Read any good lawsuits lately?
Did you know that Frank Lambert was working on a phonograph in 1871, six years before Edison's tinfoil machine? How about an unpublished list of 7" Berliner records.
Lambert, Edison, Eldridge Johnson and the technicians of the industry come alive in depositions filed in federal court.
You need to know the name of the plaintiff or defendant and the approximate date of the lawsuit. Then visit a Federal Depository in the district in which the lawsuit was filed. Or for a fee the government will do your scut work through the mail.
"The present law is a constant temptation to rascals," said Edison, who preferred to keep many of his processes as trade secrets rather than as patents. Nonetheless, between 1877 and 1912 over 2000 patents were filed relating to recorded sound.
Patents are indexed in a Patent Gazette, available in most larger libraries. One hundred significant patents are illustrated in the Patent History of the Phonograph, available from APM Press, 502 E. 17th, Brooklyn, NY.
Eldridge Johnson's private papers wound up at the University of Wyoming, the result of a vacation in the 1890s. A lot of Berliner's papers are in the Library of Congress.
Ask a reference librarian for a directory of manuscripts and archives, which will show such unpublished holdings.
Tricks of the biographer
Birth and death certificates can be procured from a Bureau of Vital Statistics or similar local agency. Death certificates can yield the names of surviving relatives, while the date of death can lead to newspaper obituaries. In some cases, biographers have gone so far as to learn who is paying for the upkeep of the grave.
The Edison Site
Donated by the Edison family to the National Park Service, the Edison National Historic Site on Main Street in West Orange, NJ is a repository of millions of records, housing everything from Edison's cancelled checks to his letters from Mark Twain.
The documents are being microfilmed and published by the Smithsonian. The next release in the 10 volume set should begin with the year 1877, the first of the phonograph years.
Some machines like the Micrograph are known only through their catalogues. Early catalogues weren't always dated, but can sometimes be dated if they contain record releases. The rarest catalogue: April 1, 1892 North American Phonograph Company.
From 1890-93 the regional companies recorded the minutes of their conventions.The records show figures such as the take from coin-ops and illlustrate the bitter rivalry between Edison and Tainter. A few reprints of the 1891 convention are still available from APM Press.
Copyright 2016 Lynn Bilton
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