Demonstrating the Phonograph

A Brief History of Demonstrating the Phonograph and Recorded Sound


By Doug Boilesen 2023

Demonstrations of the phonograph and its recorded sounds have attracted attention, entertained, and been used to sell phonographs and records throughout the phonograph's history. There have been different devices, records and venues for these demonstrations but the phonograph industry has always found ways for the public hear it for themselves.

In the beginning Edison's tinfoil Phonograph demonstrations featured a machine that was seen as a novelty which could magically capture and replay sound - a voice, a trumpet, a dog barking. It was also promoted as the new scientific wonder made by "The Wizard of Menlo Park," sometimes referred to in newspapers as Professor Edison."

While the early demonstrations might have had similiarities with going to a carnival sideshow or a science lecture a decade later the improved phonograph had a new public venue with its introduction as a coin-in-the-slot entertainer. It was a profitable business, so much so that it was soon followed by machines and respective advertising designed to bring the phonograph into the home and a much larger market.

To make it a popular home entertainment device the phonograph industry had to keep improving its sound quality, make it cheaper and offer a variety of more and more records. Regarding the listening quality some early 20th century advertisements confidently stated that there was now no difference between live performers and recorded voices. The public was accordingly asked to hear it for themselves but now there were local phonograph dealers available to provide those demonstrations.

Fifty years later advertisements introduced high-fidelity followed by stereophonic sound which continued with the suggestions that the quality of sound being promoted could be verified with demonstrations and "if you hear it you'll want it."

The following is a gallery with examples of how the phonograph has been demonstrated ever since its first public words were heard in the offices of Scientific American on December 7, 1877. From then on the phonograph industry has wanted the public to hear it for themselves. As one of the phonograph's advertising phrases succinctly put it "Hearing is Believing!"


Demonstrating the Phonograph

Early tinfoil phonographs were exhibited in meeting halls, opera houses or wherever a lecture/demonstration could be held. For 25 cents you could hear "The Greatest Triumph Known to Ancient or Modern Science!" (4A). Those demonstrations could include some facts from a science and technology perspective but most were attending for the experience of hearing for themselves the "wonder" of a machine that records and reproduces voices and sounds.

Curiosity and the novelty of such a device were the early incentives to pay money for a presentation. It's easy to think of those early tinfoil phonograph demonstrations as sideshow attractions since the public's expectations weres defined in a "come and hear it for yourself" style promotions. It was a chance to see an actual recording made and hear a machine repeat back whatever had been recorded. With the turn of a crank the Phonograph magically performed: "It Talks! It Sings! It Laughs! It Plays Cornet Songs."

Listeners were surely astonished at what they heard from the simple device. There were also a few skeptics who thought there must be a ventriloquist or some trick taking place -- understandable reactions since the demonstration of such a device had those elements of a magic show -- but there was no rabbit being pulled from a hat and no ventriloquist.

The writer of the Scientific American article describing what was witnessed at the Phonograph's first public demonstration summarizes the experience that many must have felt: "It is impossible to listen to the mechanical speech without his experiencing the idea that his senses are deceiving him." Scientific American, December 22, 1878.



The recording medium of Edison's Phonograph was originally tinfoil so the process of recording sound could be demonstrated but the 'recording' itself could not be removed and replayed. Pieces of the tinfoil, however, did make nice souvenirs for the paid patrons of these exhibitions. Those demonstrations were not promoting a consumer product, but they were offering the experience of seeing a recording of the human voice being made and then witnessing, with their own ears, the replay of the recorded sound in what was essentially a one-time listening performance.


The Laramie Daily Sentinel, May 3, 1878


It would be nearly a decade later when Edison Phonographs and Columbia Graphophones were playing wax cylinder records. Those new listening opportunities would again be limited by location and number of machines available but the phonograph's record now had a life-cycle which allowed it to be played multiple times. The phonograph for the first time also had a successful business case being made because of the popularity of its records being heard in the new coin-in-the-slot phonographs. Those records of the early 1890's featured band music, quartettes, vocal and cornet solos and talking monologues which could be humorous, risque, a story, or perhaps even advertising soap and then playing some band music.

The first nickel-in-the-slot phonograph was installed by Louis Glass inside the Palais Royale Saloon in San Francisco on November 23, 1889. In a sense, this was the official presentation of a new and personal way to hear music and recorded stories no longer dependent on a traveling exhibitor demonstrating the phonograph or a live performer in a music hall.

Patrons could read the name of the record on the machine's sign board and follow its directions; or the proprietor or phonograph parlor attendant could provide assistance. There was only one record per machine but it gave many people their first experience of recorded sound and potentially the desire to hear another story or song.


