An Age of Wonders

Wonders, Wizardry, Magic and Aladdin's Lamp


By Doug Boilesen, 2021

The "Age of Wonders" at the end of the nineteenth century was an age of technological and scientific achievements and inventions. It had many contributors but no single personality or face appeared in popular culture more often in that role than Thomas Alva Edison.

As seen in the illustration "The Wizard’s Search," The Daily Graphic, An Illustrated Evening Newspaper, July 9, 1879 the phonograph had earlier given Edison the sobriquet "The Wizard of Menlo Park" (first appearing in print on April 7, 1878 - see "How Edison Got His Name - Origins of the Wizard" by Allen Koenigsberg). In 1879 Edison was continuing in that wizard role with his search for "light" and the electric light bulb and the infrastructure that could bring electric light to every home. It would be a generation of new inventions that could do things never before seen or heard and Edison seemed to have the magician's touch.


Edison's Phonograph, 1878 - Poster for demonstration of Edison's phonograph, 1878

Courtesy of National Museum of American History - Smithsonian Institution


Although in those days when it was said that the "belief in witchcraft were long since past," sorcery and magic could still be referenced in the early reporting of the public demonstrations of Edison's new phonograph and readers understood why it was being said: "...witch-hunters such as those who figured so conspicuously in the early history of our country would now find a rich harvest of victims" listening to a "new wonder called the phonograph." wrote the author of The Phonograph, in Harper's Weekly, March 30, 1878.


"the telephone, is now eclipsed by a new wonder called the phonograph." March 30, 1878, Harper's Weekly


"One of the Wonders of Science"

The 1878 Le Trocaderoscope, described the Phonograph in a 'story' demonstrating the veracity of the phonograph. That story and a short biography of Edison who was promoted as an exhibitor at the fair (and who it was hoped would attend but didn't) is part of a catalogue related to the 1878 Exposition Universelle (a.k.a. the third Paris World's Fair) which was held from 1 May to 10 November 1878.

"This time, there is no need to haggle over words: We are indeed in front of one of the wonders of science.


The Phonograph, invented by Mr. Edison, American, is absolutely the daguerreotype of sound."


Think of all of the words associated with "Wonder" e.g., something strange and surprising; a cause of astonishment, awe, amazement, marvel, admiration.

The Phonograph was a wonder, but it was "one of the wonders of science."

The fact that the phonograph could record and play back the human voice gave it accolades of being a 'wonder' from its beginning. The early years saw the phonograph go on tour as an exhibition machine which resulted in amusement and predictions for its future. But it was the Bell-Tainter Graphophone and Edison returning to work on his phonograph nearly ten years after its invention when the phonograph started generating new 'wonder' talk in popular culture. The 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris gave Edison's phonograph a large venue where it was heard and praised on an international scale.


Edison's Phonograph being demonstrated as part of the United States Exhibition Area by Paul Uestel (PM-2079)


The Phonograph's "Alladin-like tinge"

The Phonogram ("Devoted to the Science of Sound and the Recording of Speech") featured in its monthly section titled The Phonograph an article by William Clarke on "Phonographic Possibilities" which he said "of the present impregnable position of the phonograph, the story of its progress has an Alladin-like tinge." (The Phonogram, April, 1891, p. 86).


A Phonograph Panorama - Recording reactions of first-time listeners to "Mr. Magician Phonograph" (perhaps a "species of sorcery.")

A writer for the Phonogram in June 1892 watched a phonograph placed where he could observe its effect on first-time listeners. The article describes several of the "amusing occurrences and a number of striking scenes." Questions of "Can it tell fortunes?" Can the machine talk Dutch and Choctaw? Some concluded that there must be a man concealed in a cabinet; others were afraid they might get an electric shock if they touch the listening tubes.

The writer's summary of the panorama of listeners?

"Time would fail any one who would undertake to record all the odd fancies conjured up by this unique apparatus in the brain of the ordinary visitor. So few in a crowd are acquainted with the possibilities of mechanism and its automatic powers, that they insensibly incline to the opinion that there is something rather uncanny in it, a species of sorcery, as it were. It will probably take a generation to learn that it is invented solely by the wit of a genius."

The Phonogram in June, 1892


The Phonograph, one of the electrical wonders anticipated to be seen at the World's Columbian Exposition.

In anticipation of the 1893 Chicago World's Columbian Exposition The Examiner, San Francisco in April 24, 1891 wrote that the phonograph was one of the wonders to be exhibited at the world's fair's "Electric House" where many uses of electricity for the home would be displayed.

The kitchen was to have electrical appliances like an electric range, electric dishwasher; the washing, ironing and scrubbing of the floors and woodwork would all be electrically performed and even the washing of the windows would be done by electricity. "In the parlor would be a "phonograph and cylinders containing celebrated speeches by celebrated men, and songs by celebrated women. "In the sanctum of the master of the house for the purposes of his business" would be a telephone and "a portable phonograph with cylinders, for mailing a conversation to any point."

