Article about Aaron Cramer
December 2, 2004
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Local man cherishes music box collection
Retired teacher believes he has world’s oldest playable recording
BY LAUREN MATTHEW
A room full of old-fashioned phonograph horns, arranged in neat rows, fan toward the door of Aaron Cramer’s display room.
A 1941 Wurlitzer jukebox along the back wall sports a Technicolor peacock design. Talking dolls sit in a glass-front display cabinet along the left wall. All around the room are placards advertising phonographs and music boxes. There are multiple movie posters for “Edison, the Man,” starring Spencer Tracy.
For Cramer, the room represents a 35-year love affair with its many treasures.
“I’m interested in the technology,” said Cramer, who moved to Old Bridge three years ago. “These devices still work after over 100 years. But you have to throw out your electric toothbrush after a few months.”
Cramer, a longtime Brooklyn resident and a retired high school technology teacher, discusses his collection proudly.
Everything he has, he noted, works.
“I spend a lot of time with these things,” Cramer said.
At the immediate entrance to the room of collectibles, Cramer has one of the earliest jukeboxes, dating from 1900. He dropped a nickel into the slot at the front of the rectangular wooden box and it began to play. It’s an Edison Automatic Concert Phonograph, according to its label. The recording it plays is crackling, but the tune is still there and clear.
Cramer pointed out that a device like this would’ve been in a store, where patrons would put nickels in when passing by.
Cramer also owns a phonograph with a headphone attachment, akin to the listening stations in today’s music stores. This, he said, would have been with many other machines like it, along a wall in an arcade. People would come in with tissues and wipe off the ear pieces before using them.
The headphones, Cramer said, were the key. Someone could listen to their own piece of music without disrupting the arcade patron next to them.
“You’d go crazy listening to 20 of these at once,” he noted, gesturing to the machine.
Progressing around the room, Cramer pointed out a coin-operated metal disc music box that dispenses gum, as well as two tiny phonograph toys. The toys, he said, were made by a chocolate company and used to hold chocolate records. Not surprisingly, the candy records have not survived.
There’s one item in this room, however, that Cramer’s collection is best known for. Set up on a shelf, a tape recorder next to it, with a sign alerting observers of its importance, is the Lambert Phonograph.
Made in 1878, Cramer said it is the world’s oldest talking clock. According to the “Guinness Book of World Records” and the “Encyclopedia of Recorded Sound in the United States”, the phonograph plays the world’s oldest “playable” recording.
There may be older examples, Cramer said, but because many early recordings were done on soft materials such as tin foil, a popular recording medium at the time the Lambert machine was made, they cannot be heard today.
Frank Lambert, the phonograph’s namesake, created the machine and the recording on it because of a contract between the Ansonia Clock Co. and Thomas Edison. The contract, dated Jan. 7, 1878, discussed the making of a record to be placed inside a talking clock. To make the record, Lambert first had to make the phonograph. Letters from the clock company to Edison verify the age of the phonograph and the recording.
“There’s also information on what Edison wrote. There are copies of that contract in West Orange,” Cramer noted.
The recording cylinder, Cramer said, is the reason that the recording can still be played. It’s lead instead of tinfoil.
“The metal sleeve comes out,” Cramer said, taking the phonograph apart, “and it would’ve been used as a mold for the record.”
Listening to Lambert’s recording, words are difficult to make out. But Lambert can be heard, clearly, in parts. He’s calling out hours for the talking clock.
Although Guinness stopped listing the category that the phonograph fits into after 1994, the recording is still the oldest in the world, according to Cramer.
He said researching the machines has become an enjoyable part of collecting. After Guinness contacted him about the Lambert recording and verified its age, Cramer and his wife, Thea, looked into Lambert’s past.
“My wife actually tracked down his granddaughter — the last living person he spoke to,” Cramer said.
The Cramers were then able to trade information with the granddaughter.
“It was like a treasure hunt,” Cramer said, smiling.
A machine near the back of the room is Cramer’s favorite. Twelve sets of 100-year-old headphones attached to rubber tubing snake out the top of it. This was something that could be found at a carnival, Cramer said.
“They’d charge 5 cents for each person to listen,” he said, adding that different music choices were available on cylinders inside drawers underneath the headphones.
In 1892, that machine, called an Edison North American, cost $200.
“You could buy a row house in Philadelphia for that [at the time],” Cramer said.
Instead, the man who owned the machine made a living from it, taking it to various venues and charging people to listen to the various pieces of music. The reason Cramer favors the North American has less to do with what it does and more to do with something its first owner left behind.
“There’s a home recording,” Cramer said, “that was made by the great-great grandfather of the guy I bought it from.”
The recording was made in 1893, and in it, the man talks about his farm in Maine. His son is also on the recording.
“He says he’s talking into this great invention so that his children in the future can hear [him],” Cramer said.
The family he bought the machine from never heard that recording. Cramer transcribed it and fixed it digitally, and sent the recording to them.
“I sent them a copy of their ancestor’s voice,” Cramer said, his smile returning.
Keeping everything in his collection in working order keeps Cramer busy, he said, though he maintains he’s done with acquiring new items.
“I don’t think I’m going to expand anymore,” he said. “Then I’d be collecting rooms instead of phonographs.”
Cramer paused to explain one of the three machines he has outside the room he built to house the collection, and opened the front of the device. It’s a Regina Corona, Model 35, Automatic Changer, made around 1900. A large metal disc in the belly of the cabinet Cramer opened started to turn slowly, the perforations in it producing music as it revolved. It holds 12 of these discs, Cramer said, and it can play all 12 in order, one on repeat, or play only one song and then stop.
“It’s like an early CD player,” he said.
Cramer stood back from the machine and grinned again as a music box melody filled the room.
“See what I mean by great technology? After all these years, it works fine.”
To contact Cramer about his collection, e-mail him at AaronAlva@aol.com.
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