Albert K. Keller nickel-in-the-slot phonograph, Electrical Review, August 9, 1890 (Courtesy Allen Koenigsberg)


While coin-in-the slot machines were appearing in saloons, hotels, ferry depots, and other public locations traveling phonograph exhibitors and salesmen were also providing phonograph concerts and demonstrations in towns of all sizes.


The Red Cloud Chief, Red Cloud, NE, August 28, 1891


In Kalamazoo, Michigan's "the first "Phonograph Rooms” were opened in 1895 at the northwest corner of West Main and Rose streets in the Chase Block, where locals were given the chance to “investigate phonographs and graphophones for family use” (The Kalamazoo Gazette). Although the business only lasted a short time, it did help introduce the locals to the idea of recorded music. ("Kalamazoo’s Early Music Stores," Kalamazoo's Public Library, December 6, 2023). By 1915 many of the larger stores had listening rooms, demonstration booths and even "recital halls" to provide listening environments designed to provide the best listening experience and encourage sales.

There are also many examples of phonograph 'concerts' in small towns across the country where the phonograph was being exhibited at a school, or used for fund raising, or part of a social gathering at someone's home where the phonograph might have been the only one in town.


Sociable at the residence of Mrs. A. H. Brown with supper and one selection on a phonograph free. The Red Cloud Chief, Red Cloud, NE, November 17, 1893,


"The Graphophone Social," The Phonoscope, November 1898


Graphophone concert to raise money for a public school flag, The Phonoscope, November 1898


Phonograph music could also be combined with a magic lantern show, a moving picture show, illustrated song slides, or with a local live performance at a church, school, or local opera house.

If phonograph dealers weren't involved in some these performances, the "demonstrations" of the phonograph could result in negative opinions about phonograph records. In 1910 one dealer commented in The Talking Machine World exactly to that point, saying the tendency to stop using phonograph records for the song slides at the movies and replace them with live singers was a good thing. Why? Because the records were being played so much they could hardly be understood and "the result was anything but good publicity for the talking machine."


The Talking Machine World, September 1910


See the gallery of Magic Lantern Shows for some re-created examples which use magic lantern slides accompanied by cylinder phonograph records to illustrate how the Phonograph and the magic lantern could provide multimedia entertainment to paying audiences circa 1900.

See the gallery of Phonograph Music for the Movies for examples of phonograph music used in local movie houses to demonstrate the phonograph and provide music for the 'silent movies."


The Edison concert phonograph - "Have you heard it?" c.1899 [Cincinnati ; N.Y.: The U.S. Printing Co] Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.


"Half the Pleasures in Life come through the ear. The only way to preserve these pleasures in their perfection, and enjoy them at will is by owning a genuine Edison Phonograph."

Munsey's Magazine, February 1899, 2 3/4" x 4"


A phonograph concert was also a way to normalize the phonograph, a machine, as being the performer in a music program and an entertaining substitute for live performers. An 1896 Berliner Gramophone Christmas ad in Munsey's Magazine featured an attentive and smiling group in a private parlor listening to a home entertainment "Programme." The 'playlist' was included as part of the ad with this being one of the earliest phonograph "playlists."


Munsey's Magazine, December, 1896 (PM-0910)


The Outlook, November 28, 1896 (back cover) - Note: Earliest known version of this ad was published in The Christian Work, November 19, 1896 p. 822. (Courtesy Allen Koenigsberg). See Phonographia's 1896 Berliner Gramophone Christmas Programme to listen to records from this playlist.


Phonograph dealers continued sponsoring concerts and public demonstrations, often presenting them as a free "Grand Concert" for the general public.

The following is an example from 1905 of the Thomas Book Store, which sold Edison Phonographs and Records in Madison, Nebraska, renting the local Hein Opera House to put on a free phonograph concert. The event was noted in the November 1905 edition of The Edison Phonograph Monthly.



A merchant in Ponca City, Oklahoma in 1905 gave a phonograph demonstration in Koller's hardware store to rave reviews according to the Edison Phonograph Monthly. "Finest instrument we ever saw or heard..." "Entertainment was better than most fifty cent shows."


The Edison Phonograph Monthly, May 1905


"Hearing is Believing -- and you can hear today at the nearest Columbia dealer's."

"It is reality, nothing less; for "The Stage of the World" presents the artists themselves to you..." Columbia Grafonola, 1916


Edison Tone Tests

Edison conducted Tone Test ‘recitals’ from 1915 to 1925 to demonstrate his new Diamond Disc phonograph recordings. Those demonstrations weren't simply to listen to a record. Instead, listeners would be asked if they could distinguish between a live performing artist and an Edison record.


The Literary Digest for January 24,  1920


"After you have heard the New Edison you could scracely be contented with a talking machine. In your locality there is a merchant licensed by Mr. Edison to demonstrate this new instrument. You will not be importuned to buy." - "The Test of Tests," The Saturday Evening Post, 1917.

