One thing I have always been certain about is that you should be cautious when coming across grown men reciting nursery rhymes. Especially if they alone, and when there are no children in sight. On the other hand, it’s probably OK if they are doing so in the name of science. That’s when, on December 6, 1877 in his lab in West Orange, New Jersey, Thomas Edison, hunched over a revolving cylinder wrapped in tinfoil, was overheard reciting “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” The good news for all of us is that Edison was talking into his newest invention which, of course, he hoped would work.
And yes, the “phonograph” which when played back, actually rendered unto the world Edison’s “recorded” (and no doubt very scratchy) voicing of Mary and her lamb with fleece as white as snow. As a result, a hundred and forty-one years later, retailers throughout the world, will fleece a lot of green from us by selling all kinds of high-priced techie stuff that will find its way under the Xmas tree for “app happy” boys and girls, millenials, moms and dads and even grandparents; though probably few phonographs or record players. Who needs one of those dumb old contraptions when you can punch up a favorite song on your smartphone or iPad while jogging, exercising, driving, shopping for groceries, or pretending to pay attention in class?
It all takes me back to the year of the orange-crate record player. I built it back in my high school freshman year to play 78 rpm vinyl records of jazz performers sent from Chicago by my older brother who was enrolled in college and frequented nightclubs in the Loop to enjoy ‘live’ performances by the day’s jazz artists. The very first was blind British pianist George Shearing and trio’s recording of “I Only Have Eyes For You” on the London label. Those of you who dig jazz, Shearing and that particular piece of “vinyl,” know the flip side was an up-tempo tune titled “Consternation.” Well, maybe you don’t, but it still resides in a box in my closet, just as scratchy as Mary’s lamb after hundreds of plays on the old “crate” player, using half a sewing needle to reproduce the sound.
Of course, over later years I enjoyed building a jazz collection on 33-rpm records, played on a little higher grade turntable and sound system … with a real needle. Truth be known, the sound system and many of the records have been gifted to one of my grown children who shares a love of jazz, while now I go to a favorite website and listen to any and all jazz musicians while I work. In fact I think I’ll do that right now. Haven’t listened to anything recently by Canada’s special gift to us, the late jazz keyboard great, Oscar Peterson. Want a real treat? Check out his “Carnegie Blues” via You Tube – when Norman Granz, an American jazz impresario, called him up from the audience in 1952 for his U.S. debut. Great stuff.
So where is all this going, you ask? Well, that is exactly what I find myself asking. Where will we be technologically, and otherwise, in 141 years from today? My first prediction, after watching today’s “hunch backed” society hovering over, addictively thumbing its way nimbly across electronic things, is that in another couple of generations children will be born with pointy little thumbs and no ears. And perhaps with mouths used only for eating.
Correction. We’re at that stage of development already. When I visited the dentist’s office last week, two teens (a girl and boy) were seated across from one another, hunkering and clicking away. “Good morning,” I said as I walked the aisle between them. He grunted. She kept clicking. So much for appropriate verbal niceties. On the other I’ll give them a break. I’m sure they were both in for “tin grin” adjustments, and speaking clearly does not really come easily through a wired-up mouth. But lest I target teens only, we adults (including grandparents) are also often noted hunched over our own devices, seeking information or entertainment; others perhaps seeking privacy.
Which brings me, secondly, to the possibility we may have no electronic hardware in a century and a half. By then we may be up to our ears in telepathic communication, just pulling our information and entertainment out of thin air with our minds. For those who love peace and quiet it will be a whole new wonderful world. I just know for a fact that today’s never ending stream of TV commercials will be a lot easier to take telepathically by deleting the audio, or better still ignore completely. On second thought that’ll be nothing new, since I watch most of them now with the sound “off.”
Meantime, what a truly long way we’ve come since the days of Edison and the many notable inventions he gifted us in addition to the phonograph; among them the kinetoscope, dictaphone, incandescent light bulb, and autographic printer. He also greatly improved the telephone by inventing the carbon microphone. In all, Edison held over 1000 patents. A monumental life’s achievement and legacy. By an iconic American genius. So, take a moment, sing Mary had a little lamb, and wish Edison a happy birthday. He deserves it. Even if he didn’t invent the orange-crate record player.
Mel Grossman is a local resident and guest columnist.