Australia’s first recorded music was a novelty song about chooks, recorded by a bootmaker in rural Victoria.
Thomas Edison invented the phonograph in 1877.
The idea came from his work on the telegraph; Edison developed a method to have messages automatically transcribed into text, based on their electronic signature. The telegraph signal caused a needle to move, that left marks in a sheet of foil that could be decoded as letters.
While this device ultimately proved unsuccessful, Edison wondered if it could be adapted to record sounds, instead.
In August 1877, Edison sketched a new machine for this purpose, and his mechanic, John Kruesi, built a prototype in 30 hours. Edison tested it by reciting the nursery rhyme, ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’, and was amazed when his creation played it back to him.
The device again used a needle and a foil cylinder: sound vibrations were recorded via a large cone, that made the needle move and record a track on the foil. When the process was reversed the original sound would be reproduced.
Edison filed a patent for his new ‘Phonograph’ in December, and demonstrated it at the offices of ‘Scientific American’ magazine before the end of the year.
Edison was then waylaid by his work on the incandescent lightbulb. Many inventors were hurrying to perfect the bulb at the time, Edison was eager to get there first (read more about the invention of the lightbulb, here).
The phonograph was put to one side; Edison did not return to it for a decade.
He began work on improved versions of the device in 1887. The updated phonograph was smaller, easier to use, and utilised wax cylinders for recording, which improved the audio quality.
In January 1896, Edison started the National Phonograph Company, which began manufacture of phonographs for home use. The selling price was $20 US (equivalent to $1000 today).
One of Edison’s customers was Thomas Rome, a young bootmaker in Warrnambool, on Victoria’s southwest coast.
Born in Beechworth in 1873, Rome had moved to Warrnambool as a fifteen year old, to start an apprenticeship. He was a hard worker, friendly and well liked, who harboured ambitions as an entrepreneur.
Like a lot of people in this era, Rome was fascinated by technology.
New advances and breakthroughs came regularly. Alongside lightbulbs and phonographs, other inventions included: telephones (1876), the internal combustion engine (1885), gramophones, radar and contact lenses (all 1887), escalators (1891), and cinema (1895). Zippers, Coca-Cola and toilet paper also made their commercial debuts.
It was an exciting period, where much of the modern world was invented.
In 1896, Rome read about Edison’s new phonograph in a magazine. Despite the high cost, he was immediately fascinated by the device and determined to have one; he wrote to Edison’s company in America, to place an order.
It arrived by ship, a few months later.
This was the first phonograph brought to Victoria, if not Australia. And Rome thought his new gadget could be his ticket to success.
In November 1896, the Warrnambool Industrial and Art Exhibition opened at the town’s Mechanical Institute. This was a significant event for the area, featuring market stalls, exhibits, concerts, visual art, and sporting contests.
The exhibition ran for three months, through the summer, and attracted 70 000 visitors.
One of the stall holders was Thomas Rome, who charged people a fee to see his phonograph in operation. To show it off, he had some wax cylinders he had also imported from America, and a small number he had recorded locally.
One of his original recordings was a novelty song, titled ‘The Hen’s Convention’. This is Australia’s first sound recording.
The Hen’s Convention imagines a meeting of different types of chicken; several species are highlighted, including Malay, Bantam and Chittagong.
The verses are humorous riffs on common chicken behaviour, likely well known in a rural area like Warrnambool, interspersed with enthusiastic renditions of clucking and crowing.
It is not known who wrote the song, although the concept had already appeared in popular culture. A touring minstrel act had performed a different song, also called ‘The Hen’s Convention’, in Melbourne in 1862, and cartoons with that title, lampooning politicians, had appeared several times in print.
Rome’s version was performed for him by John James Villiers, a local crockery store owner and amateur theatrical performer. While the lyrics are now difficult to make out, the chook sounds remain surprisingly clear.
The National Film and Sound Archive’s (NFSA) digital restoration is above.
Rome also dabbled in audio narrative, hiring an actor to recreate a recent train derailment, replete with steam train sound effects.
His stall at the exhibition was popular, and he made a small profit. But his attempts to tour neighbouring towns with his phonograph were less successful:
‘Like many before (and after) him, Thomas Rome’s grasp of new technology lead him to believe untold riches would quickly follow. But the technology would soon sweep through Australia, after its debut in the coastal town.’
– Jarrod Watt, ‘Australia’s First Sound Recording’
Phonographs exploded in popularity, and Rome quickly lost his unique status. He returned to work in the footwear store, and eventually forgot about his phonograph altogether.
Thomas Rome would stay in Warrnambool for the rest of his life.
In 1907, he opened his own footwear store, which he ran for fifty years. He retired in 1962.
He married, had children, and became a prominent member of the local community. A public reception was held in 1973, to mark his 100th birthday.
Rome died the following year.
After his death, while cleaning out his possessions, Rome’s son Ronald found the Edison phonograph and a box of recordings under his father’s bed. Unsure of what the items were, Ronald passed them on to audio historian Chris Long, who would eventually date them to 1896.
Ronald then sold his father’s materials to the Arts Centre in Melbourne, they were later transferred to the National Film and Sound Archive for preservation.
They are the only known sound recordings of Australia, from the 19th century.