I can see how someone reading the New York Herald piece from 1895 in later
years might have thought the story was supposed to have been set in the tinfoil
era, but I don't believe it originally was.
The subject is identified as Edison's "firstborn," and referred to as "it,"
which would ordinarily point to Marion (born 1873) -- but of course that would
have been too early for the phonograph. The only other clue as to date is that
the phonograph was supposedly "near enough perfection" at the time to make a
record for the family archive. Apparently Jones -- or someone, at least --
assumed that the story referred to Edison's firstborn *son* (born 1876) and to
the tinfoil phonograph of 1877-78, and ran with this interpretation.
But older versions of the story, published in December 1888, contain a lot more
detail: the subject was Edison's most recent baby, Madeleine, not his
"firstborn"; the recording was on a wax cylinder; Theo Wangemann had given
Edison the idea of making it; and duplicates of it had been sent across the
Atlantic for exhibition. Except for the "firstborn" part, there's nothing in
the 1895 article that contradicts any of this.
For what it's worth, a record of an American baby crying did in fact go over to
London with the first phonograph of the new model in 1888, and Gouraud did
exhibit it there, as reported in the local press that July. He doesn't seem to
have identified it as a record of Edison's own daughter, though.
I haven't been able to trace the "pinching" story itself back before December
1888, but some articles dating back to June of that year report that Edison was
planning to record Madeleine's voice -- ideally at regular intervals as she
PS. Here's the whole story as it appeared in the New Brunswick Times of
December 7, 1888:
Edison has recorded on his phonograph the indignant wail of his baby. At the
laboratory one day the inventor complained that the baby disturbed him and that
he could not work at home.
“Why don’t you put her at the phonograph?” inquired Mr. Wangemann, his
Mr. Edison made no reply, but the next time his heir apparent did cry he was
ready for her. In fact, he grew very impatient because she behaved remarkably
well, and didn’t cry within his hearing for a week. At last the time came.
The infant got her toes tangled up in her stocking and uttered a plaintive
wail. The father seized her, thrust her nose into the funnel and set the motor
a-going. Alas! the flying bright brass Governor amused her, and she stopped
crying and began to laugh. Mr. Edison was disgusted. He shook her violently
and screamed into her ears, but she only chuckled and cooed. He was in
despair. Happy thought! He would pinch her. He did pinch her, and she
expressed her displeasure with vociferous howls. The racket waked up the nurse
in the next room, and she flew in at the door in terror.
“What have you been doing now?” she indignantly demanded.
“That baby wouldn’t cry for my phonograph, and I just pinched her so she would.”
“I never was so abused in my life,” said Mr. Edison afterward. “But I’ve got
that baby’s howls right here on this wax cylinder.” Copies were sent to London
and they have since been traveling over Europe, but Mrs. Edison does not know
From: Phono-L <phono-l-boun...@oldcrank.org> on behalf of AllenAmet--- via
Sent: Wednesday, April 20, 2016 5:16 PM
Subject: Re: [Phono-L] edison's son made recording?/
Thank you, Patrick.
I see that Francis Miller (1931) basically lifted the anecdote (regarding the
baby crying on tinfoil, 'NY Herald') from Francis Jones' 1907 bio of Edison.
Is it possible to push the story back further in time? The ("NY Herald") text
that both authors used was actually from April of 1895.
Of course, the incident also appears in the 1940 film with Spencer Tracy as
In a message dated 4/20/2016 6:41:48 A.M. Eastern Daylight Time,
“The Baby at the Phonograph,” New Brunswick Times, Dec. 7, 1888 (TAEM 146:268)
O. K. Davis, “Some Facts Relating to the Early Development of the Phonograph,”
Phonogram 3 (Mar.-Apr. 1893), 385-6.
“Phonograph the Baby’s Cry,” New York Morning Sun, Dec. 2, 1888 (TAEM 146:324)
“The Baby Wouldn’t Cry,” from New York Herald, in Indiana Progress (Indiana,
Pennsylvania), Apr. 24, 1895, p. 7.
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