Rush.

All Warren Heritage Center lectures are free and open to the public.

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