Phonographilia: A collector amasses everything Edison

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Phonographilia: A collector amasses everything Edison


GANGNEUNG, Gangwon ― The song “El Capitan” was blaring from a 156-year-old music box, its needle dipping into the holes in the huge polyphone record that spun around in the tall walnut tree box (it stands 2.75 meters, or 99 inches, tall). A group of people stood listening ― many, perhaps, wondering if they had suddenly been transported into an old black-and-white film. The polyphone was produced by a German company in the 1850s and now it is in a small temporary building, next to a three-building museum in a remote town of Korea: Charmsori Gramophone & Edison Museum.
The guide took the visitors into the museum and showed off a phonograph invented in the early 1900s. “This one was developed with volume control,” he said, and opened the doors of the box, making it louder, then closing them again to “turn down” the volume ― that got a laugh from the group.
The museum, currently located in the middle of an apartment complex, is packed with all kinds of old phonographs, including tinfoil (the song is recorded on tinfoil instead of plastic), cylinder, turntable, duplex (two-horned) and portable ones. It also holds a catalog of inventions by Thomas Edison (1847-1931), including his first and only remaining socket lamp fixture, patented in 1879; his stock ticker, invented in 1871; the first motion picture for educational use, invented in 1888; his mimeograph from 1890; his electric battery car of 1913, and other machines related to audio and video. The guide added that there are more items, packed in four storehouses. One amazed visitor asked who had collected all of them. “Son Sung-mok, the president of this museum, has collected all of them for over the last 45 years, all by himself,” the guide replied. “This museum is privately owned, not belonging to the government.”
Mr. Son, originally from Wonsan, South Hamgyong province, said that when he was young, his mother would play the piano while he sang next to her. She also used a phonograph, so their home was always filled with the sounds of music, he added. But things changed when his mother passed away when he was five. “Kids teased me and didn’t play with me just because I didn’t have a mother,” he said. His father, who ran a department store at the time, saw him playing alone in a corner of a playground and, feeling sorry for him, bought the boy a portable phonograph.
“From that small machine, I heard my mother’s voice, and it gave me a lot of comfort, as if I were in her bosom,” Mr. Son said, adding that the kids who shunned him gathered around when he played the phonograph.
During the Korean War, his family had to evacuate and move down to the South. When the then six-year old boy carried the 12-kilogram (26.5-pound) phonograph, a Columbia G241, on his back, his father scolded him for not taking food or other necessities. The young Mr. Son, however, would not give up the phonograph ― the first in what would become an extensive collection.
When he was 14, his uncle brought him a broken phonograph. After staying up all night trying to fix it, he said, he finally heard sound coming from its horn. The feeling was rapturous.
“It was then that I started collecting phonographs,” Mr. Son said. Until now he has collected more than 4,500 phonographs, 1,500 radios and TV sets, 10,000 items related to Edison, and 90,000 records. “All of the items are still working. That’s my major criterion when I buy one. It needs to be working, otherwise it’s just for decoration,” said Mr. Son. For that reason, he says, his museum is “alive.”
Each item in his collection is like his child, Mr. Son said, and each one brings to mind a different memory.

One item is an American Phonograph, a coin-fed machine that has 12 four-minute cylinders, produced by American Phonograph Co. in the early 1900s. The company produced only six of the devices; Mr. Son’s is the only one left. According to Mr. Son, it belonged to a rich man in Argentina until the mid-1940s, when its ownership transferred somehow to a man called Mackintosh. Mr. Son visited the man several times, but couldn’t meet him until August 1985, when the phonograph was put on the auction block in that country. On the way to Argentina to participate in the auction, Mr. Son was robbed in New York and shot in the shoulder. Even still, he managed to go to Argentina and won the auction after competing with 53 phonograph collectors from around the world. “I can’t forget the moment I finally won the auction. I was thrilled and so happy I shouted and hugged the stranger who was next to me,” said Mr. Son. It took about six months to bring the phonograph to the museum.
Often the cost of shipping an object is several times what it costs to buy the object in the first place. “A few years ago, I bought a very old TV set for $180 from a 70-year-old lady living in a remote town in Ohio State. It cost $5,800 to move it to a bigger city, and another $7,000 to bring it to Korea,” Mr. Son recalled.
Having been a collector for over 45 years now, executives at shipping companies and auctioneers recognize him. “When Mr. Son arrives in the United States, a staff member at UPS [the shipping company] is dispatched just for him,” said Yun Jong-ig, a manager of the museum. The staff member follows Mr. Son around, packages whatever he adds to his collection and ships it to Korea.
Auction houses such as Sotheby’s send Mr. Son their catalogs regularly and let him know if an old phonograph is on the market. “When I first collected phonographs, I made a lot of mistakes, such as buying fake ones,” said Mr. Son. “But now, I can tell if it’s real or not, just by looking at the photos.
“As a collector, however little I paid for the fake, I still felt really bad. The feeling was worse than when I paid a lot more than the reasonable price for the genuine one,” said Mr. Son.
His collection was at first limited to sound-related items such as phonographs and speakers. But he became interested in Thomas Edison, the inventor of the phonograph, and his interest carried over to Edison’s inventions, such as lights, motion pictures, coffee pots, electric fans and heaters. Then Mr. Son got interested in other items from Edison’s era and started collecting them, as well.
“I collected them, but they aren’t mine. A museum is a place that shows a nation’s cultural level and I think my museum should teach history to students for generations,” he said. He added that he would be willing to donate the collection to the government, as long as it establishes a foundation to take care of the collection and a museum big enough to contain all the pieces. “It’s a pity that there isn’t a place big enough to display the collection and old valuable parts of human history are placed in dark, humid, packed storage,” Mr. Son said. The collection isn’t insured, because it’s hard to appropriate its value, and that value would in any case be too much to cover for either Mr. Son or an insurance company.
With the help of the Gangneung city government, however, a new three-story building covering 1,150 square meters is being built in front of Lake Gyeongpo in Gangneung to serve as a museum. It is scheduled to open in early September and will cover the history of recorded sound from the phonograph to the DVD, Mr. Son said. But he said that even the new building will still be too small to display his entire collection, and that he’s planning to create a museum complex in the area that would have separate museums for the phonographs, Edison’s inventions, a children’s museum and one for household goods.
Museums in Japan and China have requested that Mr. Son hold special exhibitions in their nations. He so far has refused. “To be honest, I really want to hold an international exhibition first in the United States, Edison’s home country,” he explained.
“I heard that Edison once said that he wanted to live for 300 years because there were many things he wanted to invent,” Mr. Son said. “I wish I could live for 500 years, because there are so many things I want to collect.”

by Park Sung-ha

To go to the museum from Seoul, take a bus from the Gangnam Express Bus Terminal to Gangneung, Gangwon province. From there, take a taxi to the museum. It costs about 4,500 won ($5).
The museum is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Entrance costs 4,500 won for adults, 3,500 won for middle and high school students and 2,000 won for kids aged four to elementary school students. For more information, call (033) 652-2500.
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