Edison and Mark Twain

Mark Twain in Connectiut

December 2014 marked the 125th anniversary of Mark Twain’s classic novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Since its original publication, it has been reissued innumerable times and has been adapted for film, radio, television, and even into a Rodgers-and-Hart Broadway musical. Twain wrote the novel over a three-year period in the late 1880s, just at the time Thomas A. Edison was preparing his new wax-cylinder phonograph for commercial production. News accounts of the new machine gave Twain the idea that it might prove a useful tool for finishing his book, and he accordingly made inquiries. His attempts to secure a phonograph at this time, however, were unavailing. But had he been able to obtain one, it would have been the first time such a recording device had been used to dictate a significant portion of a novel or any other book for that matter.

Twain’s first experience with the new phonograph occurred at the end of May 1888. On the 21st of that month, he sent an urgent telegram to Edison. “Can you appoint an hour for tomorrow when I may run over & see the phonograph.” Twain, who lived in Hartford, Conn., was in New York City for a short visit, and was anxious to try out Edison’s newly designed machine. He sent the telegram from the Murray Hill Hotel at Park Avenue and East Fortieth Street to Edison’s New York office at 40 Wall Street. But it took three days to reach the inventor, who was then in Orange, New Jersey, where his new home and laboratory were located. “Will be glad to see you this afternoon or any time to-morrow convenient to yourself,” Edison wired back. “I'm here all the time.” But by that time, Twain had returned to Hartford. Although Twain had not seen Edison, he did manage to see the phonograph. “I had only part of a day at my disposal,” he wrote Edison from Hartford, “but I shall try again, soon, & shall hope to find you on deck & still open to invasion. However, I accomplished part of my mission, anyway: I spent an hour & a half with the phonograph in Dey street, with vast satisfaction.” Dey Street was the address of the Edison Phonograph Co. of New York. According to his biographer Fred Kaplan, Twain had a deep fascination with new technologies. He had been among the first to install a telephone in a private home. He had also been among the first writers to use a typewriter. So his interest in the new phonograph and the urgency with which he hoped to acquire one would not have been unusual. “I had had the hope that if I could see you I might possibly get my hands on a couple of phonographs immediately, instead of having to wait my turn,” he told Edison, underlining “immediately” for emphasis. “My case is pretty urgent & if you can give it a puissant push I shall be unspeakably obliged to you.”

Twain seems to have finally visited Edison at the West Orange lab sometime in June. Repeated notations to “see Edison” in his notebook for this period signal his intention to do so, and an October letter from Edison’s attorneys to Twain asking whether he could provide them the date in May or June on which he visited the lab (for the purpose of establishing a chronology for a pending lawsuit) suggests that he did indeed visit at that time. Edison also gave a deposition in October during which he stated that Twain and the Canadian writer George Iles had visited the lab at a time when Edison, his partner Ezra Gilliland, and his lawyer John Tomlinson were discussing the sale of the phonograph patents to the North American Phonograph Co., a transaction that had become a subject of the litigation. Almost forty years later, Edison recalled this visit in a letter to Cyril Clemens, Twain’s cousin and the president of the Mark Twain Society. “Mark Twain once came over to my laboratory with George Iles,” Edison wrote:

He told a number of funny stories, some of which I recorded on the phonograph records. Unfortunately, these records were lost in the big fire which we had at the plant in 1914.

When Mr. Twain and Mr. Iles were ready to go back to New York a rain storm came up, and as they opened the door a gust of rain blew in on them both. Said Twain to Iles, “I guess we are caged for awhile.” Iles, noticing a carriage at the door, belonging to a visitor, suggested “Let us take this carriage.” “No,” said Mark, “It’s not ours.” Iles replied “That don’t matter, let’s take it anyway.” Twain, in his drawling way said, “Business man’s idea! Business man’s idea!”

It would have been entirely within character for Edison, who appreciated humorous stories and loved to tell them himself, to record a few from America’s best-known humorist. Edison does not say, though, whether Twain and Iles actually commandeered the carriage or found some other conveyance back to New York. But he did offer the opinion that Twain “was more than a humorist. He was a practical philosopher.”

Soon after his visit to the lab, Twain left for his annual summer retreat in Elmira, New York, where he did much of his writing. His celebrity had made it difficult for him to write at his home in Hartford, where he was subject to constant interruptions. In Elmira, he and his family stayed just outside of town at Quarry Farm, the semi-rural home of his wife’s adopted sister Susan and her husband, Theodore Crane. In 1874, the Cranes had constructed an octagonal study for Twain some distance from the main house where he could achieve the uninterrupted solitude his writing required. It was here he hoped to bring one of the two phonographs. “All summer long I could use one of them in Elmira, N.Y.,” he had written Edison, “& express the wax cylinders to my helper in Hartford to be put into the phonograph here [Hartford] & the contents transferred to paper by type-writer.”

Twain noted that he had also written to Ezra Gilliland, the general agent of the Edison Phonograph Co. and the manager of the phonograph factory in Bloomfield, N.J., to see if he might let him “have a phonograph now.” In his letter to Gilliland, which has not been found, Twain must have mentioned that he hoped to use the phonograph to finish the book on which he had been working intermittently since 1886—A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. As Gilliland noted in his reply, the phonograph company’s effort to promptly supply Twain “will not be diminished by the knowledge of the fact that one of ‘Mark Twain’s’ books is dependent upon it.”

