Thomas Edison’s Whistling Spasm

Colonel George Edward Gouraud (1841-1912) father of Aimée Crocker’s third husband was, like her, an internationally known personality. He was famous first and foremost as Thomas Edison’s agent. Edison and his history altering inventions required a larger than life salesman to demonstrate their applications and far-reaching possibilities. He needed an emissary who possessed oratory gifts and who understood the art and science of persuasion.

George Gouraud from a Boston Post article, 1904

An ardent, vigorous, and patriotic young man, Gouraud enlisted on the side of freedom when the slave war broke out and fought with distinction, rising to the rank of Colonel. Once his time in the military came to an end, George worked as the British agent for the investors in the Automatic Telegraph Company. He met the great inventor Thomas Edison in April of 1873 when he was working for Western Union in London. Five years later George would sail to the U.S. to re-establish his relationship with Edison. The inventor was duly impressed and Gouraud was appointed his agent that year. The Colonel became Edison’s partner and sole representative in England for the telephone and the electric light.

Edison’s original phonograph design, at the time, suffered from a number of defects, one of which was its inability to play at an appropriate volume. At George’s insistence, Thomas went to work on an updated model. Once finished, George had an ambitious plan to market and sell it in Europe.

On June 16, 1888, following a 72-hour marathon work session, Edison completed his perfected phonograph. A photograph was taken at 5 a.m. that would be sent around the world to commemorate the occasion, depicting an exhausted Edison surrounded by his team, included George. A recording Edison made that morning was then sent to England by mail steamship.

In an article for The Times, George wrote:

At 2 o’clock this afternoon, at the address below, I had the honor to receive from Mr. Edison his perfected phonograph, which, on the authority of Mr. Edison’s own familiar voice, communicated by the phonograph itself, is the first instrument of his latest model that has been seen outside of his laboratory or has left his hands and is consequently the first to reach this country.

The first public exhibition of the phonograph in England took place at the Crystal Palace on June 29th at the Ninth Triennial Handel Festival. George recorded a chorus of 4,000 voices from over 100 yards away. Prior to that event, a private viewing was given at the Colonel’s home, which he called Little Menlo (in honor of Edison’s Menlo Park laboratory in New Jersey) in the presence of a distinguished gathering. The entertainment that evening consisted of various musical items specially chosen to display the phonograph’s remarkable capabilities, a message from Edison, an address to the London press from the phonograph itself, and a salutation also having originated from the “talking machine.” George asked his poet brother-in-law, the Rev. Horatio Nelson Powers to compose and recite into the machine a poem for the occasion:

The Phonograph’s Salutation

I seize the palpitating air. I hoard
Music and speech. All lips that speak are mine.
I speak, and the inviolable word
Authenticates its origin and sign.
I am a tomb, a paradise, a throne,
An angel, prophet, slave, immortal friend:
My living records in their native tone
Convict the knave and disputations end.
In me are souls embalmed. I am an ear
Flawless as Truth; and Truth’s own tongue am I.
I am a resurrection, and men hear
The quick and dead converse, as I reply.
Hail, English shores and homes and marts of peace!
New trophies, Gouraud, yet are to be won.
May “sweetness,” “light” and “brotherhood” increase!
I am the youngest born of Edison.

Thomas Alva Edison was no slouch when it came to promoting himself and his new apparatus. Two months after Crystal Palace, under the inspiring influence of popular appreciation and on the occasion of a formal very handsome reception at Col. Gouraud’s beautiful villa, Mr. Edison furnished a transatlantic revue that showcased some of his hidden talents. Edison first gave a speech about his inaugural visit to England 18 years earlier. He then cracked a few jokes about English politics and climate. Edison went on to wow the crowd by reciting “Bingen on the Rhine,” and then followed that up with, “a most extraordinary whistling spasm.” The inventor finished by singing a funeral march and then his own rendition of “Mary had a Little Lamb.” The crowd marveled at how Mr. Edison, “was not entirely present, but he was not entirely absent.”

“The perplexity of the company over the human voice and its absent owner, 3,000 miles away, was very great,” reported The New York Times.

“We have unbottled your voice, and its echo has resounded throughout Europe,” Gouraud cabled back to New Jersey. Subsequent recordings by George in London are among the oldest surviving recorded sound.

Drawing from the Illustrated London News depicts Gouraud and his family at Little Menlo listening to Edison’s voice, with the inventor’s picture on the stand to the left and the American flag and Civil War memorabilia decorating the mantelpiece

George’s flashy home at Beulah Hill in South London, Little Menlo, was an all-electric house, the first in England. It was a carnival of gadgetry. The compound boasted not only the ability to provide lighting, but to clean the Colonel’s boots and scrub his carpets all via electricity. When the door to a room was opened, the lights would turn on. He kept an electric launch driven by storage batteries for his boat docked on the River Thames. The Colonel rode a tricycle operated by an electric motor. He rigged a direct connection to the Crystal Palace, so that he was able to listen to live concerts from the comfort of his home. The billiard room was, according to The New York Times, converted into “a combination of a ballroom, theatre, music room, studio, reading room, salle d’armes and hall of science,” and it was here that the haut ton were invited to wonder at Mr. Edison’s latest contrivances. Gouraud decorated the house with photographs of Fort Sumter, portraits of Washington, Grant, Lincoln, Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis (hung upside down) and further war stained accoutrements. While entertaining, Gouraud typically donned his cavalry uniform and corps badges.

