CSP 64 - Spring 2019

From the Phonograph to Auto-Tune...

Category: Openeer Papers

Mr. Openeer’s Reaction to the Phonograph

In “Opeener Papers” written during the advent of the phonograph, many aspects of society’s reaction towards such a profound device can be highlighted throughout this text. From the first chapter, we see Mr. Openeer head to a house party where he was welcomed by the sound of not the hostess of the house, but rather the voice of a phonograph. Much to the delight of the party goers, many people found this device quite the entertainment. This written work showcases the many uses of the phonograph during this time period and how society reacted to the many uses for it. These reactions are quite interesting given the tone of the speaker as the paper is filled to the brim with flowery language with the highest esteem praising this newfound device. Given as it was written by the National Phonograph Company, this is not a surprise but has the ability to fool any person that is unaware of this knowledge.

Another use, other than entertainment, for the phonograph is the idea for keepsake of voices for those that have passed away. This is almost revolutionary in the sorts for those that are mourning the death of a loved one. Whereas before the phonograph, most keepsakes of memories of people were hand written documents or belongings. However with the introduction of the phonograph, this adds a layer of almost “realism” to having a deceased loved one speak again. Hearing someone’s voice can be very impactful as it is how humans connect through communication. Having the phonograph reproduce human voices even after death was a very special use for those that have lost loved ones.

The Openeer Papers

Page 138 and 139 describe the phonograph as a tool for education. French conjugations and German phrases that once vexed children are now, with the assistance of the phonograph, a point of jubilation and mental stimulation. Expressing gleefully, “new ideas appeal to children just as much as grown-ups,” the writer indicates entertainment and simultaneous education as a previously untapped concept. I think this sentiment is naturally appealing to parents who desire betterment of their children and wish to provide through the best learning tools. The emphasis on one’s children and the phonograph is further exhibited on page 143, when the writer’s cousin Smith made a recording, and subsequently died seven days later. The once silly and lighthearted recording became Smith’s father’s “choicest possession on earth”. Today, if you ask someone what they would save if their house was burning down, they would usually say family photos and home videos. These cylinders of your child singing a song or your deceased family members talking seem to be the historical equivalent to today’s family photos. The use of the phonograph as an education tool and a way to preserve the voice of your loved ones align very well with Edison’s advertisement for the many uses of the phonograph. The writer’s review is really just a more personal version of Edison’s advertisement.

The Opeener Papers

The Opeener’s phonograph party is a party unique to its time. At that time, phonographs were of the most advanced technology, and some people had the privilege of owning them or having access to them. In modern times, our most advanced sound recording equipment rests almost exclusively in the hands of professionals within the field. A modern version of a phonograph party would exist only among either musical professionals or the rich elite who could acquire the equipment. The most similar a modern phonograph party could get to the accessibility of the Opeeners’ party is using more widespread technology such as smartphones.

While one could throw a modern phonograph party with similarities to the original ones, the sense of awe and amazement that the original parties possesed would be lacking significantly. The excitement and thrill surrounding the invention is what truly made these parties as fascinating as they were, and without it, the party is merely just a party with music. Our modern society is saturated in recorded sound from podcasts, to music, to audiobooks. Recorded sound has grown and advanced exponentially since the phonograph to the point where there is virtually nothing that can bring that same sense of newness and shock as instantly as a phonograph could, which begs the question of where we can advance in order to restore that amazement.

The Openeer Papers

    While the value of preserved voices can be extended into the fields of political or religious oration and musical entertainment, the practice has its greatest importance in remembering loved ones. Although portraits and early photographs e could capture the likeness of a person, the phonograph allowed for the preservation of a much more comprehensive record, which could include their emotions, their unique speaking style, and a more personalized message. There is more sentimental value in a recording versus an image because a recording seems much more lifelike – one would interact with an image in a different way than one would interact with a person, but one could listen to a recording and interact with it in a very similar way to how they would with the actual speaker. As the novelty of recordings wears off and as recording technologies become a more omnipresent factor in society, it seems almost as if there is less of an intention to record important moments. Whereas in the recent past when people were limited to bulky and discrete recording equipment – tape recorders, camcorders, cameras, etc. – the same tasks are accomplished today by a smartphone. It seems as if by making technology more capable and more accessible, it has become less novel and lacks intentional use. In the past, one might have intentionally recorded home videos to remember and make a comprehensive representation their child’s youth or a major life event, but today, when every person has a device and every device has a camera and microphone, we rely on making shorter and less comprehensive records as an effortless by-product of communication or social media posts.

