By Danny Crownover
While reminiscing at my favorite corner in downtown Gadsden at Fourth and Broad streets the other day, The Vagabond recalled an old exhibit called Jester’s World that used to be exhibited in front of the old courthouse back in the 1880s and 1890s. The exhibit featured remarkable mechanical devices and of other things of the same nature in the good old days.
Jester’s World was built and exhibited by J.T. Jester, an inventor and a mechanic.
The “world,” as Jester called it, consisted of animated figures of men and women at their chores on a farm. There was a woman milking a cow, another one churning, another one doing the week’s wash, a blacksmith hammering on an anvil and a helper operating the bellows, one shoeing a horse, one driving a wagon and another plowing a field. The miniature figure horseshoeing wore a leather apron.
The men, women and animals moved much like the figures in a marionette show, except they were animated by a system of belts and pulleys instead of overhead strings.
The entire exhibit was enclosed in three-foot square box with a glass in front. A man behind the box turned a crank that furnished the power for the whole outfit. It was an ingenious arrangement without the use of electric power.
Jester had built an airplane before the Wright Brothers ever thought of doing so. His workshop was located in his home on the east side of North Sixth Street between the N.C. & St. Louis and Southern railroads. Jester’s plane was quite similar to the Wright machine and became so large that a front wall had to be removed from one side of the house for the protruding tail. It was never known just how the inventor and builder expected the thing to fly, or rather what kind of power was intended for use. The modern gasoline engine had not yet been invented. Jester died believing that he had invented a machine that would actually fly.
Also of interest in the 1880s, Dr. M.E. Dozier, who lived just west of Attalla, brought to Gadsden the first talking machine, which was invented by Thomas A. Edison.
Dozier exhibited the machine in a vacant frame store building which stood on the site once occupied by Jack Saks’ department store. The contraption looked very much like a sausage grinder of the time. Only a few words came out of the machine, but they were reproductions of the human voice.
At that time, it was called Edison’s Talking Machine. While it was rather crude as compared to the gramophone that succeeded it, everybody considered it a truly wonderful invention.
Henry Vinson of East Gadsden bought the first gramophone to this area. It was a large boxed-in contraption with head pieces and rubber tubes. You could not hear any sound coming from it without the hearing device. The first time the gramophone was seen in operation was at the residence of Dr. D.H. Baker on Walnut Street.
Vinson took his gramophone to parties and receptions in town. Sometimes there were as many as a dozen listeners, all wearing head pieces and tubes. Dr. Baker charged 25 cents per person to listen to his talking machine, and Henry charged a lump sum to entertain a party. One of his records was a speech by Uncle Abe Thornton, the sage of East Gadsden.