Thomas Edison’s Piano

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Welcome to LivingPianos.com, I’m Robert Estrin. I’m here today with the piano owned by Thomas Edison! This piano was purchased by Thomas Edison in 1890 for $725! It’s a Steinway Model B with 85 keys, which is the last year Steinway offered pianos with less than 88 keys. This piano has had some restoration, but is largely original. There are other artifacts about it that are so fascinating, you’re not going to believe it!

This instrument was one of the first pianos ever recorded!

Everybody knows that Thomas Edison invented the light bulb, but he also invented the phonograph two years earlier in 1877. I have here a recording made, perhaps on this piano, from the late 1800s. It’s played on an original Edison phonograph which used wax cylinders instead of familiar discs. You can hear quite a difference in the recording quality compared to modern recording. But it is remarkable that recordings could be made so long ago. I have the original invoice here from 1890 from Steinway, and a letter Thomas Edison wrote to Steinway from his laboratory.

From the Laboratory
of
Thomas A. Edison

Orange, New Jersey, June 2nd, 90-

Steinway and Sons,

Gents,

I have decided to keep your grand piano.
For some reason unknown to me It gives
better results than any so far tried.
Please send bill with lowest price.

Yours,

Thomas A. Edison

Thomas Edison's Letter to Steinway

Isn’t that unbelievable? Well, you might wonder where this piano came from.

I’m very pleased to introduce to you someone who you may have seen before here at LivingPianos.com, The Steinway Hunter: Bob Friedman who located this piano and whose home in upstate New York I am in right now.

Robert Estrin:
Bob, it’s a pleasure to be with you here.

Bob Friedman:
Well, thank you. It’s nice that you came to visit me.

Robert Estrin:
A lot of people might not know that you are The Steinway Hunter.

You have perhaps found and sold more Steinway pianos than anyone ever!

I don’t know if that’s true, but it’s arguably true, wouldn’t you say?

Bob Friedman:
I’d say that I haven’t stopped for close to 50 years now. So if I get up to bat every day and do this until the big leagues close, then maybe that will be true!

Robert Estrin:
I know there are so many great stories in The Steinway Hunter, your book, which is a fabulous read. But tell us about how you came upon this piano.

Bob Friedman:
Interestingly enough, it was put up for sale on EstateSale.com in Huntington, Long Island.

Robert Estrin:
Did they even know what they had?

Bob Friedman:
They knew what they had, but they didn’t know the value in the history of the instrument. After all the research was done and all the paperwork confirmed that it was Thomas Edison’s piano, the one that was in his laboratory music room from 1890 when he purchased it new from Steinway until 1929. I bought the piano.

Robert Estrin:

What are your plans for this piano?

I know here it is in your living room, which is awesome. But you have so many pianos coming and going. This should be in a museum or something, shouldn’t it?

Bob Friedman:
We’re hoping to do a Smithsonian documentary, and then to try and find a home for it in a museum that would like to house the piano.

Robert Estrin:
That would be great! I understand The New York Times was here to do a write up on the piano.

Bob Friedman:
We made some discoveries about the instrument.

Thomas Edison was nearly 100% deaf, and the only way he could hear his instruments and his music boxes was to bite into them.

It just so happens that Edmund Morris, who is a Pulitzer Prize winning biographer who did the last biography on Thomas Edison, completed in 2019, wrote in his book that Edison would bite his piano. The proof was really not out there. It was information that he’d researched over his life and he put it in his book. Well, we made that discovery! A very good associate of mine, who is a historian for Edison, found the bite marks on the piano right there. So, I called up James Barron, who’s a staff writer for The New York Times, and the minute he heard that he said, “I’d like to do a story on the piece.”

Robert Estrin:
People may be thinking, “Why would he bite his piano and his phonograph?” It seems kind of crazy. But it’s because sound travels through solid much more readily than through the air. So your teeth are a fantastic conductor of sound.

Bob Friedman:
The sound goes up into your head. Your head feels like a tuning fork. That’s how Edison heard his piano.

Robert Estrin:
Thank you so much for inviting me into your home and allowing me to play this historical piano. I appreciate it.

Bob Friedman:
And I appreciate it!