Col. George Gouraud, in uniform

The Colonel regularly threw “phonograph bacchanalia.” Gouraud beguiled all manner of famous names to record into his phonograph for publicity purposes for what he referred to as his “Library of Voices.” His intention was to interview a hundred eminent Victorians, hopefully including the Queen herself. Gouraud’s favorite technique was to invite an interviewee to dinner, relax him with a sufficiency of wine, and present him with the recording aperture of the phonograph comfortably within reach of his mouth.

Among the guests who Gouraud lured into his “recording studio” were Robert Browning, who rendered his poem: “How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix,” Alfred Lord Tennyson who read “Charge of the Light Brigade” and Sarah Bernhardt who declaimed Racine’s Phedre.

School girls experiencing the new phonograph technology

In November of 1888, at Harrow School for boys in north west London, a 14-year-old Winston Churchill heard a “very amusing” lecture by a Colonel Gouraud, whose sons attended the school. Aimée’s husband, Jackson, was in his class. His show-and-tell lecture introduced the boys to the recent American invention of the phonograph. George demonstrated the newfangled contraption by singing into it, then replaying his song to the astonished children in class.

Churchill wrote his mother and father, “It was very amusing. He astonished all sober-minded people by singing into the phonograph: ‘John Brown’s body lies moldy in the grave. And his soul goes marching on. Glory, glory, glory, Hallelujah.’ And the phonograph spoke it back in a voice that was clearly audible in the Speech Room.” The stirring music and the mere presence of a soldier who had fought in one of history’s great battles seem to have fired Churchill’s imagination. This experience is thought to have influenced his decision more than fifty years later to direct that “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” be sung at his funeral.

Winston Churchill attended Harrow School for boys with the Gouraud brothers. He was mesmerized by the demonstration of the phonograph by Col. George Gouraud.

Shortly before Christmas, 1888, the Duke of Cambridge became the first member of the royal family to record into the phonograph. Not long afterwards, the Colonel scored another royal when he interviewed the exiled Prince Jérôme Napoléon. Later, Armenian-Iranian diplomat Mirza Malkam Khan would recite a piece from the Persian poet Hafiz to a delighted crowd during a visit to the Manor of Earl Brownlow.

A Vanity Fair profile in 1889 conveyed Gouraud’s energy and marketing savvy. Soon he would be an international celebrity himself and become the world’s first talk show host. To be interviewed by Gouraud on the phonograph had become fashionable. From his Library of Voices, fans could hear Welsh journalist and explorer Henry Morton Stanley, Phineas T. Barnum and Florence Nightingale.

Stage actor Henry Irving marveled at the new invention commenting, “You speak into it and everything is recorded, voice, tone, intonation, everything. You turn a little wheel, and forth it comes, and can be repeated ten thousand times. Only fancy what this suggests. Wouldn’t you like to have heard the voice of Shakespeare, or Jesus Christ?’ Composer Sir Arthur Sullivan took a different, more humorous stance. In a toast to Edison at Gouraud’s house he said: “I can only say that I am astonished and somewhat terrified at the results of this evening’s experiment. 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.” He was perhaps more prescient than he could have ever imagined.

Among politicians, the Speaker of the House of Commons, Arthur Peel, had been one of Gouraud’s earliest interviewees; Prime Minister William Gladstone gave his first phonograph interview in 1889, in the form of a talk.

Gouraud saw to it that heads of state and other prominent figures received working models of Edison’s phonograph as gifts. Friedrich Krupp, the emperor of Japan, the shah of Iran, the king of Korea, Li Hung Chang, Tseng Kuo Chnan, President Diaz, Josef Hofmann, and Joseph Pulitzer were recipients of the improved invention.

Before long, rival associates began to refer to Gouraud as a “dishonorable trickster” whom Edison “took from the gutter of New York” and to whom he frequently loaned money. It was rumored that Gouraud was making a great deal of cash by exhibiting the phonograph and pocketing the proceeds. Edison asked his private secretary A. O. Tate “to write Gouraud a strong letter about his advertising schemes. I don’t propose to be Barnumized.” By 1892, word had filtered back to Edison that Gouraud was “not proving a good businessman in the selling phonographs.” There was a story circulating that it was Gouraud that discovered Edison, not the other way around, in a New York coffeehouse in the middle of the night, when the future author of the phonograph, without a dime in his pocket, was waiting for something to turn up in the way of supper. Supporters of Gouraud claimed that he had been the means of placing more capital on the market, in connection with the genius’s inventions, than any other man in either hemisphere. Francis B. Keene of the American Consulate in Geneva spoke of Gouraud’s overblown ego:

Gouraud is a man of majestic stature and grandeur. He does not go; he proceeds. He wears his white hair long, down on his shoulders. His mustachios are twisted, and stick out fiercely, at irregular right angles from his lips. His eyes are not in tune. He wears a costume which, with his long hair, makes him look like Buffalo Bill gone stark, staring mad… If he ever writes a book, the title ought to be Emperors Who Have Met Me.

In 1892, Gouraud’s final resignation was negotiated, though he continued to hold stock within the company. The Colonel never did get to interview the Queen. That honor went to Sydney Morse, an early investor in the British Graphophone company which sold a rival recording device by a rival inventor — Alexander Graham Bell.