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Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Mary Had a Little Lamb - Edison's Greatest Hits

Last month two men were charged with setting a series of fires, including destroying by fire the birthplace of Mary Elizabeth Sawyer in the Massachusetts town of Sterling.

The house had been vacant, and most people have not ever heard of Mary Elizabeth Sawyer anyway, including probably these two alleged arsonists. But, any claim to fame is still a claim to fame, and you never know what’s going to make you famous in the sweeping eyes of history. Another lady named Sarah Josepha Hale, responsible for, among many contributions to 19th Century America, editing the venerable magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book, published a poem in 1830 about Mary Elizabeth Sawyer. It went like this:

Mary had a little lamb.
Its fleece was white as snow.
And everywhere that Mary went,
The lamb was sure to go.

You may have learned every verse in the old nursery rhyme as a child, but the claim to fame for Mary, who reportedly in real life did bring a lamb to school one day, causing a bit of a ruckus, is that this poem was the first ever sound recording made. When testing his new phonograph in 1877, inventor Thomas Edison recited the poem into his machine, which was etched into a tinfoil cylinder.

In August of 1927, to celebrate 50 years of the phonograph, Edison re-enacted this moment for the Fox Movietone newsreel cameras, and recited the poem, recording it again.

It may have not made the top of the charts, but then, maybe it did. There wasn’t a whole lot else you could download onto your MP3 in 1877.

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