MENLO PARK, N.J. (WHTM) — We’re used to sound recordings. Music (in multiple genres), audiobooks, phone messages, recordings of family history, alert boops and beeps on our phones…even the happy little tune my hearing aid plays when I turn it on. Audio recordings are quite literally the soundtracks of our lives.
And it all started with a vibrating needle in 1877.
Thomas Edison worked as a telegraph operator early in his career, and many of his early inventions were related to telegraphy. One of the things he was working on in 1877 was a device to transcribe telegraph messages. The machine made indentations on paper tape, which could be “played back” to send the message on the telegraph — over and over again, if necessary. (One wonders if this makes Edison the great-grandfather of spam email.)
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It occurred to Edison that a similar system could be used to record telephone messages. His first experiments used a diaphragm with an embossing point, which made indentations on a moving sheet of paraffin paper.
Then Edison switched to a metal cylinder wrapped in tinfoil, with two diaphragm-needle units: one for recording, one for playback. Edison handed over a sketch of the machine to one of his employees, John Kruesi, who supposedly built a prototype within 30 hours.
(One thing to always keep in mind when people say “Edison did this” or “Edison did that” is that he had people working with him on his projects. The point is, the inventions wouldn’t have happened without him. In fact, the concept of a specialized research and development laboratory may be one of Edison’s greatest inventions.)
Edison tested Kruesi’s prototype on Aug. 12, 1877, by reciting “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” The machine played his words back. It was a little tinny, perhaps, certainly not high-fidelity to our ears, but the machine worked.
Or such is the story we heard in our youth. It is quite likely that this all happened later in the year, and the phonograph went through some prototyping, testing, and tinkering before Edison applied for a patent on Dec. 24, 1877.
The patent for the phonograph was issued on Feb. 19, 1878. Edison suggested possible uses for the device in the North American Review of June 1878. Every one of his suggestions has come true, though not necessarily the way he predicted. Here are some of them:
Letter writing: “…the matter dictated into the mouth piece..it is then removed, placed in a suitable form of envelope, and sent through ordinary channels to the correspondent for whom designed.” (Sounds like voicemail to me…)
Books: “(Recorded books)… used in the asylums of the blind, hospitals, the sick-chamber, or even great profit and amusement by the lady or gentleman whose eyes and hands may be otherwise employed.
Music: “The phonograph will undoubtedly be liberally devoted to music.”
Family Record: “For the purpose of preserving the saying, the voices, and the last words of the dying member of the family-as of great men-the phonograph will unquestionably outrank the photograph.”
Toys: “A doll which may speak, sing, cry, or laugh, may be safely promised our children for the Christmas Holidays ensuing.”
Clocks: “The phonographic clock will tell you the hour of the day; call you to lunch; send your lover home at ten, etc.”
Speech and other Utterances: “It will henceforth be possible to preserve for future generations the voices and well as the words of our Washingtons, our Lincolns, our Gladstones, etc.”
Educational Purposes: “As an elocutionary teacher, or as a primary teacher for children, it will certainly be invaluable.”
To read Edison’s North American Review Article, click here.
Sound recording technology has changed a lot over the decades. Wax cylinders replaced the foil wrap, which tended to shred after a few uses. Cylinders were replaced by disk records, which were easier to produce and could store more information (meaning they could play longer musical pieces than cylinders). We’ve recorded on magnetic tape and on CDs, and now we record sound on devices on which the only moving parts are the record and playback buttons — when they haven’t been replaced by touchscreens. But it all goes back to Edison and his hand-cranked cylinder.