The following picture from The Book of the Fair shows the portion of Edison's exhibit in the Exhibition's Electricity Building which had an Edison electric (battery powered) phonograph on display with tubes for multiple listeners.

Thomas Edison’s phonograph exhibit in the Electricity Building. (Image from Bancroft, Hubert Howe's The Book of the Fair. The Bancroft Company, 1893.) (1)


"Open-mouthed wonder"

Coin-operated phonographs were also at the 1893 fair and were a popular entertainment for exhibition visitors. The Adventures of Uncle Jeremiah and Family at the Great Fair by Charles McCellan Stevens is an example of the new category of "fair fiction" literature featuring stories about families visiting the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 and enjoying the phonograph. In Stevens' book we see the reaction of Uncle Jeremiah and his family as they listen "in open-mouthed wonder" to the nickel-in-the-slot machines.

"The first objects that met their gaze were the graphophones or phonographs. Some nickels were soon in the slots and the family for the first time listening to music coming from some where by singers unseen... Between each verse Johnny told the boy who stood in open-mouthed wonder near him that the "feller is a singer from way back." He could not realize that he was not in a concert hall and that all standing about were not hearing what he heard. When the music ceased and he withdrew the tubes from his ears he said to the boy, "Wasn't that out of sight?"

"They listened to melodies by musicians unseen, and from somewhere unknown."

The Adventures of Uncle Jeremiah and Family at the Great Fair by Charles McCellan Stevens, Chicago, Laird and Lee, ©1893


A Wonder Never Built

The last paragraph of The Examiner's 1891 article about the Electric House describes what would have been another wonder if it had been built as proposed.

The Examiner, San Francisco, April 24, 1891


The proposed facsimile figure of Adelina Patti with a phonograph inside her was never built. Patti did make a recording circa 1890 but it has been lost and its title is unknown.(2).

However, an Edison phonograph was used inside a large figure of Uncle Sam, and it did deliver recorded speeches promoting Hub Gore Shoes.


Trade card showing Uncle Sam promoting Hub Gore shoes at the 1893 Columbian Exposition with an Edison Phonograph providing his sales 'speech.'



Courtesy of The Warshaw Collection of Business Americana, Archives, Smithsonian Institution



Victor Advertising Brochure 1906 - "Does daily experience yield anything more wonderful than this?"


Witchery and the magic of photography ran parallel in popular culture with the phonograph. The Ladies' Home Journal, June 1913





Edison Home Phonograph, Model A with 14" horn known to modern collectors as a "Witches Hat Horn" circa 1904 (courtesy Technogallerie)



The Music of the Spheres. All Music is its Province.

Munsey's Magazine, October 1897


"Most Wonderful of All..." the phonograph playing music "in your own parlor!!!"


The Talking Machine World, November 15, 1909

The "most wonderful of all" in the above ad ends with hearing the "Sextette from "Lucia" in your own parlor!!!"

FACTOLA: In Mari Sandoz's "recollection" short story The Christmas of the Phonograph Records her father's extravagant and much anticipated Phonograph is delivered to their isolated homestead in western Nebraska just in time for Christmas. The first cylinder record they play is the Sextet from Lucia. Mari remembers that moment of hearing Lucia as "what still seems to me the most beautiful singing in the world."

"Like turning Iron into Gold"

The talking machine has been transformed by Edison into "a beautiful musical instrument." The Booklovers Magazine World, 1905


"Like Turning Iron to Gold," McClure's Magazine, 1905


Edison's Genii of Entertainment, rising from an Edison Gold Moulded Record, Form 690, September 1905

See The Edison Phonograph Monthly for the announcement of this new form



The Edison Phonograph Monthly, February 1907


"The Loftiest Flight of Inventive Genius," American Magazine, February 1906


The Talking Machine World, August 15, 1906


"The Halley Comet Visible Only Every 75 years - The Victor Is Visible Every Day." The Talking Machine World, April 1910



The Gateway to One Thousand and One Entertainments, Collier's, 1908


"the mystic, weird machine... summons spirits of the past for our delight"

The Phonograph - Our Genii counterpart serving our least command!

The New Phonogram as reprinted in The Talking Machine World, September 1911


The Wizard Phonograph, ca.1911

The Wizard Phonograph was made by the International Phonograph Company in Newark, New Jersey around 1911. "The design was an attempt to avoid patent infringement problems with Edison. The "Wizard" name was an obvious reference to Edison, who was known as the Wizard of Menlo Park." Photo and text courtesy of MusicalTreasuresofMiami.