Preservation of Sound

In broad terms, the excerpts from “Handbook of the Phonograph” seems to encompass the idea that the preservation of sound is a way of preserving memories, those of past events and/or friends. The appeal of the phonograph as expressed in the text was mainly as source of entertainment, a new exciting activity. The preservation of voices was then appealing in its ability to played back immediately. At the phonograph party guests, for example, would record, and then everyone would listen to the recording. These guests were excited to hear the closeness to which the phonograph repeated everything that was said or played. On a more personal level, there is an appeal in recording oneself and then playing back twenty years later to see how they’ve changed. As well as this, the appeal of preserving voices extends to that of the preservation of memories of loved ones after they die. In today’s society, the appeal of having recordings of yourself and friends is still relevant and practised. Some people have podcasts or create their own music. Today video recordings are very popular ways of sharing experiences and having memories of loved ones. The excitement and novelty of the recording and then playing it back immediately, however, because of advancements in technology and accessibility of this technology, I do not believe is anywhere close that what as highlighted in this text.

Openeer paper response

I think that to throw a phonograph party today would be very different to how it was back when it was a new invention.  Now, there are many parties that people throw with music and I imagine it is a similar feeling to how a phonograph parties were back then, however now it would be much more unexpected to get an invite to listen to a phonograph, and seems more like an event that people who are into history or collectors items would attend. However, that being said, I think it would be very interesting to see how a phonograph works in person, and although my interest would most likely not match that of people back when this first came out, it would be cool to get to try it out myself.

One of the things that was very prevalent in the openeer papers was the idea of hearing back recorded voices of loved ones.   This of course would be very appealing to people because it is a way to remember someone close in more than just a visual way, by being able to hear them speaking, making it feel as if they are still around and in your presence.  It is a tool used to help mourning, and can be both a happy and sad thing to hear, but nevertheless it is a treasure many people hold onto dearly.  It is also a way to remember past times, such as when people were kids, and helps you remember what the past was like.  We have similar things today, such as home videos and baby pictures, and we still do look back at those occasionally to remember what it was like in an earlier part of our lives.

The Openeer Papers

In this document, many of the phonograph’s uses mentioned in Edison’s original writing were realized. He mostly envisioned the phonograph to be used to record words and be used for purposes such as language teaching and dictation, both of which became a success according to the author of this document. Besides, the writer also mentioned how a mom had recorded the voices of her eight-year old son, who suddenly passed away. She referred to this recording as “one of the greatest consolations,” meaning that people did start to use the phonograph to keep family records as Edison predicted. Moreover, the author mentioned how the recording technique was used to record songs, funny talks, and speeches of famous men, which demonstrates the phonograph’s entertainment purposes introduced by Edison. Although there are many consistencies between Edison’s prediction and the actual uses of the phonograph later on, Edison did not anticipate that the public is mostly appealed by the amusement and leisure brought by the phonograph. The lectures and orations were not efficiently carried out using the phonograph, yet people were excited to share and reproduce music or to be at a “voice guessing party.” In general, I think the document demonstrates how the phonograph is seen as a novel and popular invention at the time; Edison gave a rather comprehensive prediction about the potential uses of the phonograph, yet emphasized on the wrong aspects of its future functions.

Preservation of Sound

In chapters one and two from the Handbook of the Phonograph, the preservation of voices is a topic that is commonly revisited. This notion is seen through a light-hearted lens when Mrs. Openeer hosts a “Voice Guessing Party,” in which guests would record speech onto a phonograph separately and then all guests would listen to the recordings and guess which voice matched to which person. On a darker note, the preservation of voices is highlighted when a woman that lost her child listens to a recording of his voice. In modern day, I think things like home videos parallel recording the voices of loved ones. Preservations of voices helps memories live on. This topic is of intense interest to me because it inherently separates the listener from the speaker and immortalizes someone in a specific time and age. No matter how much someone ages or how many things change, in a recording they are frozen in time. There’s something so beautiful about that. Life is fleeting, live performances vary from time to time, but a recording will always be the same. Today I think the most common form of preserving voices is recorded song and podcasts. I think when the phonograph came out, Edison made it seem like it was targeted for intellectual endeavors like speeches and teaching, but I think nowadays the first things that comes into my mind when I hear the word “recording,” is music.

