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Chicago, the phonograph, and the Fair

(April 1993)

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"As they entered the Manufacturers and Liberal Arts building through one of the many small entrances on the north, the greatness of that more than forty-four acres of exhibits did not impress itself upon them. The first objects that me their gaze were the graphophones or phonographs." From a contemporary account, The Adventures of Uncle Jeremiah and Family at the Great Fair, Chicago, 1893. (Courtesy APM Press)

It was the grandest Fair of all time.

1993 commemorates the 100th anniversary of the World's Columbian Exposition, which itself commemorated the 400th anniversary of the discovery of the New World.

The site appropriately  was Chicago, a heartland city of one and a quarter million souls, risen from its own ashes of 1871. Chicago dedicated Jackson Park, a 526 acre lake front site seven miles south of the Loop.

Native architect Daniel Burnham conceived an immense, neo-classical vision on a wooded island surrounded by lagoons. There was a statue of the Republic at one end, the Columbian Fountain at the other. One structure, the Manufactures Building, was boasted as the largest ever erected, over 30 acres. Gondoliers imported directly from Venice patrolled the lagoons. Because of its color and because of the use of "staff," a plaster-like material, this section of the Fair was known as the White City.

There were exhibits from 86 nations and 30 states and territories. You could study a  lock of Jefferson's red hair, Lorado Taft's sculpture, a Japanese fish hatchery, Edison's dynamo. You could stand in awe of the big Krupp guns or marvel at a tower of oranges, a wonder made possible by the refrigerated railroad car.

A series of international conferences took place in Chicago at the time, for a Fair was an important way to disseminate cultural and technical ideas, and this Fair symbolically inaugurated American's coming of age as an industrial power. It was here that historian Frederick Jackson Turner delivered his thesis, "The Significance of the Frontier in American History."

Popular entertainment wasn't forgotten. Midway Plaisance, a mile long strip leading to the White City, was the prototype of all amusement parks to come.

There was Hagenbeck's lion and tiger show, a German beer hall, balloon rides, an ostrich farm serving scrambled ostrich omelettes, and scantily clad dancing girls, "forty ladies from forty nations." A ten foot tall automaton of Uncle Sam with phonograph inside delivered a speech extolling the virtues of Hub Gore shoes. George Ferris' Wheel towered 264 feet above it all, from where 2000 people at a time could survey the spectacle.

Edison's light had illuminated a World's Fair for the first time at the prior 1889 Paris exhibition, but never had there been a light show like this, the grounds and fountains festooned with incandescent bulbs. Power was delivered through underground wooden conduits, like a miniature Chicago subway.

Despite his recent and triumphant electrification of New York City Edison had lost the contract to furnish the 120,000 incandescent lamps to George Westinghouse and his alernating current system. However, as a tribute to Edison a Tower of Light, a replica of the German Tower of Victory, was placed in the middle of the Electricity Building. The 82 foot tower was topped by a single incandescent bulb 8 feet tall.

At this greatest exhibition of the 19th century converged many of the men who would build the phonograph industry.

Edison attended, although the date of his visit is not remembered. The Edison exhibit occupied Space S in the Electricity Building. An old photograph shows a group of phonographs and desks with listening rails. There were no horns at this time, simply listening tubes, as the wax records were too faint to be otherwise audible. There was Edison's jumbo dynamo, named after Barnum's famous elephant. There was a display of all the failed experiments leading to the successful development of the incandescent lamp.

A financial disaster, the talking doll exhibited at the 1889 Paris exhibition did not reappear. The peephole Kinetoscope was slated to debut in Chicago but was probably held back until its official introduction in New York City in 1894. Edison had gotten into a spat with the Fair Committee over the posting of a surety bond and may have withheld the Kinetoscope as punishment.

A special catalogue with gold braid was issued for distribution at the Fair, showing the full panoply of electric, treadle and water power machines. So much a novelty was the nickel-in-the-slot phonograph that the Edison exhibit took in $33,000 during the Fair's six month run.

Edward Easton, president of the American Graphophone Company was at the Fair, as was Edison's bitter competitor Charles Sumner Tainter. The co-inventor of the Graphophone, at this time a consultant to the Graphophone Company, felt that Edison had seized the lion's share of the glory. American Graphophone did not display an exhibit at the Fair, but did have 100 nickel operated machines, probably Type S battery floor models, at scattered sites. The machines were maintained by Tainter. Tainter later testified that five to six thousand cardboard ozocerite cylinders were used, although it's more probable that the records were brown wax. In any event, the appetite of the public for the coin-slot phonograph must have been insatiable.

An electrical engineer passing through the fair heard the brown wax records and noted how quickly they wore out. His curiosity piqued, Thomas Lambert resolved to make a better record, out of celluloid.

Also in Chicago was a 24 year old Nebraskan named Leon Douglas. Self-educated, he had been a boy telephone operator and then at the age of 21 had invented one of the first workable patents for a coin operated phonograph, which he sold to Erastus Benson, president of the Central Phonograph Company, one of the regional territories of the North American Phonograph company. He became a valued employeee of North American.

Douglas was allotted a special concession of ten nickel-in-the-slot machines on Midway Plaisance. He made so much money--$3000--that he was able to buy one third of the nascent Chicago Talking Machine Company supply house. After the Chicago Talking Machine company folded in 1897 Douglas went to work for Eldridge Johnson and became one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in the industry, vice president and advertising manager of Victor Talking Machine company. At one point he was earning more than Johnson himself!

One of the people passing through the fair with whom Douglas struck up a friendship was a visitor from Peru, Peter Bacigalupi, the renowned organ builder. When Bacigalupi resettled in California he invited Douglas to come west. There he met Bacigalupi's daughter, Victoria, whom he married in 1897. It's possible that the Victor Talking Machine Company was named after her.

In 1893 Douglas, unlike Edison, was an advocate of the spring motor phonograph. Edward Amet of Waukegan, Illinois, about 40 miles north of Chicago, had been working on a spring motor machine as early as 1892. Amet,  who had prospered from the manufacture of recording scales (scales which printed the weight), was experimenting with motion pictures and the phonograph.

It isn't known if Amet was one of the multitude who passed through the Fair, but the president of the Zonophone Company recalled years later that Douglas sold or exhibited one Amet machine in Chicago. It was an unheralded debut for the motive power of the next thirty years. Douglas' Chicago Talking Machine Company would champion the spring motor Amet in the mid 1890s.

From the time President Grover Cleveland touched the electric button setting the machinery of the great Fair in motion until its close six months later over 27 million people passed through the gates. One building survives: The Art Building, now proudly housing Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry.

Sources: Findling, John. Historical Dictionary of World's Fairs and Expositions.
Koenigsberg, Allen. Patent History of the Phonograph.
Rydell, Robert. All the World's a Fair.

 


1998 Lynn Bilton