"bottles it up for future use"

Punch’s Almanack for 1878, December 14, 1877


By Doug Boilesen, 2020

The invention of the phonograph would result in various ways the public could think about the phonograph's fundamental and revolutionary ability to capture sound for future use. The following are examples of some of those metaphors and phrases that appeared in print to describe the wonder of recorded sound, e.g., bottled sound, "canned music," imprisoned sound, gathered up and retained sounds, captured sound, etc.



Bottled Sound

The New York Times on November 7, 1877, responding to the announcement that Edison's phonograph would soon be a reality, wrote an article starting with the statement that the phonograph "was destined" to entirely eclipse the ingenious telephone which only transmitted sound whereas the phonograph "bottles it up for future use."

The New York Times on November 7, 1877,


This article, however, was written one month before Edison actually completed his phonograph and six months before Edison would publish his own probabilities about the future of the phonograph so enthusiasm, speculation and skepticism were choices for how the press might present this impending invention.

In their November 7, 1877 article The New York Times chose skepticism and a bit of sarcasm by using bottling up sound as their metaphor and then by providing examples in the extreme of what that bottling up of sound would eliminate or change. If a phonograph can bottle sound then

"Why should we print a speech when it can be bottled?"

Why should we learn to read when novels can be listened to "without taking the slightest trouble?"

Instead we "shall be able to buy Dickens and Thackeray by the single bottle or by the dozen." "Instead of libraries with combustible books, we shall have vast storehouses of bottled authors, and though students in college may be required to learn the use of books, just as they now learn the dead languages, they will not be expected to make any practical use of the study."

"Blessed will be the lot of the small boy of the future" who will never have to learn his letters or wrestle with the spelling-book..."


The New York Times on November 7, 1877



Besides bottling up authors and books the phonograph would also be able to bottle up opera stars and music as shown in this engraving from Punch’s Almanack for 1878, December 14, 1877 (1)



"Canned Music"

Although The New York Times description of the phonograph being like wine bottled up for the future was a clever metaphor, the article actually missed a fundamental aspect of what the phonograph could do. It was stated that whatever was "stored away in the cellar" could be brought out years hence. But the Phonograph could do much more than simply store something like a bottle of wine that could be drunk at a later time. What was missing was the wonder that captured sound could be enjoyed by anyone, anywhere and as often as they wanted -- and the fact that the bottle would always remain full.

In keeping with this "bottling" description for recorded sound John Philip Sousa would write some disparaging remarks about recorded music using a different container and calling it "canned music." Like a bottle, a can is a container that can be filled with something and then emptied. In his 1906 article in Appleton's Magazine titled "The Menance of Mechanical Music" Sousa made his case against 'canned music" which he feared was becoming a “substitute for human skill, intelligence and soul.”

Canned music is "going to ruin the artistic development of music in this country. When I was a boy...in front of every house in the summer evenings, you would find young people together singing the songs of the day or old songs. Today you hear these infernal machines going night and day. We will not have a vocal cord left. The vocal cord will be eliminated by a process of evolution, as was the tail of man when he came from the ape."

Circa 1904 Edison cylinder record stored in cylinder box, similiar to an early 1900 can of baking powder.



Some examples of the menaces Sousa saw in canned music.


Appleton's Magazine, "The Menace of Mechanical Music" by John Philip Sousa, September 1906




"The Menace of Mechanical Music" by John Philip Sousa, Appleton's Magazine, September 1906, Courtesy of HathiTrust Digital Library









An advertising response by Edison to Sousa's complaints about the phonograph and "canned music."


The Edison Phonograph Monthly, January 1907



An earlier use of "canned music" had appeared in O. Henry's 1904 story "The Phonograph and the Graft." In addition to calling phonograph music "canned" Henry also described the phonograph and its records as "our galvanized prima donna and correct imitations of Sousa's band excavating a march from a tin mine."


This Edison dealer postcard advertising The New Edison (c. 1917) challenged previous generation disparagements that talking machines play 'canned music." The Edison did not play "canned music" - everyone who hears the New Edison will delight in admiration, "just as they would to the original music."


"Canned Speech"

See Phonographia's Dictionary of Phonographia for the definition of "Canned Speech."


Celebrity and political impersonation speeches (e.g., McKinley original Speech is what Brainey is currently recording) Judge, June 1897




The "canned speech" of President Wilson

May 24, 1913, Lincoln Daily News




"Canned Engagement Annoucement"

The Nebraska State Democrat, May 16, 1912




"Imprison Sound"

Oakland Daily Evening Tribune, May 1, 1878 reported that "It has been demonstrated beyond a doubt that the phonograph, as perfected by Edson (sic), can imprison sound and let it out at any future time."

Its summary for future use included the following: Testify in divorce cases ("The phonograph won't lie."); send it to church on a rainy Sunday to bring home the music and the sermon; repeat a good concert at home. "But as a revealer of family secrets the phonograph may yet lay the mischief. It will talk too much. The world has gained immensely, because an infinite amount of mischievous talk has gone into oblivion. But if hereafter, the phonograph is to be used as a repeater, a great many lips would need to be toned to prudent speech."




"gathering up and retaining of sounds..."

The opening paragraph of Edison's 1878 article, "The Phonograph and its Future" (The North American Review May-June 1878), identified the foundation principle of Edison's Phonograph as "the gathering up and retaining of sounds hitherto fugitive, and their reproduction at will." This description of sound as previously 'fugitive' is repeating the language of the Oakland Tribune's pronouncement that sound can now be imprisoned. The cultural change in the perception of sound and its preservation was the revolution of the phonograph. Ephemeral sound would be forever changed.




"capture the fleeting beauties" of sound

This 1918 Victor advertisement dramatically contrasts how the phonograph has changed music and the perception of sound forever. On stage the ghost of Jenny Lind stands behind Melba and the message of the ad is poignant and clear: "Jenny Lind is only a memory but the voice of Melba can never die." Melba's voice can be heard anytime, any place and as often as you want, flowing forever "in centuries to come."


"Practically every great singer and instrumentalist of this generation makes records only for the Victor--thus perpetuating their art for all time. Life, 1918.