Phonograph Parties & Preserving Voices

I found it quite interesting, though predictable, that a phonograph party would provide such entertainment and bewilderment as it did in 1900. As seen in the story with Mr. Openeer, the widespread attraction to the phonograph was instantaneous. I described the phonograph party as predictable because it is clear through the peoples’ reactions that the phonograph was the most advanced technology at the time. The music playback was described as “loud and clear” (136), however after watching a phonograph video in class we could all tell that the playback volume was mediocre at best and fairly scratchy. To host a phonograph party today would be quite different. Rather than admiring incredible technology, we would wonder how the most advanced technology was as primitive as a phonograph in 1900 when compared to our devices today.

The idea of preserving voices in a wax cylinder was very popular when the phonograph first came out. From recording passed family members’ voices to recording famous speeches of politicians, the preservation of voices was certainly an appeal. As in the story, one could play a recording of a passed family member and listen to their laughs and voices, and it would seem as if that person was in the room next to them. In this sense, Thomas Edison’s prediction was correct in so that the preservation of voices is a better way of remembering the past than the use of photographs. Today, we don’t necessarily listen to recordings of people talking unless it is of a podcast, speech, or audio book.

The Phonograph Party and Clubbing

In chapter two of The Openeer Papers, the writer explains about throwing a “phonograph party” with his friends. The text written in 1900, just after the phonograph was invented, their experience with the phonograph seems unrelatable to readers of our generation. However, I found that one aspect of their experience seemed to be reminiscent of our day and age. For instance, consider clubbing, where people gather to party and dance to the music played by the DJ. Even though we have access to various devices which enable listening to music alone, the demand for consuming recorded music together with others still exist. How so? The detailed description of the “phonograph party” found in the text indicates that this is due to the human interactions music can create when consumed together. The feeling of amusement to the music and the technology which enables it to be recorded and played, is shared amongst people in the same party. This experience is somewhat comparable to the way we react to the quality and volume of the music speakers and other technology can produce at clubs. This amusement creates a feeling of solidarity amongst those at the party which can not be produced through individual consumption of music. Perhaps this is part of the reason why even after individual listening of music was enabled, we continue to consume music together with others.

Preservation of Sound

The idea of the preservation of the voices stems from human curiosity. One of the things that struck me about this article was how the phonograph seemingly made a bunch of adults into giddy children. On top of this, as humans do, this group tested and experimented with the device. For these people, these are their first ever experiences with recorded sound. The appeal behind hearing their voices perfectly recorded comes from their curiosity of the limits of the device. Today is no different, humans want to hear sound as if someone were next to them speaking into their ear. But those practices have also evolved today. Humans have moved from wanting to perfect the recording of their voice to wanting to perfect the manipulation of their voices. Things like reverb and echo and auto-tune have altered the way humans can communicate in recorded sound. This has ended up exceeding humans actual ability to speak. Recorded sound can now be produced in a way that could never have been done before. And we now see this production being applied to live concerts as well through the use of amps and sound boards. I’m sure Edison never imagined this is where the phonograph would go.

Openeer Papers

A phonograph was the first invention in the world that can record sound and play it back to the audience in the right order. People at the time were amazed by the technology and used it for many purposes. In the first two chapters of “WHAT  MR. OPENEER HEARD ”, the author emphasized that people enjoy phonographs a lot as an entertainment. People used phonographs to listen to music with friends which wasn’t possible before without a live band and singer. People could freely choose songs and singers at anytime, locations and can repeat it over and over again. The author also mentioned in the article that phonographs were also used to preserve memories of the past and the deceased. Aside from a form of entertainment, phonograph was also used for dictation at offices. Phonographs allowed workers to work more efficiently which helps companies save money, Despite its similarities to the recording nowadays, phonographs had many flaws in its designs which were limiting its potential. First, the author mentioned people’s attempts to use phonograph to give a speech. All the attempts failed because phonographs simply could record and play back words at a accurate, fast and loud rate. The limitation of phonographs were also due to their fragility. All the recordings were done on a wax cylinder which is very fragile and easily damaged. Although phonographs were somewhat useful for people at the time for entertainment and dictation, it certainly did not live up to people’s expectations when it first came out.


