Bringing The Past To The Next Generation
by Keith Wright
Keith Wright making his presentation at a CAPS meeting.
Of course, I brought the Space Helmet.
By the title and the previous sentence you
may have visions of science fiction running
through your head. In that case, let's
replace those visions with ones closer to the spirit
of this publication and this Society:
I have become obsessed with introducing school children to old
technology and in particular to that class of
technology which includes gramophones,
phonographs and talking machines. "Yes Ma'am,
you could say I am an archeotechnologist or — as I
prefer — a paleotechnologist." Boy, do I have fun.
Early this year CAPS asked me to demonstrate
how I do this. That's where I gained the dubious
distinction of being the first person to play rock
and roll at a CAPS meeting.
In 1997 I had a very modest beginning collection
when the germ of an idea came to me:
I could show the evolution of recording playback to my
eldest daughter's class. She was 10 at the time —
as I assume was much of her class — and it struck
me how 'natural' the dates would be if I could
somehow represent each year ending with '7
(1877, 1887 and so on). Think of
how important the '7s' are to the
subject (such as Edison in 1877 and
transistors in 1947). Then it came to
me that I could also try to get across
a sense of 'continuity' and make
them imagine children just like
themselves listening to these exotic
machines by showing a family
picture from the same date ("Yes,
that ten-year-old is me!"). It also
occurred to me that the evolution of
the automobile was something to
which children could more
immediately relate. So, to increase
interest I also included at least one
picture of an automobile from the
same year (a 'horseless carriage' for
1897, a horse and wagon for 1877, and for 1967 it
was that huge barge Dad bought in 1966). Finally,
I figured that if I started at the end (1997) and
worked backwards the children wouldn't 'know
the punch-line' (OK, where's the CD?) and I could
create a sense of mystery by presenting one more
alien machine after another. I succeeded in spades.
For that first demonstration (which turned into 3
demonstrations — heaven forbid I should do
something for only one of my children) I actually
dragged in a wind-up upright (and up two floors!);
used two different horns to make an Edison
Standard represent two different decades; dragged
in a complete stereo system (two turntables, an
amp and speakers); waved a borrowed 8-track tape
(and couldn't play it); borrowed the school's CD
player; and probably left the impression that no
one played a disc before 1917. But I knew I was
on to something.
Keith with his Victor I and his popular space helmet 8 track player.
So, this has become my obsession (since you're
reading this, I can guess you have one too), that is:
portable hardware with the appropriate recording
for each decade — ideally from the year ending
with "7". While you were hunting for your
Edison Opera, I was looking for a working
'interesting' 8-track player and I'm still looking
for "Saturday Night Fever" on 8-track tape. While
you were chuckling about how your Victor
Credenza was increasing in value, I was shouting
for joy at finding an HMV 102 orthophonic
portable. While you were counting your Royal
Purple Amberols, I was rushing back to where I'd
seen the 1947 Freddy Martin hit, "Managua
Nicaragua". While you were having Don
Woodrow change the springs in your Victor VI, I
was having Experimental Electronics change the
tubes in my 45 player. I really don't mind, the
Credenza wouldn't fit in the back of the van with
the rest of the demo anyway. However, you
wouldn't happen to have a spare tin foil machine,
From this 'backbone' of hardware and software I
can engage a class in music appreciation, music
history, science, technology, social studies or
history. By varying the recordings I play (and
tailoring the number) I can entertain a kindergarten
class with Boney M's "The Calendar Song" (they
all know the words — it must be one of the
Highlights in the History of Music). Or I can
show the transition from marches to rags to jazz
for a more appropriate grade. And almost every
class hears 'O Canada' on Blue Amberol. In fact,
I have even named a few 'standard' demonstrations:
- Pirates of Industry.
Some grade 6 classes go
through the process of creating
inventions — including doing research into competing
products—and may visit an "invention
convention". I use my demo to show the
shenanigans that occurred during the early
history of the phonograph and gramophone
("Edison deliberately bankrupts his company."
