The World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 and the Phonograph

Looking West From Peristyle, Court of Honor and Grand Basin of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition


By Doug Boilesen

The World's Columbian Exposition was a world's fair held in Chicago in 1893 to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus' arrival in the New World in 1492. "The exposition was an influential social and cultural event and had a profound effect on architecture, sanitation, the arts, Chicago's self-image, and American industrial optimism." Wikipedia

The fair might have been the first time some heard a phonograph. First time or not, the fair offered everyone the opportunity to see and hear the 1893 phonograph. For the phonograph industry it was also an opportunity to exhibit the phonograph as a machine that was ready for other uses besides amusement.

Edison had displayed his phonograph and electric lights at the Exposition Universelle of 1889 in Paris but the 100,000 incandescent lamps and spotlights used to illuminate the Chicago fair's "White City" belonged to George Westinghouse and his alternating current system. Flashing lights on the tallest towers of many buildings were a nightly spectacle. Edison's direct current system and General Electric had been underbid by Westinghouse and the fair became a showcase for Westinghouse and his power system that used alternating current.

The Phonograph, on the other hand, was still closely associated with Edison. Edison was President of the North American Phonograph Company. Graphophones were in some of the nickel-in-the slot machines but Graphophone didn't have their own exhibit at the fair and the popular press still considered Edison the inventor and the face of the talking machine industry.

When reviewing what was being written in the 1893 popular press about Edison and his World's Columbian Exposition exhibits most of the articles were about Edison's phonograph and kinetograph. This page will be an overview of what guidebooks, newspapers, and other popular culture sources were saying about the Edison related exhibits. The focus, however, is the phonograph.


The Edison Tower of Light in the General Electric exhibit in the Electricity Building with its eight-foot tall light bulb at the top.

Inside the Exposition's Electricity Building stood the "Edison Electric Tower" a.k.a. the "Tower of Light" with its eight-foot light bulb at its peak, a reminder that Edison was the Wizard of Electric Light. Only a year earlier, however, his Edison General Electric Company had been acquired and now it was simply General Electric. The electricity industry was at a turning point, and was moving towards alternating current.

(Image from Bancroft, Hubert Howe The Book of the Fair. The Bancroft Company, 1893.)

For illustration by R. Outcault and related information see The Edison Electric Tower


In the Official Guide to the World's Columbian Exposition the following was written about Edison's Phonograph on display in The Electricity Building.



The Phonogram's description of the Electricity Building and of the Edison Phonograph exhibits inside it proudly stated in their March-April 1893 issue that "among all the exhibits in the World's Fair, none will be more calculated to stimulate the pride of the true American than these silent witnesses to the achievements of his countrymen--THOMAS A. EDISON."





The World's Columbian Exposition's "THE ELECTRIC HOUSE" was called by The Examiner, San Francisco, April 24, 1891 "one of the wonders to be exhibited at the world's fair" that would display the many uses of electricity for the home. 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.

A phonograph, powered by electricity, was planned for the parlor and for the home's office (the Edison Class "M" Phonograph was battery powered and the Class "E" used D.C. lighting circuit).



There was no charge to listen to the phonograph in this exhibition room, however, Edison had many coin-in-the-slot phonographs located throughout the fair which were quite popular. In the back corner of Edison's phonograph exhibit (above) can be seen the 1893 "newly designed cabinet.

"The North American Phonograph Co. will make a large display of these cabinets in different woods at the Columbian Exposition."

The Phonogram, March and April 1893 p. 388



The last paragraph of The Examiner's April 24, 1891 article about the Electric House describes the proposed Adelina Patti automaton which would have been a true wonder to "the genius of man" if it had been built.

The Examiner, San Francisco, April 24, 1891


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

An Edison phonograph inside a large figure of Uncle Sam, however, was created for the 1893 Exhibition and it delivered a recorded speech promoting Hub Gore Shoes.


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







Newspapers had articles throughout the six-month fair regarding Edison's phonograph which emphasized that there were hundreds of educational and business uses for the phonograph and that Edison's Phonograph Exhibit was devoted to illustrating those uses.