If we had a phonograph party today, I feel as if it will not be exciting or as tedious as it was back in the day. The reason why the phonograph was such a success was because the party was mixed with excitement of phonograph and the astonishment of the result. However, if we were to have the same party today, there would be no astonishment or a phonograph, and we will just have an iPhone to record the sounds. Also, there would be no need to keep adjusting the seats to sit further or nearer to the phonograph to modify the sound. It would also be different in a sense that it would all be done electronically and recorded separately and cheaper because it someone makes a mistake, one can just easily delete the recorded sound instead of having to throw away the wax cylinder completely. The theme of preservation of the voices is mainly based on giving comfort by being able to listen to the voices of people who have passed on, or the laughter one finds in the stories of a stranger or someone close. In those cases, the wax cylinder is considered as one’s most prized item if their passed loved one’s voices are recorded in it. However, all we do today is record voices on our phones and tell, text, or post the stories.

The Importance of Preserving Sound

The Opener Papers (1900) explain the many uses and future uses of the phonograph. These include the recordings of songs by famous singers, speeches by influential thinkers, lessons in foreign languages, and even sermons. Though the phonograph was not able to fulfill Edisons initial wishes of voice-mail via phonograph, the phonograph, in my opinion, was able to perform a more meaningful accomplishment. With the manageability of recording oneself, many found the task fun and amusing. Friends would gather to have phonograph parties, families would record songs together, and parents were able to record their child’s first words. The phonograph became a mechanism to bring people together. Whether a voice guessing party or a makeshift symphony, the phonograph gave people an instrument to stretch their imaginations and invent and try new things. Furthermore, in times of strife, the phonograph was able to preserve the most precious of memories from those who recently passed away. For parents who have lost children, hearing their voice can be, “one of the greatest consolations.” While having recordings of a loved one who passed away will not bring them back, hearing their voice can be comforting to those experiencing grief. The phonograph was not only successful in bringing new music and ideas to people, but it also worked as a medium to bring people together for celebrations and offer comfort during times of despair. 

The Openeer Papers

The first thing I noticed from the reading was that every person who encountered the phonograph, when they entered the house, was completely surprised by the mysterious voice. While the family who owned the phonograph was naturally comfortable with this new set up. Another thing I took away from the reading was the preservation of the voices. I think that this is an important part of the phonograph because it creates a completely new way of remembering people who are not currentlly with you. Whether the person is dead or lives far away with the phonograph you can keep a recording of their voice. The example of Mrs. Openeer talking to her neighbor who just lost her son. When the neighbor turns on the phonograph her son’s voice starts to play. “The next moment it was as if Henry was in the room.” (137) The article describes this as a happy experience for the mother because she can hear her desisted sons voice again. I assume that this feature was heavily used when advertising for the phonograph. Especially during a time when people were more at risk of an unexpected death. I see why Thomas Eddison said that the phonograph would be better than the photograph. The phonograph creates a new way to remember the past in a way that a photograph cant.

The Openeer Papers

Strongly featured in the excerpts from the “Openeer Papers” is the preservation of the narrative voice (especially in Chapter Two). Strange for a portion of text gathered from a work entitled The Phonograph and How to Use It (which sounds rather like an instruction manual), the main effect of the voices seems to be the normalization of the machine itself. By having the voice of a friendly neighborhood everyman tell of his fun encounters with the phonograph; the phonograph no longer seems like a cold machine used only in demonstrations. Lacking the technical talk of a traditional how-to manual, the anecdotal passage makes the technology less intimidating. The story-like structure of the text forces the reader to see the phonograph in a social setting, as a tool of endless entertainment to be enjoyed in good company. Moreover, the narrative voice has long been a tool of advertisement. A reader in 1900 reading all about the Openeers amazing their friends and hosting sophisticated gatherings surely will feel left out of the fun and want in. And if they are unsure what function the invention serves? The text has that covered- with what are essentially bullet points of each use relayed by Mr. Openeer in a “I heard of a novel use for a phonograph the other day…” format. If even then the reader is skeptical of the various uses, the second half of the reading teaches them how to use the phonograph as an excuse to throw soirées- detailing the preparations and procedures right down to the finger foods.