For more details about the Edison Tone Tests see Phonographia's Edison Tone Tests.




Demonstration Records

The demonstration of records continued as new record formats and devices were introduced. One way of promoting the introduction of the long-playing 33 1/3 records in the 1950's was by creating "demonstration Records" which were designed to impress listeners with the quality of the recording and the improved performance of a high-fidelity phonograph.

When stereophonic sound was added to phonograph records there were again 'demonstration records' to showcase what the new dimension of stereo brought into the home. Trade magazines like Stereo Review and Ohm Acoustics, a maker of stereo speakers, and others would also create demonstration records to support the proposition that what was being heard with each new demonstration record was the new state-of-the-art phonograph and its records.

In 1954 RCA Victor issued their demonstration LP record titled "Hearing is Believing" and asked listeners to hear for themselves what "High Fidelity" and the "brilliant RCA Victor New Orthophonic Recording" could produce in a before and after listening test. RCA was also introducing their new "Gruve/Gard" with its new raised rim and center to "give permanent protection to the record surface."


"Hearing is Believing, RCA Victor "New Orthophonic" Recording, The Saturday Evening Post, October 9, 1954. (PM-1522)


"Hi-Fi Demonstration Record - a musical test of phonograph performance," Capitol Records, 1956 - A Demonstration Record Not for Sale "with musical excerpts specially selected to help you judge phonograph quality" and recorded in FDS - Full Dimensional Sound.


Roulette Presents A Demonstration of the New Dimensional Sound of Dynamic Stereo, Roulette Records, Inc., 1958

"This recording has been produced to introduce and demonstrate to the listener...DYNAMIC STEREO."



"Stereo Review's Stereo Demonstration Record - A stunning series of demonstrations each designed to show off one or more aspects of music sound and its stereo reproduction." Stereo Review's compilation record, ZD-767, 1973. Pressed by Allentown Record, Co. - Ziff-Davies Publishing Company, New York, N.Y.


Stereo Imaging Demonstration Record, Ohm Acoustics Corp., Ultra-Analog Processing, 1982 (FP-1342)

"Stereo Imaging is purely, but not so simply, the ability of loudspeakers to reproduce music three-dimensionally. Most speakers can't....The cuts we've compiled for this album will enable you to test your speakers for all three of the elements comprising a stereo image: placement, height and depth, and room ambience." (Back of album's explanation by Ohm Acoustics).


Record Listening Booths in the 20th Century

Private listening booths and demonstration rooms were designed to enhance the customer's listening experience when shopping for a new machine or record. As such they were another venue for the demonstration of recorded sounds.

For examples of listening booths in phonograph dealer's stores, record stores, department stores, libraries and popular culture, see Phonographia's Record Listening Booths.


Installation for Fulton Music Company, Waterbury, Conn. - The Talking Machine World, May 1915.


Record Listening Room, The Saturday Evening Post, April 19, 1952


Demonstration Rooms in the 21st Century

Box stores like Best Buy and audio stores specializing in higher-end sound systems continue to offer customers the opportunity to listen to records and digital recordings in their audio rooms where different speakers and components can be switched back and forth. The listener of these demonstrations is still being given the opportunity to find the right system per their ears (and now also their eyes for the multimedia systems) and their budget.

Demonstrations of sound started with the tinfoil phonograph demonstrations and ever since there have been "hearing is believing" experiences. The major difference, however, is that for most it's no longer a wonder to experience ephemeral sound captured and heard. Instead, the demonstrations in stores is connected with whether or not what you hear is worth purchasing, i.e., is it significantly better than how you already experience sound; is there some new benefit to how you can hear music if you purchase a new music delivering device; or does streaming of music and the wireless headphones/earbuds make those decisions even simpler?

The technologies and quality of sound and variety of music available have exponentially changed. Physical media and phonograph records are niche formats. The shift to more personal listening also is a factor. Fundamentally, however, whether it's a family listening to music as part of a home entertainment system or a single listener streaming music from their iPhone, the "Stage of the World" and "Best Seat in the House" advertising messages have not changed: You, as the listener, are still being offered the best seat in the house.

For myself, however, having the best seat in the house for listening to the recorded music of world, anytime, anywhere and as often as I want will always be associated with the wonder and magic of the phonograph and recorded sound.

Perhaps that's because I'm a Friend of the Phonograph.

But I think it's more than that, and would suggest that the Scientific American writer's reaction at the phonograph's first public demonstration can be a reminder of that wonder and magic when he wrote "it is impossible to listen to the mechanical speech without his experiencing the idea that his senses are deceiving him."

It was, as is, a wonder.





Last updated February 11, 2024