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Thomas Edison's Phonograph: The dawn of communications or how the world got its very first recording

Patent drawing for Edison's phonograph, May 18, 1880
Patent drawing for Edison's phonograph, May 18, 1880

“The disc phonograph will never amount to anything anyway,” grumbled Thomas Alva Edison (1847 - 1931), when his U.S. patent application for the device was rejected on a technicality. Though the invention of the phonograph (1877) is generally credited to the famous electrician, who was the first to debut a device that could both record and reproduce sound, various experimental mechanisms of this type appeared as early as the 1850s.

Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville (1817 - 1879) invented the phonautograph in 1857. He “first imagined an apparatus to gather and fix airborne sounds, patterned after the human ear, while editing Professor Longet’s Traité de Physiologie.” He invented a “device [that] recorded images from sounds, tracing squiggles in black soot coating a surface,” but didn’t actually play back the sounds it recorded. Scott had assumed trained readers would learn to interpret the tracing.

It didn’t quite work out that way, since people had serious difficulty interpreting the squiggles, which were essentially images of sound waves. But the invention wasn’t entirely useless. “With support from the [Society for the Development of National Industry], his phonautograph was recording sounds with sufficient precision to be adopted by the scientific community. As a laboratory instrument it contributed for decades to the nascent science of acoustics.”

It wasn’t until 1877 that the recording and reproduction of sound was made possible by Edison. It was developed as a result of his work on two other inventions, the telegraph and the telephone. At the time, the American inventor was working on his telegraphic repeater, a machine that “could automatically repeat a Morse code message and even speed it up beyond human capabilities,” which also got him thinking about recording messages for telephones.

Thomas Edison with his second phonograph, photographed by Levin Corbin Handy in Washington, April 1878
Thomas Edison with his second phonograph, photographed by Levin Corbin Handy in Washington, April 1878

“He experimented with a diaphragm which had an embossing point and was held against rapidly-moving paraffin paper. The speaking vibrations made indentations in the paper. Edison later changed the paper to a metal cylinder with tin foil wrapped around it. The machine had two diaphragm-and-needle units, one for recording, and one for playback. When one would speak into a mouthpiece, the sound vibrations would be indented onto the cylinder by the recording needle in a vertical (or hill and dale) groove pattern. Edison gave a sketch of the machine to his mechanic, John Kruesi, to build, which Kruesi supposedly did within 30 hours.”

He called his invention the phonograph. The article goes on to state that Edison immediately tested the device by reciting: ''Mary had a little lamb, its fleece was white as snow,” into the mouthpiece. And while it’s true that the nursery rhyme was used for one of his earlier tests, there is also evidence that suggests the inventor and his male assistants had a bit of fun with the device by mad-libbing the lines.

An Underground Education (1997) by Richard Zacks
An Underground Education (1997) by Richard Zacks

One variation, according to Richard Zacks’ An Underground Education: The Unauthorized and Outrageous Supplement to Everything You Thought You Knew About Art, Sex, Business, Crime, Science, Medicine, and Other Fields of Human Knowledge (1997), went like this:

“Mary has a new sheath gown,

It is too tight by half

Who cares a damn for Mary’s lamb,

When they can see her calf!”

Although Edison started working on his phonograph in July of 1877, he did not have a working device until December. This, however, did not stop him from drafting his first press release announcing the new invention in September. Writing in the third person he claimed that:

“Mr. Edison the Electrician has not only succeeded in producing a perfectly articulating telephone.…far superior and much more ingenious than the telephone off Bell…but has gone into a new and entirely unexplored field of acoustics which is nothing less than an attempt to record automatically the speech of a very rapid speaker upon paper; from which he reproduces the same Speech immediately or year’s afterwards or preserving the characteristics of the speaker’s voice so that persons familiar with it would at once recognize it.”

There was a lot of skepticism pertaining to the device. According to Zacks, “a Yale professor reading a description in the New York Sun called the writer a ‘common penny a liner in the incipient stages of delirium tremens. The idea of a talking machine is ridiculous.’” A U.S. senator apparently became “convinced that Edison must be a clever ventriloquist and asked the inventor to please leave the room for the next demo.”

While there was much excitement about the invention initially, it died down pretty quickly. “The phonograph’s real drawback was not the mechanical design on which [Edison and his associates] focused their efforts but the tinfoil recording surface,” explains Paul Israel. “Compared to later wax recording surfaces developed in the 1880s, tinfoil recordings had very poor fidelity and also deteriorated rapidly after a single playback.”

Though the phonograph was a remarkable achievement, Edison couldn’t quite figure out any practical uses for his device, and even suggested putting a giant phonograph in the mouth of the Statue of Liberty, which was scheduled to be erected in New York Harbor. As such, it remained little more than a scientific curiosity for the next decade. But, others picked up where he left off. One improvement was substituting the rigid needle with a floating stylus.

Emile Berliner with disc record gramophone
Emile Berliner with disc record gramophone

Another was made by Emil Berliner (1851 - 1929) in 1887, when he realized it makes more sense to trace sound grooves in a spiral on a flat disc rather than in a helix on a cylinder. “A negative was made from the flat master disc, and the negative then used as a mold for making many copies that reproduced the original master disc. These ‘records,’ as they came to be known, could be played on a reproducing machine Berliner named a Gramophone.”

Edison decided to take another stab at his invention in 1887 and formed The Edison Phonograph Company. He introduced the Improved Phonograph one year later, followed by the Perfected Phonograph shortly thereafter. “I’ve made some machines, but this is my baby and I expect it to grow up to be a big feller and support me in my old age,” he once stated. But it took over a decade and a lot of trial and error.

Today, Britannica defines the phonograph as follows:

The phonograph, also known as a record player, is an instrument for reproducing sounds by means of the vibration of a stylus, or needle, following a groove on a rotating disc. A phonograph disc, or record, stores a replica of sound waves as a series of undulations in a sinuous groove inscribed on its rotating surface by the stylus. When the record is played back, another stylus responds to the undulations, and its motions are then reconverted into sound.

Note* All images are either in the public domain or available for Fair Use.


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