"Berliner, blocked from selling his own invention
in the US, starts over in Montreal."). I also
introduce them to 'patents'.
- Trouble in River City. Named from the song in
the "Music Man" which goes, "and ragtime —
shameless music!" This demo concentrates on
the music and goes in chronological order from
the turn of the century's sentimental songs and
brass bands to ragtime to early jazz and so on.
- Good Vibrations. Grade 4 classes have a
module on sound. Using various machines,I
show how sound vibrations are stored and re-
created. As one teacher put it, "It's great when
the curriculum comes tumbling out of a demo!"
Random notes from various presentations:
- "That looks like a microwave."
Said of the 1946/47 RCA Victor VE-20 electric 78 player.
- The most common answer when I ask the class
to guess the shape of the recording played by the
1917 Amberola 30 cylinder player (before
I open the lid): "triangular".
- The most common first answer to how many
transistors are on a Pentium chip: "100".
- The correct answer for the number of transistors
on the Pentium chip: approximately 5 million.
- The music which children most often ask me to
replay: whatever it was I brought that day by
Elvis on 45 rpm.
- The music which teachers most often ask me to
replay: "Over There" by the American Quartet.
- One student's reaction to "Over There":
"Didn't the Americans get angry over being called
"Yanks'?" "No, an American wrote the song."
- After one demo,a child in traditional non-
western garb quietly came back and shyly asked
me to play the 'rock and roll' song again.
- Longest time a class has listened to "My Hero,
The Chocolate Soldier": about 30 seconds.
- Number of times the RCA Victor 9-EY-3
(representing 1957) has dropped a 45 rpm record
without my help on its first attempt: 0.
- Number of times it has needed help on its second
- The first answer I always get when I hold up my
1977 8-track tape and ask, "What is this?":
- I usually play the 1907 Victor I once without its
horn. Then, after explaining there is no volume
control, I ask the class how they could make
someone hear them across the playground.
I look for someone to make a 'horn' with their
hands and then I install the Victor's horn. The
first answer when I did this for the CAPS demo:
"Use a cell phone". (Name withheld to protect
the guilty.) We shouldn't laugh, as I have seen
quite a few cell phones in senior public schools.
- "Best sound I've heard from a 40s era Victor
record." CAPS member on hearing a 1947
Victor disc on a 1947 Victor machine.
- The most popular machine for the children,
hands down: the Space Helmet.
- The machine that got most comments at CAPS:
the Space Helmet.
- The machine my daughter spotted on the inside
of a Ricky Martin CD: the Space Helmet
(although it was, of course, the rare orange
This brings me to 'the unkindest cut of all'.
Of all the hardware I bring with me, the machine that
gets the most attention everywhere I go is the
Canadian-branded Weltron 2001 8-track player.
Collectors of 8-track players (yes, they exist) have
nicknames for certain players such as "Swiss
Cheese" (the case of which is covered in hole-like
circles) and "TNT" (which looks like Wile E.
Coyote should use it to blow up that bird).
Similarly they've named the 2001 the "Space
Helmet" because of its round head and flat face
(the speakers are even where the 'ears' should be).
Not the Victor I with the black and gold flower
horn. Not the first-generation 45 player with brass
turntable and bakelite body. Not either of the
cylinder players. Not the real 'Victrola' in nice
mahogany. It is the ABS plastic Space Helmet that
gets the lion's share of adult comments (OK, and
some giggles) and almost all of the children's post-
demo admiration. But, as someone pointed out to
me, what other artifact could I possibly bring to
scream out its own era as loudly as the space-age
Space Helmet? And when was the last time your
Edison Opera was seen on MTV?
I have elicited feedback from all of the teachers of
all the classes who've seen the demo and they
have been enthusiastically positive. These demos
are challenging to stage (taking up to an hour of
preparation, so ideally I set up in one room and a
number of classes rotate through in an afternoon),
they are a ball to 'perform', they're an obsession I
constantly 'tinker' and 'tune' (I always seem to get
something new just before each one) and they are
even educational! Now taking bookings for the
And I promise, I'll bring the Space Helmet.