Friday, October 25, 2013

Edison's 125 foot horn. A interesting idea that never quite worked.

In the study of sound recording there have always been those unique ideas that were never quite on a level playing surface. One such subject was the 125 foot horn which was built on the corner of Columbia Street in West Orange. Right down the street from the Edison factory complex. I was lucky when I was young to meet some of the people who were there and learned a lot about this one of a kind recording project.

I was able to talk to Theodore Edison about this and for a short while listen to Ernest Stevens go on about it. Theodore told me that his father was very upset about the recording process as he heard it. he was always going on about mixed up music and the like. His father was trying to understand the process and use a mathematical system to make recording less mixed and more straight forward.

 In my years of research I went through many of Edison's personal books. notebooks, pocketbooks, printed journals, and in these I found drops here and there of information dealing with Edison's thoughts and ideas when it came to sound. With the combination of this and my conversations with Theodore, I wanted to share what i have learned about it.  Theodore said many times when his father was fiddling with the idea of a long horn he was around and offered advice. if you are not aware Theodore had a Ph'D in Mathematics This was not met with much approval, so he let him go his own way.

 He said his father went through lots of books on physics, sound, and acoustics. . This is what led to the first of these big horns. The 40 foot horn was the first of these horns to be built. It was used for mainly piano as that was what it seemed suited for. Steven's made a large number of recordings on the 40 foot horn.

Also a Mr Folsom made a number of test recordings on this horn. Folsom was a fellow at the lab and one of the heads of the recording lab. He was embroiled in a battle with a young lady who worked in the factory of whom he got pregnant. She was suing him for seduction. Edison was paying for his court case. In fact Edison in writing about this wrote.."Angels do not work in factories". He wrote more about it in a letter that is in a private collection in which he goes into far more detail and using words that were not very Victorian. However Mr Folsom was also quite a drunk and one night messed up several masters. Getting a woman pregnant was one thing, but, messing up masters was another. Edison fired him after that.

While all this was going on Edison was working on his grand idea of a larger horn. He felt that sound in a shorter horn, even the 40 foot was not enough. He felt that sound itself needed space to untangle itself. That when various instruments were played , their sounds were tangled together.

Now the Columbia Street Studio was an area constructed originally to deal with transferring discs to cylinders and other experimental work. In 1914 it was decided as a cost cutting move to dub the cylinders from the discs. Much of this work took place in the Columbia Street studio. There was a lot of complaints about them, but it became the standard practice and it would never change. But in this studio all would change. As a new horn of amazing size was fitted into it.

A large part of the main building was changed into a large recording room. A cut was made into the wall and another building running 125 feet was built to cover this brass horn. At the end of the horn was built another small building that would deal with making the recordings. Lastly a telephone line was put in so both sides could talk to each other. This was very important as it was very hard to contact the other building. Now into the main building was affixed to the walls cow hair. This was to deaden the sound. Theodore Edison recalled and told me that you would whistle in the room and the sound would be lost. The recording room or building 125 feet away was sealed as well as possible to not allow atmospheric conditions to affect the recording.

The first records made were quite problematic as there were a lot of echos in the long horn. To solve this they eventually put baffles in the horn to cut down on the echos, but, also cut down on the horns effectiveness.

On the floor of the main building there were series of numbers to use as guidelines for recording. Therefore one could make a series of recordings on square number 26 and know exactly where it was recorded. There were many tests done with single instruments on many of these squares that went up to 100 plus. In fact there were a series of tests done using Elizabeth Spencer. Who's voice was adored by Edison. He liked the way she vibrated and used her to sing "Ava Maria" over and over again to lackluster results. In fact there were not many great successes with the horn.

Now that is not to say that there were not any success stories with the horn. There were a few and the fidelity of the recording was improved to a degree. But it was not going to be a viable system.

It proved to be terribly directional, and would vibrate at certain frequencies which would spoil the recording. Edison had ideas to solve the problem that were pathetic at best. He suggested  to put storage batteries in the horn or even ice! This was all done and left to Will Hayes to clean it up.

Over the years of 1923-24 there were number of recordings made with the horn mainly of piano music. The Ernest Stevens trio made a large number of recordings with it.

There were also a lot of breakdowns with the phone system there. Which caused a lot of problems. Theodore Edison was involved in changing the end of the horn in the recording room. Making it a slight bit smaller. The bell at the main building was near six feet and covered with a netting.

By 1925 the Edison company was having a lot of issues with its recording division. It was already starting to lose a lot of money. Therefore the 125 foot horn project was laid to rest. The monster stayed there till 1942, when it was donated for scrap for the war effort. A small piece of the horn was saved in Edison's old storeroom in his lab.

As Theodore mentioned to me. He said that his father was trying to do what Bell Labs would do at practically the same time. Develop a system of matched impedance. This would happen at Bell Labs in 1924. This would result in what the Victor Company would called the "Orthophonic" system.
A system that would revolutionize the recording industry. However Edison was trying to do it acoustically and Bell Labs and Maxwell did it mathematically and electrically.  Theodore would go on to develop new systems and improvements to the Edison system, but not having the patents or the approval, left a lot of his mathematical wizardry out of his father's industry..

 I will write more on this later.

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