ON THIS DAY in 1876, Thomas Alva Edison demonstrated his Aesthetograph, a device for recording the sensations of taste produced by various foods. It was Edison’s hope that his invention would bring the flavors of the most exotic delicacies within reach of the masses, who, although they could not afford to consume the foods of the rich, would be able to experience the same sensations upon the palate, being thus edified and raised to near equality with their betters.
For the purpose of the demonstration, which was attended by the cream of society, the Grand Appalachian Hotel had provided several items from its menu, including the far-famed Grand Appalachian Game Pie. With a proud flourish, Edison connected his device to the pie and turned the crank; then he disconnected the device from the pie and connected the electrical leads to the tongue of a volunteer, Mr. Herbert Flippery-Basin of Hyde Park, New York. Mr. Flippery-Basin immediately announced that he could sense all the complex flavors of the famous Grand Appalachian Game Pie. Other volunteers, upon testing the recording, were delighted to announce that they, too, tasted Grand Appalachian Game Pie merely by the action of the electrical lead upon their tongues.
For his next demonstration, Edison recorded the flavor of a cherry tart. For this experiment, Mr. Flippery-Basin was again the first volunteer, and again he announced that, without a shadow of a doubt, he was able to taste the Grand Appalachian Game Pie in all its glorious complexity. Edison was not pleased, but other volunteers gave the same report; and, when Edison himself finally tested the recording, he made a sour face and spat the wires out of his mouth.
The rest of the tests were equally disappointing. Edison recorded asparagus, pomegranates, Parker House rolls, a rather good claret, plum pudding, and turpentine. In each case, the machine unfailingly reproduced the flavor of Grand Appalachian Game Pie. Although at the time he brushed off the failure as a mere problem of adjustment, Edison found through subsequent experiments that the machine was, in fact, capable of reproducing no other flavor than that of Grand Appalachian Game Pie.
Dispirited by his failure, Edison ceased work on the Aesthetograph and turned his attention to the sensation of hearing, “though without,” he confided to one of his assistants, “any sanguine expectation of success.”