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, 2021The 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." (1)
Edison had demonstrated his phonograph and electric lights at the Exposition Universelle of 1889 in Paris to crowds filled with wonder and admiration for those inventions.
The Phonograph at the Exposition Universelle of 1889 in Paris, Harper's Weekly, June 1889
The Chicago World's Fair, however, wasn't the Paris experience that Edison had enjoyed in1889. The adulation for Edison's light bulb in Paris was now dimmed by the alternating power system used to illuminate more than 100,000 lamps at the Chicago fair's "White City" in 1893. Those lights belonged to George Westinghouse who had underbid Edison and General Electric's direct current (DC) system to secure the fair's contract with his alternating current (AC) power system. The spectacle of those lights witnessed by tens of thousands on the fair grounds every night literally showcased the future of alternating current for cities and homes around the world. (Watch 2016 promo for PBS American Experience - The Columbian Exposition from Tesla).
The phonograph had enjoyed much attention in Paris and Edison did highlight his 1893 phonograph in Chicago with countless fair-goers hearing its music and the entertainment that it provided. Edison's "domestic" phonographs and residence outfits were being offered in 1893 but price was still a major hindrance for the home market. Nevertheless, for the phonograph industry the World's Fair was an opportunity to promote the phonograph as improved and ready for use in business, education, coin-in-the-slot amusement and home entertainment.
The "Stationary Exhibition Outfit, to be operated by coin-in-the-slot mechanism for reproducing only. Phonograph complete with electric motor and hardwood cabinet." The Phonogram, January 1893
North American Phonograph Company - 1893 brochure showing Edison Phonograph "Residence Outfit"
(The Thomas Edison Papers, Rutgers)
Edison was still the Wizard and many articles about Edison and his exhibits for the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 started by mentioning his accolades as Wizard and genius inventor. His phonograph and other electricity system components and domestic appliances were promoted as upcoming exhibits for the World's Fair. But as America's greatest inventor there was an expectation that Edison was always working on a new wonder or perfecting a previous one. So true to form in July 1891 the Chicago Tribune wrote that Edison was working on perfecting his kinetograph which he will "complete in all its details" by the time of the opening of the world's fair in 1893 where he would then exhibit his device which would "do for the eye what the phonograph does for the ear."
Two years later, as the May 1, 1893 opening date of the fair approached, large and small newspapers across the country were still reminding readers that Mr. Edison will again lead the procession at Chicago with a new marvel, "perhaps the "greatest of his inventions, the kinetograph."
The Champion, Norton, Kansas, April 27, 1893
The Standard Union, Brooklyn, May 19, 1893 reporting on the first public demonstration of May 9, 1893
The World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 and the Phonograph
The following virtual scrapbook is about Edison's exhibits at the Chicago World's Fair with particular attention to the phonograph.
A number of stories in popular culture include references to visitors of the fair listening to the phonograph. Some exhibitors even used the phonograph for special effects such as the Bernese Alps Cyclorama on the Midway Plaisance which used a phonograph record in their cycloramic show "to make the deception complete, as one's ears are greeted with the strains of a Swiss ballad seeming to proceed from the maid." An Edison phonograph was used inside a large figure of Uncle Sam which delivered a recorded speech promoting Hub Gore Shoes.
When the Official Guide to the Chicago World's Fair was published Edison's kinetograph was identified as "among the most unique exhibits" of the fair. This new kinetograph was said to work in conjunction with the phonograph so that it "transmits scenes to the eye as well as sounds to the ear."
The Official Guide of the World's Columbian Exhibition, April 1893 (published before the fair opened)
There is little evidence, however, that the kinetograph was ever at the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893, and definitely not as any coin-in-the-slot device that would entertain visitors with its moving pictures and sound.
The story of the Kinetograph at the 1893 World's Fair, therefore, has its own page to tell that story.
Edison the Wizard and the Electricity Building
The Edison Tower of Light in the General Electric exhibit in the Electricity Building had an eight-foot tall light bulb at the top. "A pillar built with a million jewels" as Nora Barrett described it in The City of Wonders.
