March 25, 1999
In Love With Technology, as Long as It's Dusty
A Collector Tracks Down Antiques, but the Paraphernalia of the Digital Age Leave Him Cold
By KATIE HAFNER
n 1863, nearly 15 years before Thomas
Alva Edison created the first phonograph, an inventor named Leon Scott is
said to have visited the White House. If
historical anecdotes are accurate, he made
a tracing of President Lincoln's voice with
his newly invented "phonautograph," a machine that scratched sound vibrations onto a
soot-blackened sheet of paper wrapped
around a drum.
The cylinder on which a paper record of
Lincoln's voice was apparently made has
never been found. But there are two phonautographs known to exist in the United States.
One is at the Smithsonian Institution. The
other is in Brooklyn, at the home of Allen
Koenigsberg, an impassioned collector of
antique phonographs, sound recordings and
other technological and cultural artifacts
from the last century.
James Estrin/The New York Times
SCHOLARLY PASSION - Allen Koenigsberg displays some of his antiques: a stereo-viewer, kaleidoscope, daguerreotype sign.
The lost tracing of Lincoln's voice is one
of dozens of mild yet nagging preoccupations for Koenigsberg, whose day job is
teaching Classics and Ancient History at Brooklyn College.
He has little interest in collecting more
recent inventions, although he is happy
enough to use a computer and, of course, has
a Web site for other collectors. It's not that he has any
objection to modern technology; it just does
not capture his attention in the same way.
"One of the reasons that I enjoy collecting
old technology is that it is both visual and tactile," he
said. "I can see how it works. I can repair an
old phonograph from 1900, but if my CD-ROM goes down, I haven't a clue how to fix
But he does make a connection between the
things he collects and today's technomania.
There is, he said, a close parallel between
the optimism surrounding technology that
reigned at the close of the 19th century and
the celebration of computers, the Internet
and technology in general that is occurring
at the end of this one.
"The development of the movies, sound
recordings, X-rays, the spread of the telephone and
electric lighting, the convenience of the
mimeograph, the improved typewriters, all
seemed to herald a century without precedent," Koenigsberg said.
Perhaps it is some of the faded optimism
that clings to old objects that attracts him.
He is looking for a lost recording by Mark
Twain, who dictated his 1892 novel "The
American Claimant" onto Edison's early
records, hollow cylinders of wax -- roughly
the size of a soup can -- that were used for
both recording and playing. And he has
searched for years for a water-powered
phonograph, manufactured briefly in 1890
by Edison, which played records by circulating water through a turbine.
A technology collector's
gems include the lore he
has gathered, as well as the
objects on his shelves.
Not that his collection is anything but
enviable. In addition to Scott's phonautograph, Koenigsberg, 56, owns one of
Edison's first phonographs, which recorded
directly on tinfoil (he also has a piece of the original
foil); one of the first
Edison talking dolls; an 1890s jukebox; a talking alarm clock from 1898 (it
speaks in French); the last photo taken of Lincoln; a Cheret lithograph of the Theatrophone,
a late-19th century stereo telephone transmitter, as well as a live recording of Edison receiving the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1928.
Koenigsberg, who keeps his collection
in what he admits is a rather helter-skelter
fashion in his house, said he had some 5,000
cylinder records, some of them extremely
rare, including a Sarah Bernhardt recitation; a Presidential campaign debate from
1908; a 1912 Theodore Roosevelt stump speech to the Manhattan Boys Progressive
Club, and a speech by Edison himself, delivered at the end of World War I.
"He normally didn't like to speak in public as his deafness prevented him from
hearing his own voice properly, and he knew
that he was not the polished speaker that
people expected," Koenigsberg said.
"But he made an exception at the war's end."
What inspires awe from others both in
and outside the collecting world is Koenigsberg's scholarly approach to his hobby.
"He's one of the two or three most reliable people specializing in the history of
the phonograph," said Samuel Brylawski, head of the recorded sound section at the
Library of Congress, to whom Koenigsberg often turns during his sleuthing missions. "He's absolutely dogged in the pursuit
of a fact."
Not only is Koenigsberg an expert on
Edison and his inventions (he has published
a study of the first 35 years of
phonograph patents) and a font of historical
and cultural trivia, but he also looks for the hidden
story behind every device.
VOICES OF THE PAST -
artifacts from the
Top, one of Edison's
first tinfoil phonographs,
made by E. Hardy of Paris.
recorded the sound
of the human voice.
Bottom, early wax cylinder
records - and their cases.
