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Mr. Edison And The Royal Ontario Museum

Now what could Thomas Edison have in common with the venerable old Royal Ontario Museum? For those of you unacquainted with the ROM, it is a very large complex situated in Toronto, Canada, and modelled after the British Museum in London and the Metropolitan Museum in New York. In the case of the ROM, however, as well as housing Art and Archaeology collections (Greek & Roman, Egyptian, West Asian, Far Eastern, European, Canadiana, Textile, etc. departments), it also displays Natural History collections (Botany, Geology, Minerology, Vertebrate and Invertebrate Paleontology, Ichthyology, Herpetology, etc.) It was first opened to the public in 1914, expanded a decade later and again in the early 1980's when a large curatorial complex was added to centralize the storage and research functions of the museum. Besides its permanent displays, it has active outreach programs and puts on several major special exhibitions each year.

But all that doesn't get us any closer to the connection with Thomas Edison! Now, it is certainly not uncommon today to see phonograph and record collections housed in museums. Period room settings with contemporary phonographs to add the authentic touch have become standard fair in small museums across the country. The ROM, however, does not have a collection of phonographs or records, nor do its period settings generally go as late as the turn of the century. It does house a most important collection of music scores and musical instruments acquired from R. S. Williams, chief distributor of Edison's products in Canada. And in its Ethnology Department resides a Columbia Eagle Graphophone, which was used by an Ethnologist in the early years of this century to record native Indian speech, and several boxes of indecipherable brown wax cylinders from those experiments. But this does not explain the connection with Thomas Edison.

The ROM and Mr. Edison actually got together back in 1918 when the first overtures were made to place an Edison phonograph in the museum. As you might expect in a museum, very little is ever thrown away and the central Registration Department was, almost instantly, able to produce the original correspondence on this transaction - a letter from Mr. H. G. Stanton, Vice President and General Manager of R. S. Williams & Sons Co. Limited to Mr. C. T. Currelly, founding director of the ROM.

Recently one of our members, Domenic Dibernardo, spotted the wonderful picture of the phonograph which had been presented to the museum actually being used in the galleries. This was printed in a 1919 issue of the trade publication Edison Diamond Points. The caption read:

"Any Edison is wonderful enough to deserve a place in a museum, of course, but it seems a rather unusual place for it, doesn't it? (This was 1919 remember! -ed.) Because we usually think of things in museums as being locked up in glass cases and labeled "Don't Touch!" - and that would be most inappropriate treatment for an Edison.

"This isn't that sort of museum, however, as you will see from the picture. The children are from Toronto schools, and come to the museum regularly as part of their school work. The Edison is used in classes in Musical composition, History, and so forth, and is proving invaluable in revivifying these subjects for children."

The picture shows an Edison William and Mary Official Laboratory Model Diamond Disc phonograph, a model of robust appearance and a natural for classroom use. It is interesting that the more common and, to my mind, even sturdier-looking, Chippendale Model 250 was not chosen. Perhaps, since it was a gift, Edison felt the William and Mary carried a bit more prestige value.

In Mr. Currelly's reply to the offer of the phonograph, also preserved in the museum's files, he remarks that Mr. Edison had

"presented the big Museum in Cleveland with a very fine instrument, and a good collection of discs. This is used between addresses when the instructors noticed that the classes which were being taken around showed signs of becoming wearied. They were then taken over and given a few minutes of music, and the effect, I have been told, was magical, both with grown-ups and with children.

"We are very grateful to you for giving us this opportunity to try the experiment here. We will try to give you as clear a report of its success as possible, for it may be that this may work out as an important educational feature for the Public Schools."

I did some sleuthing to determine whether the ROM still had the phonograph and discovered that it had been given to the Sombra Township Museum in 1961. I spoke to one of the founding directors of that local museum to see whether the phonograph was still performing its magic for them. I was told that it is on permanent display in the downstairs parlour of Sombra House, an 1883 historic house located on the St. Clair River, 20 miles south of Sarnia. The director was delighted to learn of the history of their machine and said that she would check, when the house opened again for the summer season, if it still carries its inscription "Presented to the Royal Ontario Museum of Archaeology by Thomas A. Edison, September 1918."

My appreciation to Domenic Dibernardo who kindly loaned me his original Edison Diamond Points publication which contained the photograph of the ROM's Diamond Disc machine and to Earl Mathewson and Batten Graphics who provided their time and expertise to achieve an excellent reproduction for use in the newsletter.