Standing inside the Electricity Building and seeing the "Edison Electric Tower" a.k.a. the "Tower of Light" was a reminder that Edison was the Wizard and the light bulb was his "crowning achievement." However, it was also a reminder that only a year earlier the Edison General Electric Company had been acquired and was now General Electric. Edison's name was gone and the signage "Edison Light" on the electric tower was topped with the "General Electric Co.".
Edison's Phonograph Exhibit in the Electricity Building - Social and Commercial Uses of the Phonograph
In the Official Guide to the World's Columbian Exposition the following was written about Edison's Phonograph Exhibit in The Electricity Building.
The commercial and social uses of the phonograph, it was said, included conversations of all types with the options of those words being delivered in your own voice or transcribed into a letter and sent. Conversations between husband and wife across the globe were possible because of the phonograph; intimate words could be said and heard even for long distance relationships; and the business man can dictate letters at any hour.
Official Guide to the World's Columbian Exposition describing some uses of the Phonograph, p. 71
Descriptions of the Electricity Building and of Edison's Phonograph exhibits were included in The Phonogram's March-April 1893 issue that summarized by stating "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 space that belonged to the North American Phonograph Company in the Electricity Building was divided into four areas. One was for company business related to the World's Fair. Another for the exhibition of the domestic phonograph and to illustrate the social application of the instrument. The third was to exhibit the commercial phonograph with examples of its advantages for business. And the fourth devoted to the educational purposes of the phonograph.
Another area was to be glass enclosed with a piano and special exhibits to demonstrate "the infinite uses to which this wonderful instrument may be applied." Phonographs would be operated from electric light circuits and from primary and secondary batteries. Among some of the recordings promised were "music from many of the great artists of the world, from famous orchestras and other organizations of whose performances in the flesh we only know by reading cold type. Here, we may close our eyes and imagine ourselves in the very atmosphere of genius." Voices of Edison and William Gladstone could also be heard and hundreds of others.
Edison’s special phonograph exhibit described by The Phonogram was glass enclosed and one of the spaces designed by the North American Phonograph Company in the Electricity Building. (Image from Bancroft, Hubert Howe's The Book of the Fair. The Bancroft Company, 1893.) (1A)
In the back corner of Edison's glass enclosed phonograph exhibit was 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
Promoting the Phonograph - Demonstrations, Lectures and Soirres
Demonstrations, lectures and other activities to promote the phonograph were sponsored in the Electricity Building by the North American Phonograph Company. Presentations like these had been used since the earliest days of promoting Edison's tinfoil phonograph but a world's fair with a record-setting attendance offered the opportunity for the phonograph to be seen and heard by thousands of visitors in one venue.
The Daily Inter Ocean, Chicago, August 16, 1893 p. 7
In 1893 the North American Phonograph Co. was selling Edison Phonographs for business use, exhibitions, as nickel-in-the-slots, and for home entertainment. Musical and other recordings and blank cylinders to make your own recordings were also for sale.
The Phonogram, March and April, 1893 "The World's Fair Number"
Advertising these four phonograph "outfits" in 1893 reflected the existence of the multiple phonograph markets before the home market would emerge and dominate.
By 1897 the home market was growing and phonograph advertising was seen in more and more consumer magazines. The following Columbia Graphophone ad is an example of how those four markets were still important in 1897 and how they appeared in consumer magazines like The Cosmopolitan (as opposed to the 1893 ads when much of the promotion of the phonograph was being done in the talking machine industry's trade magazines like The Phonogram.
Business, Nickel-in-the-slot, Home and Exhibition - The Columbia Graphophone, The Cosmopolitan, 1897
For more examples of pre-1900 Phonograph ads, visit Phonographia's PhonoAds
"THE ELECTRIC HOUSE" in the Electricity Building
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 in the Electric House (the Edison Class "M" Phonograph was battery powered and the Class "E" used D.C. lighting circuit).
Edison Class M Phonograph (Courtesy The British Library)
This Edison Class M was sold by The North American Phonograph Co. primarily for commercial use but would also have been in a few homes, circa 1893. (2)
The New Phonograph for the Home
"In the social exhibit the new household machine is shown for the first time...This is the realization of Mr. Edison's ideal...that the best music, vocal and instrumental, oratory, elocutions, readings and sermons could be brought into the home..."
