Some people are collectors of personal mementos, trinkets, or other meaningful objects. Then there is John Paul Kurdyla.
Over his lifetime, this energetic, yet soft spoken, aficionado has amassed one of the largest collections of Edison phonographs and memorabilia. John currently possesses over 400 pieces, as well as a wealth of knowledge about the world’s greatest inventor.
What began as a hobby has become a second profession for John, combining his love of music and science with his in depth knowledge of Thomas Edison.
This lead to the writing of two books, guest lecturer appearances at the Edison Winter Home and Museum, and touring exhibitions, which feature items from his collection. These items have also been featured on 10 Italian network television shows.
“Most items that I own and display, including original letters and laboratory notes, phonographs and gramophones, Edison primary batteries and rechargeable alkaline storage batteries used in early electric automobiles, as well as a vast photographic collection, are housed in Italy, and are loaned to museums or displays around the country. My hope, however, is to one day bring these things to the United States for people here to see and experience.”
John’s first memories of his fondness for Edison’s inventions go back to the fifth grade. He was on a class trip to the Edison Museum in West Orange, New Jersey, when his love of music and science drew him to the Edison Phonographs. This lead him to announce, “One day, I will own one of those.”
“I will never forget when I heard my first phonograph – it was a magical feeling of awe and wonder, much different than the music that came from the radios of my time.”
John’s fascination with these devices and other artifacts from the past grew, fostered by his father. He took John to antique shows, imbuing an appreciation of the craftsmanship from earlier generations. It was in 1975, while studying medicine in Perugia, Italy, that John’s childhood boast finally became reality.
Invited to a party at the lake house of an architect, John encountered a horned Gramophone, playing music for the gathering. Flooded with memories, he was instantly enchanted by the instrument and the sound it produced. Soon after that unforgettable evening, John bought his first piece, a Columbia Graphophone, from a dealer in Padua. From there, John was hooked.
Returning to America the following year, he bought his next piece in New Jersey, an Edison diamond disk phonograph for $90. He later added two Edison cylinder phonographs, one of which he transported back to Italy to show off to his collector friends.
The men, having never seen one,of these devices before, were impressed. They offered to trade him a horned Gramophone from their collection, as well as a sizable sum of cash.
John was able to profit from the transaction, kicking in his entrepreneurial spirit. John discovered that he could enlarge his own collection by acquiring similar pieces, his trades supplemented by cash, and then using his profits to purchase the next item for trade.
“My wildest purchase was a group of twelve Edison Standard and Home Phonographs, acquired from an aged collector with the profits I made from selling a restored three seat Mercedes 230SL convertible which I had brought over from Italy.”
It wasn’t all about business, however. To John, each item he collects tells a story.
“The pieces themselves are only a third of the story. The music they make, and the people who owned them, are the rest. The most fascinating thing to me are the photos of the people posing with their ‘talking machines.’”
John soon began to document his collection with photographs of his own, eventually creating his book (written in English and Italian) “When Music was Magic.” This work is a compendium of the history of the major players in the talking machine industry. It includes numerous historical photographs of Edison and others at the beginning of the 20th Century, as well pictures of over 200 talking machines. It is used today as a reference book by several researchers.
“After receiving degrees in Psychology and Zoology from the University of Maryland, I was attending Medical School in Italy. Two years into my studies, my father suddenly passed away, forcing me to return home. Eventually returning to Italy, I took a job teaching Cross Cultural Business Communication. I would teach for eight hours a day, return home, grab a bite to eat, then turn my living room into a photography studio, sometimes working until three in the morning, to make sure I had captured the images of each piece just right.”
While working on his book, John met Theodore Edison, Thomas’s sixth and youngest child. Theodore was nearly 90 at the time.
From his conversations with the businessman and inventor, Kurdyla was granted unfettered access to Edison’s New Jersey laboratory. This enabled John to add to his growing photo collection, as well as his knowledge of the inventor.
“Don’t forget that, in his time, Edison was one of the most famous men in the world for almost 60 years. Once, in 1889, he walked into the Paris Opera house, and received a standing ovation from the audience. However, there were also negative rumors that Edison was estranged from his family, but I learned that the opposite was actually true. Mina, Thomas’s second wife, wrote in her diary two years after his death that ‘I miss my dearie more and more every day that passes. It was so easy to do for him.’”
“In addition, Theodore told me that he was impressed by his father’s ability to walk around the lab, keeping track of the progress of forty different people, each working on experiments in different fields. Theodore told me his dad tried to invent devices that would make people’s lives easier or better, like the electric trolley car, the incandescent light, motion pictures, or the phonograph, which brought music into everyone’s home, at a time when only the rich people could afford to go to the opera.”
John’s fascination with the famous inventor only grew from there. His interests focused on how Edison turned his discoveries into commercial projects.
“Besides creating the devices to bring direct current (electricity) into peoples’ homes, Edison also manufactured rechargeable alkaline batteries for use in automobiles.
These batteries could last up to one hundred miles before needing recharging. Electric cars made up thirty percent of the cars and seventy percent of the trucks in use in the US in the early 1900s,” John explained, showing a photograph depicted both Thomas Edison and Henry Ford each standing next to his own electric automobile.
“The same thing companies are trying to do today, creating electric cars, is something that was successfully done by Edison over one hundred years ago.”
John’s insight into Edison, at times, seems as if the inventor himself is speaking during his presentations, leaving the audience spellbound, wanting to hear more.
“I once gave a talk to a group of twelve year olds, and kept their attention the entire time. I consider that both a complement and an accomplishment.”
A part of John’s extensive knowledge comes from the artifacts themselves. Amongst his collection, he owns: Mina Edison’s diary; numerous pages of Edison’s laboratory notes; letters signed by the inventor himself; a four page letter from Theodore to his father; a letter from President Hoover to Edison, wishing him speedy recovery after an illness so that he might “continue to benefit mankind”; and many other personal items.
His most prized possession is an original 1879 Tin Foil Phonograph, one of ten in existence today. Another favorite is a business card signed by Edison, Gustav Eiffel, and (composer) Charles Gounod dated 10 September 1889, a scene perpetuated to this date by life-size wax figures in Eiffel’s office at the top of the structure he built.
“Imagine that,” John mused, “An American sits at the top of the Eiffel Tower.”
Furthering his interest in the inventor, John used a replica of the first phonograph, housed at the Edison Ford Winter Estate, to reenact Edison’s first recording, part of which included a recitation of the children’s poem, “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” After one unsuccessful attempt, John’s second try produced a recording that sounded eerily like Edison himself.
“I felt like he was there with me as I made the recording,” John announced after achieving success.
“Sadly though, unlike my experience, Edison probably did not hear his own first recording, as he only had partial hearing in one ear. After playing back what he had spoken into the machine, he was dejectly ready to pay off a bet he had made (two dollars and a box of cigars) with his laboratory manager, John Carman, and the builder of the prototype, John Kruesi, until he saw the astonished and amazed look upon their faces. Unlike Edison, I got to clearly hear my successful results immediately.”
Some are destined to be the keepers of America’s story. John Paul Kurdyla, whose in-depth knowledge and gift for storytelling captivates his audience, has found his destiny. He selflessly continues to share all he has learned through his lectures and exhibits. It is, to a great extent, through John Paul’s stories, pictures, and artifacts, that Thomas Edison is kept alive today.