Tunes with Teeth

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    Robert Friedman points out possible bite marks from Thomas Edison on a Steinway grand piano. Edison, who was hard of hearing, bit into phonographs and pianos to help him better experience music. (AP/Michael Hill)
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    Robert Friedman bought the piano. (AP/Michael Hill)
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    Robert Friedman points to the marks on the piano. (AP/Michael Hill)
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    This photo of Thomas Edison was taken on his 73rd birthday: February 11, 1920. (AP)
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    Thomas Edison poses with a phonograph. Those machines play music. (Public domain)
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Thomas Edison was America’s most prolific inventor. He did experiments with better hearing . . . through his teeth. Now a collector of high-end pianos has purchased a Steinway that once belonged to Edison—with the bite marks to prove it.

Robert Friedman buys and sells Steinway pianos. In 2021, he purchased a grand piano. Serial numbers on the chic instrument confirmed that it once belonged to Edison.

Friedman’s friend Charles Frommer, a musician and recording history enthusiast, came to tune the instrument. Opening the piano, he and Friedman were surprised. They found a cluster of shallow indentations roughing up the black lacquer above the keyboard.

Frommer had heard stories of Edison’s fondness for piano biting. He told his friend, “Those are Edison’s bite marks.” Could they be toothy signatures left by the great inventor?

Historians say that the elderly, hard-of-hearing Edison found a unique way to appreciate music. He’d lean close to a piano, right above the keys, and bite. Chomping down helped Edison experience the vibrations in his skull. He says the action let him “hear through my teeth.” His daughter once recalled a guest who wept at the sight of Edison clamped onto a piano as someone played it.

Receipts show that Edison bought the Model “B” Ebony from Steinway & Sons in 1890 for $725. Paperwork includes the handwritten notation “office furniture.” That meant the piano went to Edison’s New Jersey lab. “For some reason unknown to me it gives better results than any so far tried,” Edison wrote of the piano in a letter. The piano remained in his lab for nearly 40 years.

“I hear through my teeth, and through my skull,” Edison said, as quoted in Edmund Morris’ 2019 biography. “I bite my teeth into the wood, and then I get it good and strong.”

The inventor was also known to bite into phonograph machines and music boxes to experience music as his hearing faded.

Does such a method work? Scientists say yes. Recent research from the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America shows that sound travels well through jaw bones to the ear.

There’s no photo of Edison gnawing this particular piano. But Friedman has no doubt Edison’s incisors bit his Steinway: Those are tooth marks, and who else would have nibbled Edison’s piano?

In case you’re wondering, Friedman and Frommer tested Edison’s peculiar listening technique. Not wanting to mark up the historic instrument further, they used wooden shims to protect the piano.

“We were able to replicate the effect,” Frommer says. “You do hear it in your skull.”

Why? Music is a God-given gift. So is the structure of the ear, skull, and jaw as well as the design by which sound waves travel. All creation reflects God’s beauty, order, variety, provision, and unfathomable genius.