"There are people with bigger, more important collections," said David Giovannoni,
a fellow collector and an audience research
analyst in Derwood, Md. "Allen is also an information collector, which is where he
Consider the case of the serial murderer. A few years
ago, in a suitcase containing 36 otherwise
unremarkable, unlabeled cylinder records,
Koenigsberg found one with the unidentified voice of someone admitting multiple
Koenigsberg heard this: "I cannot
help the fact that I was a murderer, no more
than the poet can help the inspiration to a
song. I was born with the evil one standing
beside the bed when I was ushered into the
world, and he has been with me ever since."
The killer voiced regret about only one of
the 27 victims: his lover, Minnie Williams.
Melodramatic, yes, but using that name as a clue, Koenigsberg dug through newspaper archives and
concluded that he was in possession of a
recording made of the most famous serial
killer of the late 19th century -- H. H. Holmes, a doctor whose real name was Herman Webster Mudgett.
If the Lincoln phonautograph session actually took place, and the cylinder wasn't
inadvertently tossed in the trash by a janitor, Koenigsberg said, one of the most
likely places for it to be would be in the
White House archives. "The kind of paper
that was used on the drum was later called kymograph," he said. "So if these
tracings still existed in Washington, they
might be filed under such a word." When
Koenigsberg wrote to the White House
many years ago, he said, "I did not detect
much interest in such a search, but if we had it, we could now play back Lincoln's voice!"
Curiously, at the time Leon Scott invented
his phonautograph, he had devised a way
only to make a visual record of a voice, but
not to reproduce the sound.
Scott's recording bristle -- from a hog, or even a
bird's feather -- scratched the surface of the blackened paper to make a visual tracing of the
voice. "He never anticipated that these tracings could be used to reproduce the voice,"
Koenigsberg said. "They were only used for visual study. In 1874, Alexander Graham Bell made one with a human ear - but even he missed inventing the phonograph!"
It wasn't until Edison invented the phonograph in late 1877 that sounds could be played
back. "Until then, nobody had the insight
that if a stylus could cut a groove in wax
or plaster or gutta-percha, the needle would
make sound," Koenigsberg said.
Davia Nelson, executive producer of
"Lost and Found Sound," a current National
Public Radio series, said she and her fellow
producer, Nikki Silva, had relied heavily on
Koenigsberg's store of knowledge about
old and lost recordings. "On almost any
question we have, he's the expert," Ms.
Nelson said. "He's finding everything else,
but he's the find."
Enrico Caruso made 3 cylinder recordings in 1903 - and one is here.
Koenigsberg, whose slightly rumpled appearance belies the fastidiousness
with which he pursues his hobby, first became interested in collecting old technologies in the 1960's, while he was a graduate
student at Columbia University. He decided
against collecting world maps, his first interest,
because the field was too crowded. So he
began to look for an area that had attracted
less interest, and by accident hit upon old phonographs
and lost recordings, which few people were then pursuing. Since then, he has collected some 80 antique models.
Koenigsberg is a regular speaker at a
Senior Citizens' center in Brooklyn, and he
frequently takes in a few of the items he has
found. "There is always a chorus of 'I threw
that out!' " he said. "I tease them, saying
that if they didn't throw these things out, I
wouldn't have found them."
Upon hearing of an old phonograph for
sale in a far-flung part of the world,
Koenigsberg will drop everything to go
there and check it out. He has driven all night to Toronto on a tip and to the Rainbow Bridge on the Canadian border to buy a
treadle phonograph from someone who did not want to cross the border.
It was a blitz of a trip to Florida that
brought Koenigsberg his prized tinfoil
phonograph, one of the first ever made. As soon
as he heard of its existence,
Koenigsberg rented a car and drove
non-stop to Clearwater from NYC to pick up the rare
machine, along with more than a dozen
more commonplace antique phonographs
from the same collector. Then he turned around and went
home. Total travel time: 48 hours.
No travel was required for the phonautograph, which had been in a science museum
warehouse in Mexico City, where it had been
stored for 50 years. It arrived in Brooklyn
via United Parcel Service. He painstakingly
restored it, and when he was finished, his
was more complete than the Smithsonian's,
which had a piece missing.
Koenigsberg seldom parts with items from
his collection. When museums ask for donations, he says no. "I'm not ready for that
yet," he said. "Eventually, sure, but I have a
resonance with them that I would miss. And
they are also part of my research archives."
As to the technological optimism that
ruled at the end of the last century and now
rules again, Koenigsberg's attention to
the past makes him a bit wary.
After the discovery of the X-ray in 1895,
Koenigsberg pointed out, the new technology was heralded as a panacea for a variety
of ailments. It was not until people became ill
from overexposure that the risks became clear.
"When you're in the middle of it, it's very
hard to tell where the technology is really
taking you," Koenigsberg said. "We're
prisoners in our own time."
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