writings

Every video has a secret life that describes its making. Mr. Edison’s Ear has taken over three years to complete and so, accordingly, its life has taken many twists and turns. Partly as a result of this, and partly as a consequence of the variety and number of fragments that comprise the video, an account of the project might begin from a number of starting points or offer one of several possible strategies in its retelling. I have preferred here, to outline the research that led me to do work on notions of history, memory and record as well as to reflect upon my process in putting the video together.

This document is divided into several short sections with additional appendices. These sections relate to research on the problems of archive, technology, and recorded history and are titled: Body, Memory, Record, Inscription, Archive, Possible Firsts, Image, Type, and Proof, to reflect the themes that evolved during the video-making process. The appendices include some of the material I have collected while working on the project.

Mr. Edison’s Ear is a 32-minute video about the phonograph. It is also about how Thomas Alva Edison’s deafness was crucial to his invention of the phonograph. While the thesis is not a history of the phonograph as a technology per se (since that would extend beyond Edison) it touches upon the different ways that the phonograph can be seen as a metaphor for the pain of entry into modernity.

The documentary integrates a number of formats and media including interviews, expressive animation, and visual and audio material from the Edison archive. The content includes early films (1889–1928, see appendix D) wax cylinder recordings and diamond disc recordings (1878–1929, see appendix D), patent documents, medical and technical illustrations, newspaper publications, promotional catalogues, photographs and selections from Edison’s letters and diary. The formal elements represent a process of collection I have been engaged in since beginning this project. These elements include: black and white 16mm film—original and optically printed, DV footage and footage recorded by contemporary technologies (i.e. a cell phone, an iPod), DVD movies, downloaded archival QuickTime movies, jpegs, and mp4 files, scanned images, animation and original interviews. Interviews with Professor Lisa Gitelman, Catholic University of America, author of Scripts, Grooves, and Writing Machines: Representing Technology in the Edison Era; and Dr Kenneth Norwich, Collaborative Program in Neuroscience, Faculty of Medicine and Faculty of Engineering, University of Toronto and Robert Hodge, Audio Engineer at Belfer Audio Labs, Syracuse University are also included.

Mr. Edison’s Ear considers the ephemerality and physicality of sound as it emerges during the period of invention that marks the beginning of the modern period. The project is invested in this emerging technology particularly as it relates to the inventor’s own body. With this in mind, I invite the reader to consider the following before proceeding with the rest of the document:

A. Sound is described as ephemeral because we cannot see it or touch it. It is, scientifically speaking, physical vibration transformed into compression waves that travel through matter such as air, water or wood. We experience sound as hearing when these vibrations reach the membrane of our own inner ear.

B. Thomas Edison lost much of his hearing as a child and was profoundly deaf by the time he died. He could, however, compensate for his hearing loss by listening to sound recordings through bone conduction, literally biting into the wooden edge of a phonograph in order to feel vibrations through his jaw and hear. An Edison recording artist would perform into the horn of the machine, causing sound waves to travel toward a membrane that vibrated sympathetically in response to the wave. A stylus, mechanically related to the membrane, inscribed a picture of sound onto a revolving cylinder. This simple bit of machinery produced the first substantial record of sound.