But no phonographs were available. “I am at present conducting a series of experiments in connection with Phonograph cylinders for mailing purposes,” Edison explained in his June 5 reply. “Just as soon as these are completed I will see that you are supplied with a couple of Phonographs.” In his letter written the following day, Gilliland said, “Changes in the form of the phonograph have delayed the issue of the machines from the factory and none have as yet been delivered for use.” He promised that Twain would “receive an instrument from among the first ones that are put out, which I hope will be within the next few weeks, at the furthest.”

But these promises went unfulfilled all summer, and Twain worked on A Connecticut Yankee longhand. As late as July 27, his English publisher Andrew Chatto was under the impression that Twain still meant to dictate the remainder of the book on an Edison machine. “I hope you will soon tell the story of Smith of Camelot to Edison’s phonograph & let us have it,” he wrote. But three days later, Twain, who, it seems, was tired of waiting, canceled his order for the machines, which was by then in the hands of the newly formed North American Co.

Twain was still anxious, though, to finish the book so that his struggling publishing house—Charles L. Webster & Co.—would have a potentially lucrative release in late 1889. He therefore continued to work on A Connecticut Yankee once he returned to Hartford and finished the manuscript the following spring. Webster published it in December, but sales proved to be something of a disappointment and were not sufficient, in the first year at least, to pull the publishing company out of its financial predicament.

Twain’s frustration in not being able to get his hands on a phonograph in 1888 did not prevent him from mentioning the machine in A Connecticut Yankee. In chapter 40, he notes that it is among the inventions introduced to Arthurian England by the Yankee (now named Hank Morgan instead of Robert Smith, as Twain had originally planned).

Slavery was dead and gone; all men were equal before the law; taxation had been equalized. The telegraph, the telephone, the phonograph, the type-writer, the sewing machine, and all the thousand willing and handy servants of steam and electricity were working their way into favor.

Twain did eventually acquire a couple of phonographs, which he used in 1891 to dictate part of his novel The American Claimant. In February of that year, he asked his friend, the critic and novelist William Dean Howells, to go to the Boylston Building in Boston to the offices of the New England Phonograph Co. and test the new phonograph for dictation purposes. The New England Phonograph Co. was a subsidiary of the Edison-connected North American Phonograph Co. Twain wanted to be sure the machine could record “an ordinary conversation-voice” and play it back clearly enough for a typist to transcribe. Howells reported favorably, and Twain rented two of the machines.

Mark Twain in Connectiut

In early 1891, Twain was suffering from rheumatism in his shoulder and right hand, which made it difficult for him to write longhand. The phonograph would allow him to work without employing an amanuensis. He hoped to conclude his work on The American Claimant in three months and calculated that it would require 175 cylinders to record the remaining 75,000 words he estimated were needed to finish the book. “I don’t want to erase any of them,” he told Howells. “I feel sure I can dictate the book into a phonograph if I don’t have to yell. I write 2,000 words a day; I think I can dictate twice as many.”

But Twain’s high hopes for the phonograph as a tool to produce prose fiction did not pan out. “I filled four dozen cylinders in two sittings,” he wrote Howells in April 1891, “then found I could have said about as much with the pen and said it a deal better. Then I resigned.” Twain also joked that the phonograph, though “good enough for mere letter-writing,” was not suitable for literature “because it hasn’t any ideas and it hasn’t any gift for elaboration, or smartness of talk, or vigor of action, or felicity of expression, but is just matter-of-fact, compressive, unornamental, and as grave and unsmiling as the devil.”

But Twain’s official biographer, Albert Bigelow Paine, says that the author did not give up using the phonograph altogether. “To relieve his aching arm,” says Paine, “he alternated the phonograph with the pen, and the work progressed rapidly.” This was the first time, Twain later claimed, that such a recording device had been used to compose a novel. If this is true, and there is no reason to doubt him, these wax cylinder recordings would have had an important historical value connected not just to Twain but also to the technology itself. But the forty-eight cylinders Twain said he recorded have unfortunately been lost, along with any that he may have subsequently made.

Twain did, however, include an extended passage in The American Claimant that may well be connected to Edison. In it, he describes the visit of one character, Washington Hawkins, to the laboratory of Col. Mulberry Sellers, a mad-cap scientist and the American claimant to a British earldom. Sellers’s comical description of his laboratory must have owed something to Twain’s 1888 visit to Edison’s lab in West Orange. “Now, cast your eye around this room,” Sellers tells Hawkins, “what do you see? Apparently a junk-shop; apparently a hospital connected with a patent office—in reality, the mines of Golconda in disguise.” In due course, Sellers introduces Hawkins to his phonograph, which is especially adapted for service on ships. “You store up profanity in it for use at sea,” he explains, noting that he intends to hire an expert at swearing to pre-load the machines with curses. “Five years from now,” he tells Hawkins, “all the swearing will be done by machinery.”

-----