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Robert Friedman owns Thomas Edison's piano. What do the bite marks mean?


We can find history in some unexpected places like bite marks on a piano. And those teeth marks belong to Thomas Alva Edison. The inventor of the phonograph, motion pictures and the lightbulb was hard of hearing and found his own way to experience music. Robert Friedman is a collector and seller of antique Steinway pianos, and he joins us now. Mr. Friedman, thanks so much for being with us.

ROBERT FRIEDMAN: Well, thank you for having me on.

SIMON: You have come to own a piano said to be Edison's. How do you know it was his?

FRIEDMAN: Well, the serial number, which is stamped everywhere on the piano, which goes back to the time when he bought it in June of 1890, is in all the history books. And it never left the New York area. It had lived in four homes privately once it left the hands of his son, who had sold it. Also all the provenance from the folks who had owned it previously to me - they carried all the paperwork with the piano, including the original receipts and information from the National Parks Commission in New Jersey, where the piano actually sat in his lab for the first 40 years of its life.

SIMON: Did the people from whom you acquired this piano say, and look at the bite marks?

FRIEDMAN: Nobody who has housed that piano since the day it left his care and custody knew that the marks were in there. I kept the piano closed for the first couple of months that it was in my house. I opened it when it was time to tune the piano. And it just so happens that Charles Frommer, who tunes pianos, lifted the top up and looked down on the lock bar. And he saw all these incisor marks on the top of the lock bar. And he says, oh, those are Edison's bite marks. He goes, I've read about this before many times. He used to bite his music boxes, and he bit his piano. And then we realized what we had.

SIMON: I'm trying to imagine anyone, much less Thomas Edison, with their mouth clamped on a piano.

FRIEDMAN: The sensation is amazing. It goes up through your skull, your head resonates like a tuning fork. It's an amazing feeling. It goes through your shoulders, but you get the true vibration of the instrument, and you hear the piano equal, if not better, than if you just hear it through your ears.

SIMON: (Laughter) I want to try it now. I must say there is something that is once sad and moving about imagining Thomas A. Edison biting down on a piano because he so much wanted to share in the joy of music. You have a real piece of history, don't you?

FRIEDMAN: I've been told. I personally was not so excited about buying it for the number that I had to pay for it because I wasn't sure what I was going to do with it. But my wife said to me, she says, if you don't buy it, I will. She saw that, you know, it's something that I should be involved in, considering all the years of buying and selling and trading and then eventually finding this one. So I'm glad I got involved.

SIMON: Robert Friedman, who collects Steinway pianos and is also author of "The Steinway Hunter: A Memoir," thank you very much for being with us. And may you enjoy your Steinways.

FRIEDMAN: I appreciate it very much. You have a wonderful day.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.