The Gateway to a Thousand-and-One Entertainments, 1916


"it can improvise at call a concert-platform on which the magicians of music appear...The Gateway to a Thousand-and-One Entertainments" 1916 (PM-2014)


"Unsightly winding crank can now be replaced with electric motor "to give you fullest possible enjoyment from your phonograph." The Magic of the Motrola, 1918



A Magical Voice of Music, Country Life, September 1919


"Possess the Power of Aladdin" Cosmopolitan for January 1918


Melco Radio is a Silver-tongued Scheherezade, The Talking Machine World, January 15, 1925


Melco Radio is The Modern Arabian Nights, The Talking Machine World, February 15, 1925



Scheherazade, RCA Victor Record Album M/DM 920, 1942 (5 record album 78 RPM)


"Daddy Lew Lehr Tells a Story" Point of Sale display for his "See and hear" recording of "Aladdin and the Magic Lamp" circa 1948



"For 1,001 nights and even more..." Stereo Wholesalers ad, 1973


"The exciting 1942 Magic Brain RCA Victrola! "An amazing new way to play records." The Magic Tone Cell recreates records with brilliant tone fidelity...and the sensatonal Magic Tone Cell adds to record life..." Built in "Magic Loop Antenna" in the RCA Victor Super-Six radio." The Magic Brain does all the work -- you just sit back and listen!"



California Magic Carpet postcard (front and back) advertising LP record by the UC Berkeley California Band and Glee Club, 1955.

' can always have a front-row seat for a complete program of California songs and yells..."


The Three Suns on a Magic Carpet, Victor LPM-2235, 1960

"'s your chance to fly now and be enchanted forever. You'll be travelling first class all the way, on a magic carpet borne aloft by the artistry of the inimitable Three Suns...On this trip time, space and music are fused to perfection."

"Climb aboard this album and you'll travel in spirit as well as in space -- no surprise when you remember you're on a MAGIC CARPET."

Also noted on the back cover: IMPORTANT NOTICE -- "MIRACLE SURFACE" This record contains the new revolutionary anti-static ingredient 317X... -- Text from back cover of The Three Suns LP album).


Immortality and the Phonograph's Promise to its Artists and the World.

Recorded voices were seemingly immortal and it was a theme phonograph advertisements would later promote. The Phonograph’s revolutionary ability to capture ephemeral sound was also one of the earliest attributes newspapers highlighted. The idea that the phonograph allowed the dead to speak again was a wonder that defied nature. 

Victor used the phrase “Victor Supremacy” for over a decade and it was primarily meant to convey its supremacy of technology and of its recording artists.  But it was also a claim of Triumph over the ephemeral - Supremacy  over mortality - Preservation of culture for Posterity - “Art perpetuated for all time.” 


"Jenny Lind is only a memory, but the voice of Melba can never die." Life Magazine, March 1918 (Courtesy of Hagley Digital Archives, David Sarnoff Library digital collection)


Victor artists who have passed are placed on this memorial style plaque ad with the names and the word "Victor Immortals - The Victrola has transformed their art into a living reality that will endure for all time." 1922 (PM-2037)


In the beginning it was a Wonder...and now?

In 1912 Chicago Tribune John T. McCutcheon published a cartoon titled "Things Don't Seem Wonderful If You've Seen Them All Your Life." The cartoon "shows a young mother and father and their toddler child. The parents are impressed with a racing automobile, a phonograph, a wireless (radio) tower, an aeroplane, and a color moving picture show, while the son is disinterested. In the last panel he is excited and amazed at a goat cart."

The second panel is the phonograph scene of amazement expressed by the parents while the young boy plays with his dog.


Panel from 1912 cartoon by John T. McCutcheon


It's a good reminder that wonders are replaced by new wonders and new generations take for granted what amazed a previous generation and often call early versions of those wonders antiques.

For Friends of the Phonograph recorded sound and the machines that first captured and played those sounds will always be remembered.

The 1906 Victor brochure had it right: "Many common things become wonders if we know how to look at them, and many wonders become common things just because we do not keep the wonder of them alive."



Accolades of Wonder

The Phonograph - the "Nineteenth Century Wonder" The Cleveland Leader, May 30, 1878

Edison's Parlor Speaking Phonograph - The Miracle of the 19th Century, 1879


The "Nineteenth Century Wonder," The Cleveland Leader, May 30, 1878


The Miracle of the 19th Century

Top section of advertisement showing Edison's Parlor Speaking Phonograph sold by The Edison Speaking Phonograph Co., 1879 (Courtesy Réne Rondeau).


Science, wonders, magic, invention, curiosity, genius - All of these words could be associated with Thomas Alva Edison. So it's interesting that the following quote is attributed to Edison which seems to put all of those words into perspective by the Wizard of Menlo Park:

"We don't know a millionth of one percent about anything." — Thomas Edison (as quoted in Golden Book (April 1931), according to Stevenson's Book of Quotations (Cassell 3rd edition 1938) by Burton Egbert Stevenson - LibQuotes also references Golden Book, April 1931, however, this quote is not included in Stevenson's Book of Quotations 5th edition, 1946).