Electricity Building Exhibit, Chicago Tribune, September 2, 1893



"Fair Fiction" PhonoLiterature

Some of the most interesting descriptions of visitor's seeing and hearing the phonograph at the fair were recorded in popular culture in a genre of literature which has been called "fair fiction." "Fair fiction" uses the setting of a 'fair' in its story. At the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 the following are four examples that include scenes involving Edison's phonograph.


Samantha at the World's Fair by Josiah Allen's Wife,1893



The City of Wonders Souvenir of the World's Fair by Mary Catherine Crowley, 1894


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


The Century World's Fair Book for Boys and Girls by Tudor Jenks, 1893



The City of Wonders

Nora, one of the Barrett children visiting the Columbian Exposition in The City of Wonders, said the Edison Tower in the Electricity building “is like a pillar built with millions of jewels.”

But it was the phonograph in the Edison exhibit of the Electricity building where the Barrett family was astounded by what they saw and heard. “Now,” said Uncle Jack, “you shall hear the marvellous echo-voice of the phonograph,–a voice capable of preserving and repeating the words and accents of those dear to us, months and years after they have been uttered,–when perhaps the lips that spoke them are mute forever.”

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)


Uncle Jack and each of the Barrett children listened through the listening tubes to one of Longfellow's poems, "a song by a popular professional singer," then a "piece by a brilliant performance of instrumental music.

“It is hard to believe that some one is not playing the piano right near here.” exclaimed Aleck.

President Cleveland‘s voice, and the words are those of his inaugural address, and finally a German lesson from the phonograph.

Uncle Jack also pointed out to the children that the phonograph was a 'clever little messenger" so that a traveler instead of writing to his friends at home, can box up a cylinder full of tourist’s gossip, and send it by express.



Samantha at the World's Fair

Chapter XVIII's "The Electricity Building" describes the wonders of electricity in 1893 featuring the Electric House "all fitted up from basement to attic with electricity." A phonograph in its parlor offers selections from "operatic or sacred music or comic songs....Or if they want to hear Gladstone debate, or Chauncey Depew joke, or Ingersoll lecture, or no matter what their tastes are, they can be gratified. The phonograph don't care; it will bring to 'em anything they call for."



The Adventures of Uncle Jeremiah and Family at the Great Fair

The following is a visit by Uncle Jeremiah and his family to the Manufacturers and Liberal Arts building and the first thing they see are coin-operated Columbia graphophones and Edison phonographs. Both machines were popular with the public during the six months the fair was open and likewise were quite profitable. Here is the excerpt:

As they entered the Manufacturers and Liberal Arts building through one of the 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 met their gaze were the graphophones or phonographs. Some nickles were soon in the slots and the family for the first time listening to music coming from some where by singers unseen. Johnny had a face covered with smiles as he listened to some loud-mouthed artist singing "Throw him down McClosky." 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 Century World's Fair Book for Boys and Girls

Harry and Philip are the two boys visiting the fair with their tutor. In the following scene the boys are without their tutor and are visiting the Manufacturers and Liberal Arts Building.

Since Harry had refused to go further into the exhibits of school work, they went down to the main floor, and walked from the southwest corner northward. As in the other buildings they had visited, they found along the walls little stands where young women had on sale penholders, souvenir coins, shell-boxes, necklaces—cheap trinkets of all sorts. For the first few days the boys had gone to see what was shown at these booths; but soon they found there was pretty much the same stock everywhere, and walked by indifferently. They had bought, however, a few things—one a little shield showing the arms Queen Isabella granted to Columbus.

Against the wall about half-way up toward the north end were several “graphophones”—contrivances something like Edison’s phonograph. On dropping a nickel and hooking two hard-rubber tubes into the ears, one might hear instrumental music or songs. A small boy tried one of those machines while Harry and Philip looked on. The tubes were adjusted, and he stood gravely awaiting the result. A smile began to dawn on his lips. It spread widely. His mouth opened; he giggled aloud; he kept on giggling with his eyes closing through pure joy.