Robert Estrin:
We also have here today a wonderful historian who knows a tremendous amount about Thomas Edison. He’s a musician and he’s a piano technician. He also has an incredible collection of early phonographs going back to the 1800s! He can tell us a little bit about the technology. And because he has the unique perspective of being a piano technician and also an Edison historian, he’s going to shed a lot of light on this subject for you.

I’m really pleased to introduce to you, Charles Frommer. Charles, thanks so much for joining us today.

 

Charles Frommer:
Thanks for having me!

Robert Estrin:
You prepped this piano and I’m loving what you did with it. It sounds amazing for an instrument from 1890! It is pretty incredible.

Charles Frommer:
It was a pleasure to work on it. The story goes that Bob Friedman had me come in to tune Thomas Edison’s piano. I was very excited. I’ve been a fan of recording history since I was a kid.

Robert Estrin:
And you have quite a collection of phonographs. What’s the oldest recording gear you own?

Charles Frommer:

My oldest piece of recording equipment is an 1898 Berliner Gramophone, which was sort of the competitor to the cylinder phonograph at the time.

 

Robert Estrin:
A lot of people don’t know that the precursor to the disc was the cylinder. And the reason why discs won out is that you could store them more easily. But was there any sonic advantage to the disc initially?

Charles Frommer:
The discs were more convenient. They were easier to manufacture because you could press them like pancakes, and they were easier to store. They were also a little louder. But Edison was correct in noting that the surface speed was constant on a cylinder, whereas on a disc, as it gets towards the inside, if the rotation is steady, you have less surface per time and the quality reduces. Edison was fairly stubborn in his resistance to using disc technology. I think it was only in 1911 or thereabouts that Edison yielded and made discs. His discs were still different in that he continued his vertical cut technology.

Robert Estrin:

Another interesting thing about Edison is that he chose artists based on how well they reproduced on his technology.

 

He was less interested in the musical content. On many of his cylinders, he wouldn’t even put the names of the artists. He was more concerned with how they sounded. Which is why you have mentioned that he recorded a lot of banjo, because the transients could cut through.

Charles Frommer:
Banjos and woodblocks. Things with a very quick decay. There was actually a diaphragm that vibrated, much like the surface of a banjo. It was connected directly to the cutter, which would cut the wax. That made the groove. There was no electronic interface in between until about 1925. What I find interesting is that there’s a picture of Edison later in life listening to his assistant who’s playing music. He was actually somewhat controlling of the music that he had on his label. He liked to choose what bands would record and what tunes would be recorded. I think his favorite song was I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen. But he would sit and listen while somebody played.

Robert Estrin:
So a dental professional confirmed that these are indeed teeth marks. Is that right?

Charles Frommer:
Yes. I didn’t know what they were. Personally, I was just here to tune. I was halfway through tuning it and I noticed these marks on the top. Usually when a piano has been played by a professional, you will see marks on the fallboard. So I was puzzled by this. And suddenly, I remembered having read somewhere that Edison, being almost completely deaf, would sink his teeth into the wood of his phonograph to listen to records. It was then that I realized that’s what these marks are!

Robert Estrin:
What’s really remarkable is that although this piano has had some restoration along the way with a new sound board, new strings, hammers, and damper felt, that nobody got rid of these marks. And thank goodness for that! It has tremendous historic significance. It is a wonderful instrument and I just want to thank both you and Bob for sharing this instrument with everybody out there.

Thanks again for joining me, Robert Estrin here at LivingPianos.com, Your Online Piano Resource.

You can find Bob Friedman’s book, The Steinway Hunter HERE!

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Contact me if you are interested in private lessons. I have many resources for you! Robert@LivingPianos.com

5 thoughts on “Thomas Edison’s Piano”


 
 

  1. Frank Lloyd Wright, the famous architect, owned two pianos that I know of, that were at Taliesin West: a Steinway and a Knabe. I got to play the Knabe! It was wonderful! Wright designed an enclosure for it, because the stage it was on was very narrow and the piano would have taken up the entire stage. Only the keyboard was on the stage. The rest of the piano was in this enclosure, which had planes at odd angles. It projected the sound into the auditorium.

  2. You and Mr. Friedman gave a wonderful historical presentation! It’s always a pleasurer to see people enthusiastic about old historical instruments and passionate about their preservation. One question. I noticed that the fallboard had the Steinway decal from the first half of the 20th century. Should it rather be the older more elaborate decal?

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