In the early days of recorded sound, no one can quite figure out the purpose of gramophones. Are they serious bits of kit for replicating music or are they toys? Should gramophone discs play music or comedy or something else entirely? One man trying to work out this conundrum is an American actor called Russell Hunting. An eccentric hustler, Hunting invents an Irish comedy character called Michael Casey. He also puts out a series of lewd and obscene records populated by characters telling titillating stories, which become big in coin-slot booths in amusement arcades. But Hunting’s most meaningful contribution to the history of recorded sound comes when he travels to London in 1899 and makes a ‘descriptive record’ about the Boer War with Fred. The record, called The Departure of the Troopship, is a serious mini-drama and ranks as the first piece of recorded propaganda which, according to reports, “brought tears to the eyes of thousands”. The Departure of the Troopship suggests that despite Hunting’s more outrageous leanings he’s something of an accidental innovator.
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