February 19, 2010

Edison had a little lamb

Thomas Edison filed a patent for his newly-invented phonograph on February 19, 1878. The prolific inventor must have been a fan of literature; legend has it that the first words recorded onto the new device were from a poem.

Now known as a nursery rhyme, "Mary Had a Little Lamb" began as the poem called "Mary's Lamb," written by Sarah Josepha Hale, one of the most influential women of letters in the 19th century. Hale supported herself and her family after the death of her husband as an editor (or "editress," as she called herself). For nearly half a century, in fact, she was at the helm of Godey's Lady's Book, the Philadelphia-based magazine which had a whopping 150,000 subscribers by the onset of the Civil War.

Hale, who also influenced the birth of the modern Thanksgiving holiday and the completion of the Bunker Hill Monument in Boston, retired from the spotlight in 1877, a year before Edison's patent. The original "Mary's Lamb" (1830) is as follows:

Mary had a little lamb,
Its fleece was white as snow,
And every where that Mary went
The lamb was sure to go;
He followed her to school one day —
That was against the rule,
It made the children laugh and play,
To see a lamb at school.

And so the Teacher turned him out,
But still he lingered near,
And waited patiently about,
Till Mary did appear;
And then he ran to her, and laid
His head upon her arm,
As if he said — 'I'm not afraid —
You'll keep me from all harm.'

'What makes the lamb love Mary so?'
The eager children cry —
'O, Mary loves the lamb, you know,'
The Teacher did reply; —
'And you each gentle animal
In confidence may bind,
And make them follow at your call,
If you are always kind.'

*The image above is Thomas Edison with his early phonograph, taken by Mathew Brady's studio in 1877. An early (though not the original) recording of Edison, which includes a couple lines from "Mary's Lamb," is here.

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