Harry tried the machine and found that it was repeating a comic singer’s rendering of “The Cat Came Back,” and he grinned quite as widely as the small boy had done, and afterward sketched the scene with full sympathy."



“That’s a great invention for invalids,” said Philip, thoughtfully.

“Yes,” said Harry, warmly; “think how it would soothe a restless invalid during a long night to hear one of those machines grind out ‘The Cat Came Back!’”

“Well, it would,” said Philip, as soberly as he could. “You couldn’t be sad while listening to that song.”

Just as they were leaving, they saw a mother and child listening to the same graphophone, each having one ear to an end of the branched tube. “I don’t know,” said Philip, “whether that’s quite honest.”





The Phonograph and Education at the Fair

Prior to the Exposition opening on May 1, 1893 there were a number of phonograph related articles about some of the exhibitions that could soon be seen the World's Fair. The Phonograph's impact on education was one of those themes being encouraged by the phonograph industry.


The Phonogram, March-April 1893, p. 361

"The taking of a record before a class of Milwaukee children, under the direction of a teacher. A large receiving funnel or a number of receiving tubes is placed upon the machine and the sounds of the voices in the school room are transmitted upon wax cylinders. These are called “ records ” and show only slight indentations upon their surface." The Phonogram, March-April 1893, p. 362-363



Four phonographs to be used for exhibiting Omaha public school's music at the World's Fair

The Phonogram, March and April 1893, p. 399


For more examples of phonograph and education exhibits at the Fair see The World's Columbian Exposition, the Phonograph and Education.






The Kinetograph

The kinetograph is one other invention that was intended to be part of Edison's exhibit at the World's Columbian Exhibition, however, it was not there at the opening of the fair. It is noteworthy in relation to the phonograph because what was being described as the new kimetograph (sic) was moving pictures using the kinetograph (camera) to capture the scenes on film and combine those motions with sound by using a phonograph.


The kinetoscope would be the coin-in-the-slot device with its peephole viewer that used the kinetograph's film for its moving pictures. The kinetoscope didn't have sound (that would be built into his 1895 kinetophone using a phonograph) but even simply as a moving picture device it is questionable if it was ever at the World's Columbian Exposition.



Pope Leo XIII Sends Greetings to American People by means of Edison's Phonograph

The Phonogram, March and April 1893


The greetings from Pope Leo XIII using Edison's Phonograph was said to be for the opening of the World's Columbian Exposition. The Phonogram article that this would be the first time in the history of the Church that the voice of the Sovereign Pontiff would be heard in America. (Read full article here)

The 1893 cylinder recording was supposed to have been on display at the fair but it is not known who heard it and is now lost. The Belfer Collection, however, has a recording of Pope Leo XIII made on February 5, 1903 in the Vatican. On the recording, Pope Leo recites the “Ave Maria” (Hail Mary) in Latin, as well as a Benediction.


The World's Columbian Exposition Closes

Edison had Exposition disappointments such as losing the lighting system contract to Westinghouse and not being able to introduce his kinetograph as was advertised and as he had intended. But when the Exposition closed on October 30, 1893 the phonograph had received some good publicity, Edison's nickel-in-the-slot phonographs had been profitable, and the phonograph had been seen by visitors as a machine with a greater future in the home, in education and in business.

The following newspaper article reads like Edison helped write with the headline "EDISON PHONOGRAPH AWARDS" and its congratulations to Mr. Lombard, the general manager of the Edison phonograph, and to the Edison company" upon the "success of his exhibit at The Fair."

How successful?

The phonograph had participated in the World's Columbian Exposition which was said to have provided an impetus "to the onward progress of science." "Among the achieved phenomenal results of modern science none occupy a more conspicuous place in the practical world than the Edison phonograph."

If it was actually true that "Among the achieved phenomenal results of modern science" nothing is more clearly visible "in the practical world" than Edison's phonograph then those words would define quite a success.

I doubt Edison would have changed a word.


The Daily Inter Ocean, Chicago, November 1, 1893







References and Endnotes for World's Columbian Exhibition of 1893