The Indianapolis News, Indiana April 27, 1893 p. 5
Facsimile Figures at the Fair and the Phonograph
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.'
UNCLE SAM'S SPEECH.
In the Electricity Buidling there was no charge to listen to Edison's Phonograph in the "space allotted to the North American Co., but many coin-in-the slot machines are likely to be scattered through the premises."(3) Additional nickel-in-the-slot phonographs and graphophones would also be available on the World's Fair's Midway Plaisance.
The Best Things To Be Seen At The World's Fair, Published by Authority of Exposition Management, June 1893, p. 62"The great Electricity building is filled with curious exhibits of an electrical character. To the left as you enter from the north front a large circular space is devoted to phonographs, where one at the expense of a few coppers may amuse himself for an hour."
The first nickel-in-the-slot Phonograph had been installed on November 23, 1889 in the Palais Royal Saloon, Sutter Street, San Francisco. Coin-operated phonographs would soon be placed in hotels, railroad and ferry stations, saloons and other public places in addition to formal Phonograph Parlors in larger cities where multiple machines could be heard. By the time people visited the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893 there would have been opportunities for many to have already seen or heard the phonograph because of these coin-in-the-slot machines.
For details about the Exhibition Parlors in Cleveland and Cincinnati operated by the Ohio Phonograph Company in 1891 see Exhibition Parlors of the Ohio Company, The Phonogram, November-December, 1891.
The above Edison nickel-in-the-slot phonographs were exhibited at the American Institute Fair in New York City in October 1892. Fifteen machines were available for play plus "an exhibition machine, connected with which is an eighteen-way hearing tube, that affords visitors the opportunity of listening, eighteen at once, to the music." The Phonogram, October 1892
The Phonograph and Educational Uses
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
Newspapers had articles throughout the six-month fair regarding Edison's phonograph emphasizing 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
For more examples of phonograph and Edison's education exhibits at the fair see The World's Columbian Exposition, the Phonograph and Education.
The Phonograph and Business Uses
The phonograph as a business machine used for dictation and letter writing had been at the top of Edison's list since 1878. Under the newly chartered North American Phonograph Company Jesse H. Lippincott in 1888 had licensed the patents for Edison's Phonograph and for Bell-Tainter's Graphophones. Each company would make and sell their respective phonographs and graphophones to the North American Phonograph Company which in turn would lease them to regional sub-companies, who would then rent the machines to local businesses for dictation.(1)
For many reasons Lippincott's company struggled and would fail, and many legal battles wouldn't be resolved until the end of 1896. In the meantime, Edison was actively promoting its use as a business machine.
Within that context Edison in 1893 was President of the North American Phonograph Company and the phonograph was being promoted as a business machine and as one of the phonograph's main themes at the World's Fair.
"In a few years no live business man will think of dictating correspondence to a stenographer" wrote The Phonogram in April 1893. The Phonograph is "The Ideal Stenographer."
The Phonogram, March and April 1893 pp. 367
Social and Commercial Purposes - Musical and The Ideal Stenographer
The Phonogram, November 1892
In an ad repeated in The Phonogram every month in 1893 leading up to the fair Edison advertised "10 Reasons Why the Phonograph is Superior to Any Stenographer."
The Phonogram, March-April 1893
The North American Phonograph Company Catalogue, November 1893
Pope Leo XIII used an Edison Phonograph to send a message to the American people which he hoped would be heard at the opening of the World's Columbian Exposition. Although it wasn't heard by the public on opening day the illustration of the Pope speaking into a phonograph was essentially an endorsement for the phonograph industry. If the Pope was using it for composing and sending a message then why shouldn't the business world do the same?
Pope Leo XIII sends greetings for the opening of the World's Columbian Exposition.
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 and The Phonogram noted that Pope's phonograph recorded words 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 that was to have been on display at the fair is now lost. The Belfer Collection, however, has a recording of Pope Leo XIII made on February 5, 1903 in the Vatican. On that recording, Pope Leo recites the “Ave Maria” (Hail Mary) in Latin, as well as a Benediction.
