Thomas Edison may have found an unusual way to enjoy piano music. As someone played, the famous inventor, who had hearing problems, would move close to the instrument and bite it.
Pressing his teeth into the wood of phonographs and pianos helped Edison experience the music in his skull. Or in his own words, it allowed him to “hear through my teeth.”
Robert Friedman recently showed off marks on a Steinway piano that was once owned by Edison. The piano has groups of small marks above the keyboard. Keys are what the piano player strikes to make sounds.
Friedman, who buys and sells Steinways, purchased the piano last year, and said he was surprised by the tooth marks left by the inventor of the phonograph, a music playing device. Friedman is now looking for the right home for the instrument.
“I believe that it belongs somewhere where many, many, many people can see it,” Friedman said.
Edison bought the Model “B” Ebony from Steinway & Sons in 1890 for $725.
Paperwork with the sale includes the words “office furniture,” suggesting it was sent to his laboratory in New Jersey. The piano “for some reason unknown to me ... gives better results than any so far tried,” Edison wrote the company. “Please send bill with lowest price.”
Edison invented the phonograph in 1877. When he bought the piano 13 years later, he was experimenting with sound recording. Edison owned the instrument for many years, so it is possible it was used in early recordings.
There is no known photograph of Edison biting this piano. But he was known to bite into phonographs and pianos to help him experience music as his hearing worsened. His daughter once remembered that a guest cried at the sight of Edison biting on to a piano as someone played it.
Edmund Morris wrote a 2019 biography of Edison’s life. In it, he wrote that Edison said: “I hear through my teeth, and through my skull.” The inventor added: “I bite my teeth into the wood and then I get it good and strong.”
Friedman said he has seen thousands of Steinway pianos over 50 years. “I’ve never seen that anywhere,” he said about the possible tooth marks.
Friedman bought the piano for about $45,000 in early January 2021. He did not notice the marks at first.
His friend Charles Frommer is a musician and recording history lover. He came to Friedman’s house in New York’s Hudson Valley to tune the piano. Frommer noticed the marks and told him “those are Edison’s bite marks.”
Friedman calls himself the Steinway hunter. He finds and buys the famous pianos from people and then sells them, usually to dealers or rebuilders. But this piano is more complex.
Friedman does not want it to go back into private hands because of its connection to Edison. He has yet to find a historical group that would buy the piano, which he is offering to sell for what it cost him.
The Thomas Edison National Historical Park in West Orange, New Jersey, passed up a chance to buy the piano from its earlier owner in 2020 for several reasons. These included limited space, cost and the fact that some original parts were replaced since Edison owned it, museum curator Jerry Fabris said in an email.
Friedman is still looking for a home for the piano. A film also is possible, as is having the piano recorded for a special instrument recording library.
Edison’s listening method has been tested on the piano. Not wanting to mark the instrument any further, Frommer said he and others tried biting the instrument when small wooden pieces were placed on the piano to protect it.
“We were able to replicate the effect,” Frommer said. “And yeah, you do hear it in your skull.”
I’m John Russell.
Michael Hill reported on this story for the Associated Press. John Russell adapted it for VOA Learning English.
Words in This Story
piano – n. a large musical instrument with a keyboard that you play by pressing black and white keys and that produces sound when small hammers inside the piano hit steel wires
phonograph – n. a device used for playing musical records
skull –n. the structure of bones that form the head
furniture -- n. chairs, tables, beds, etc., that are used to make a room ready for use
biography – n. the story of a real person's life written by someone other than that person
tune –v. to change the sound of a musical instrument so its sound is correct
curator – n. a person who is in charge of the things in a museum or zoo
original –adj. what was present at the beginning or when something was made
replicate – v. to repeat or copy (something) exactly