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How Edison saved rock and roll

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology

Simple gray rule

How Edison saved rock and roll

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1992, The Syracuse Newspapers

Tom Edison was no rock-'n' roller. But he should get the original credits for the Beatles and U2 and Prince and all the others. Without Tom, they'd just be whistlin' in the wind.

Tom also helped save the whales. But I should start at the beginning.

Tom Edison was a kind of general-purpose inventor 100 years ago. He didn't like working in the dark any more than you do, so he invented the electric light bulb.

No light-bulb jokes, please—it only took one Tom Edison to screw in a light bulb. But before long the whole nation and even the whole world gave up their whale-oil lamps and starting lighting up their lives with electricity.

You might say they got a charge out of it.

But what does this have to do with rock and roll?

I knew you'd ask. So I did a little research.

When Tom was a boy, he was fascinated by sound. Music in those days was nothing like what we have today—heck, even Elvis wasn't around then—and the only way you could hear music was to play it yourself or maybe listen to somebody else play it.

In other words, you had to hear it "live"—no FM, no Top 40, no cassettes, no records. It was either a concert or maybe mama banging away on the piano in the living room.

When he was still a kid, Tom had a modern-day experience that made him even more interested in the sounds around him. He was the victim of child abuse.

Somebody cuffed him in the ear so hard that he went partially deaf.

Later, when he wasn't locked up in his laboratory inventing light bulbs or any of the hundreds of other amazing things that he dreamed up, he kept returning to his idea of turning the whole sound problem upside down. If you couldn't bring people to the concert, why not bring the concert to the people?

So Tom got a needle and some wax and made history. He dipped a cylinder in the wax and stuck a crank on one end. Then he put the needle on the small end of a horn, like the end of a trumpet, and rested the point on the edge of the cylinder. When he turned the crank, a thing that looked like a screw pulled the needle sideways while the cylinder turned.

When you looked at it, you could see that it was making a groove. It was a plain, old, ordinary groove if nobody said anything, but it you talked or sang while the thing was turning, the groove had little wiggles in it. The wiggles turned out to be sound waves etched in wax.

The rest was easy. You put the needle back at the beginning and turned the crank and got sound out of the horn. It wasn't hi-fi, of course, but it was sound. The boombox was born.

When rock came rolling in, 40 years ago, there was another sort of boom—the baby boom. When these kids got to be teen-agers, they discovered a new kind of music and a new form of Tom Edison's invention—the 45-prm record player. It didn't take long for 45s and rock music to turn into the hottest things since diapers.

And then, of course, there was a new generation, with cassettes and the Beach Boys. And later still, CDs and Madonna. In each case, sound got better and better as it came to us in newer ways.

But it's still recorded sound. If he only could, Tom should take a bow.

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