"Fair Fiction" PhonoLiterature
Some 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. One of those authors, Marietta Holley (author of Samantha at the World's Fair, Samantha at the St. Louis Exposition, Samantha in Europe, and Around the World with Josiah Allen's Wife) wrote all of her books about visiting fairs and other destinations without ever actually going to any of those places.
The following are four examples of 'fair fiction' books whose authors wrote about the World's Columbian Exposition with scenes involving Edison's phonograph and the Electricity Building.
Samantha at the World's Fair by Josiah Allen's Wife,1893
The Century World's Fair Book for Boys and Girls by Tudor Jenks, 1893
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.
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 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."
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."
“—AND THE CAT CAME BACK.”
“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 kinetograph in 1891 was defined as a "Motion writing" instrument, a camera that could take moving photographs. It was called "a Companion to the Phonograph," a "Brother to the Phonograph," and was said that it would be "more wonderful than the phonograph."
Edison's new kinetograph was to "transmit scenes to the eye as well as sounds to the ear." The "movements of the lips" of a prima donna, it was said, would be seen as her words of the song were produced by the phonograph.
In July 1891 the Chicago Tribune reported that "Edison's new kinetograph would be complete in all its details by the time of the opening of the world's fair, at which it is to be exhibited."
There is no evidence that the kinetoscope was ever exhibited at the Chicago fair. There remains the possibility that there was a kinetograph exhibit in the Electricity Building but there is no evidence that it was operational.
For the story of the kinetograph and kinetoscope at the Chicago World's Fair see The World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 and the "Kinetograph"
The World's Columbian Exposition Closes
The Exposition closed on October 30, 1893. The phonograph had been seen and heard by countless fair visitors. It had received good publicity in the popular press (with much of it probably inserted by the phonograph industry itself). Edison's nickel-in-the-slot phonographs had been profitable. And the phonograph as a social and commercial machine would be visualized by many for its future in the home, in education and in business.
For Edison the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 was not Paris of 1893. Edison had lost the fair's lighting system contract to Westinghouse and Edison was not able to deliver his kinetoscopes to the fair.
The following newspaper article, however, highlighted Edison's success at the fair and reads like Edison helped write it with the headline "EDISON PHONOGRAPH AWARDS" followed by 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 did the success of the Columbian Exposition also provide success at the fair for Edison?
It was the phonograph.
The phonograph had participated in the World's Columbian Exposition which was said to have provided an impetus "to the onward progress of science." And then the superlative: "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 that recognition was a very big success for Edison.
True or not, I doubt Edison would have changed a word.
The Daily Inter Ocean, Chicago, November 1, 1893
Chicago World's Fair by Thomas Moran, 1894 (Courtesy Brooklyn Museum)
References and Links - World's Columbian Exhibition of 1893 and the Phonograph
References, Annotations and Endnotes for World's Columbian Exhibition of 1893
Official Guide to the World's Columbian Exposition
The Electricity Building at the World's Columbian Exhibition of 1893
PBS American Experience - The Columbian Exposition from Tesla
The Edison Electric Tower - An illustration of the Tower by R. Outcault and other Connections
Pope Leo XIII Sends Greetings to American People by means of Edison's Phonograph
Kinetograph Reference Material and Links
The World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 and the Kinetograph - Details related to the Kinetograph/Kinetoscope as an exhibit
References, Annotations and Endnotes for the Kinetoscope at The World's Columbian Exposition of 1893
American Society of Cinematographers for overview of the Kinetoscope and their restored Kinetoscope
Blacksmithing Scene - Edison Kinetograph Film, 1893 (Courtesy MOMA)
Blacksmithing Scene - MOMA Learning
Scientific American, May 20, 1893 - Report on the Kinetograph's first public demonstration at the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences on May 9, 1893
Edison and the Kinetoscope: 1888-1895, Musser, Charles. "Before the Nickelodeon: Edwin S. Porter and the Edison Manufacturing Company." Berkeley: University of California Press, ©1991