The Inventor and the Sultan: Bright Idea Opens the Way for Excavations in Ancient Nippur

From the Archives

By: Alex Pezzati

Originally Published in 2003

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Letter from Thomas Edison to George F. Barker, professor of physics at the University of Pennsylvania, dated December 13, 1888
Letter from Thomas Edison to George F. Barker, professor of physics at the University of Pennsylvania, dated December 13, 1888

The Museum was in its infancy in 1888 when Rev. Dr. John Punnett Peters was in Constantinople (now Istanbul), then the capital of the Ottoman Empire. He was working on behalf of the University of Pennsylvania to obtain a permit to conduct excavations at the ancient site of Nippur, Mesopotamia (now Iraq). Navigating the diplomatic waters of the Ottoman sultanate was proving difficult for Peters, an Episcopal clergyman inspired by the lure of the Old Testament who had sold his plan of digging for biblical history to the university. He was running out of time and ideas Peters traveled to Constantinople in September, but by the time of his departure for Mesopotamia in December, Sultan Abdul Hamid II — who ruled the Ottoman Empire from 1876 to 1909 — had not yet approved his request. The main difficulty was the Ottomans’ unwillingness to let the expedition export some of its finds back to Philadelphia. Peters spoke repeatedly to the director general of antiquities, the minister of public instruction, the grand vizier, and the sultan himself, to no avail.

Peters was desperate, but he discovered a way. In November he wrote to Philadelphia,“The Sultan, it appears, wants one of Edison’s Improved Phonographs and … we had better buy one if to be had & send it to Constantinople. George F. Barker, a physics professor at the University and a protégé of Thomas Edison, was the middleman between Edison and Dr. William Pepper, Jr., provost of the University and founder of the University Museum. The archives house three letters written and signed by the famous inventor regarding this transaction.

Excavations in the temple at the site of Nippur, Iraq. Third expedition, 893–1896.
Excavations in the temple at the site of Nippur, Iraq. Third expedition, 893–1896.

Edison was keen to give one of his favorite machines to the sultan. However, Oscar S. Straus, United States minister to Constantinople, wrote to Pepper, “My suggestion is, keep this in reserve for a future time. I can not see how it will aid your cause at the present time.’ Through the help of Straus, the expe­dition obtained the coveted permit in early 1889. It is not known whether the sultan was able to acquire a phonograph.

Alex Pezzati, Archivist

Cite This Article

Pezzati, Alex. "The Inventor and the Sultan: Bright Idea Opens the Way for Excavations in Ancient Nippur." Expedition Magazine 45, no. 1 (March, 2003): -. Accessed February 28, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/the-inventor-and-the-sultan-bright-idea-opens-the-way-for-excavations-in-ancient-nippur/


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