A SOUND INVENTION

Thomas Edison accidentally invented the phonograph in 1877 when he was working on another project and was surprised to hear faint voices coming from the spinning telegraphic disc he was testing. Edison was fortunate to have heard the recorded words of his nearby helpers since he was quite hard of hearing.

Recognizing the importance of his discovery he quickly turned out a prototype model, recorded an assistant’s recitation of the “Mary Had a Little Lamb” poem and took the demo device to a Wall Street broker to ask for financial backing. Workers in the building, hearing about Edison’s latest “miracle”, rushed into the broker’s office to hear the world’s very first recording. There was fear of a floor collapse and the crowd was dispersed, but the broker, sensing the potential popularity of the invention agreed to help finance development. “Mary Had a Little Lamb” topped the charts in 1877

Nature had already provided a couple of ways for humans to capture and repeat their speech, but they were limited and unreliable. There was the echo which required a trip to the mountains and usually resulted in only a few repetitions of long “Hellooos!” One could also train a parrot to mimic and repeat what he said, but who would ever dictate a letter to a parrot expecting the bird would repeat it accurately to a typist and without interjected profanity and requests for crackers?

Since no other inventor had even conceived the possibility of recording sound, and if Edison’s deafness had been a little more profound, the phonograph and subsequent sound recording devices might never have been invented. What would the world be like today?

For one thing we would still be watching silent movies accompanied by live theme music on theater organs. Blockbuster musicals like “My Fair Lady” and “White Christmas” would not have been produced. TV shows would all be live, since reruns would require hard-to-read subtitles. Repeated live commercials would be expensive so there would be fewer of them. (What a shame!). Those intrusive, illegal telemarketer calls would all be live and we would be able to swear at real people instead of at obtuse robots before slamming down the phone and returning to our dinners.

We wouldn’t have voice mail or answering machines and when we called corporate headquarters to complain about mishandled accounts, we wouldn’t be told by a mellow-voiced female robot that our call is very important and then be subjected to ten minutes of brassy music and commercials while we waited.

If store owners still wanted to irritate shoppers with raucously loud bad music they would have to hire raucously loud bad singers and musicians. Sometimes I wish Thomas Alva had been a little more deaf that day.

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