Thomas Edison’s Invention of the Phonograph

United States – Scott #945 (1947)

On November 21, 1877, Thomas Edison announced his invention of the phonograph, a machine that can record and play sound. Born on February 11, 1847, in Milan, Ohio, Thomas Alva Edison has been described as America’s greatest inventor. He is credited with developing many devices in fields such as electric power generation, mass communication, sound recording, and motion pictures. These inventions, which include the phonograph, the motion picture camera, and the long-lasting, practical electric light bulb, had a widespread impact on the modern industrialized world. He was one of the first inventors to apply the principles of mass production and teamwork to the process of invention, working with many researchers and employees. He is often credited with establishing the first industrial research laboratory.

Edison was raised in the American Midwest and early in his career he worked as a telegraph operator, which inspired some of his earliest inventions. In 1876, he established his first laboratory facility. This innovative industrial research lab was built in Menlo Park, a part of the Raritan Township (now named Edison Township in his honor) in Middlesex County, New Jersey, with the funds from the sale of Edison’s quadruplex telegraph. After his demonstration of the telegraph, Edison was not sure that his original plan to sell it for $4,000 to $5,000 was right, so he asked Western Union to make a bid. He was surprised to hear them offer $10,000 ($216,300 in today’s dollars.), which he gratefully accepted. Many of Edison’s early inventions would be developed at the Menlo Park laboratory. He would later establish a botanic laboratory in Fort Myers, Florida, in collaboration with businessmen Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone, and a laboratory in West Orange, New Jersey that featured the world’s first film studio, the Black Maria. He was a prolific inventor, holding 1,093 US patents in his name, as well as patents in other countries. Edison married twice and fathered six children. He died on October 18, 1931, of complications of diabetes.

Upstairs at Edison’s Menlo Park Laboratory, reconstructed in 1929 at Greenfield Village at Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. Note the organ against the back wall. Photo taken by Andrew Balet on July 2, 2006.

The quadruplex telegraph was Edison’s first big financial success, and Menlo Park became the first institution set up with the specific purpose of producing constant technological innovation and improvement. Edison was legally attributed with most of the inventions produced there, though many employees carried out research and development under his direction. His staff was generally told to carry out his directions in conducting research, and he drove them hard to produce results.

Edison began his career as an inventor in Newark, New Jersey, with the automatic repeater and his other improved telegraphic devices, but the invention that first gained him wider notice was the phonograph in 1877. This accomplishment was so unexpected by the public at large as to appear almost magical. Edison became known as “The Wizard of Menlo Park,” New Jersey.

The phonograph is a device for the mechanical recording and reproduction of sound. In its later forms, it is also called a gramophone (as a trademark since 1887, as a generic name in the UK since 1910) or, since the 1940s, a record player. The sound vibration waveforms are recorded as corresponding physical deviations of a spiral groove engraved, etched, incised, or impressed into the surface of a rotating cylinder or disc, called a “record”. To recreate the sound, the surface is similarly rotated while a playback stylus traces the groove and is therefore vibrated by it, very faintly reproducing the recorded sound. In early acoustic phonographs, the stylus vibrated a diaphragm which produced sound waves which were coupled to the open air through a flaring horn, or directly to the listener’s ears through stethoscope-type earphones.

Several inventors devised machines to record sound prior to Edison’s phonograph. The phonograph’s predecessors include Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville’s phonautograph, and Charles Cros’s paleophone. Recordings made with the phonautograph were intended to be visual representations of the sound, but were never sonically reproduced until 2008. Cros’s paleophone was intended to both record and reproduce sound but had not been developed beyond a basic concept at the time of Edison’s successful demonstration in 1877.

Photograph of Edison with his phonograph (2nd model), taken in Mathew Brady’s Washington, D.C. studio probably on April 18, 1878, based on an extremely similar photo. From the Brady-Handy Photograph Collection at the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

Edison conceived the principle of recording and reproducing sound between May and July 1877 as a byproduct of his efforts to “play back” recorded telegraph messages and to automate speech sounds for transmission by telephone. He announced his invention of the first phonograph, a device for recording and replaying sound, on November 21, 1877 (early reports appear in Scientific American and several newspapers in the beginning of November, and an even earlier announcement of Edison working on a ‘talking-machine’ can be found in the Chicago Daily Tribune on May 9), and he demonstrated the device for the first time on November 29 (it was patented on February 19, 1878 as US Patent 200,521). “In December, 1877, a young man came into the office of the SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, and placed before the editors a small, simple machine about which very few preliminary remarks were offered. The visitor without any ceremony whatever turned the crank, and to the astonishment of all present the machine said: “Good morning. How do you do? How do you like the phonograph?” The machine thus spoke for itself, and made known the fact that it was the phonograph…”

While other inventors had produced devices that could record sounds, Edison’s phonograph was the first to be able to reproduce the recorded sound. His phonograph originally recorded sound onto a tinfoil sheet wrapped around a rotating grooved cylinder. A stylus responding to sound vibrations produced an up and down or hill-and-dale groove in the foil. Despite its limited sound quality and that the recordings could be played only a few times, the phonograph made Edison a celebrity. Joseph Henry, president of the National Academy of Sciences and one of the most renowned electrical scientists in the United States, described Edison as “the most ingenious inventor in this country… or in any other”. In April 1878, Edison traveled to Washington to demonstrate the phonograph before the National Academy of Sciences, Congressmen, Senators and U.S. President Hayes. The Washington Post described Edison as a “genius” and his presentation as “a scene… that will live in history”. Although Edison obtained a patent for the phonograph in 1878, he did little to develop it until Alexander Graham Bell, Chichester Bell, and Charles Tainter produced a phonograph-like device in the 1880s that used wax-coated cardboard cylinders.

Edison wax cylinder phonograph – suitcase model, circa 1899.

Edison presented his own account of inventing the phonograph:

I was experimenting on an automatic method of recording telegraph messages on a disk of paper laid on a revolving platen, exactly the same as the disk talking-machine of to-day. The platen had a spiral groove on its surface, like the disk. Over this was placed a circular disk of paper; an electromagnet with the embossing point connected to an arm traveled over the disk; and any signals given through the magnets were embossed on the disk of paper. If this disc was removed from the machine and put on a similar machine provided with a contact point, the embossed record would cause the signals to be repeated into another wire. The ordinary speed of telegraphic signals is thirty-five to forty words a minute; but with this machine several hundred words were possible.

From my experiments on the telephone I knew of how to work a pawl connected to the diaphragm; and this engaging a ratchet-wheel served to give continuous rotation to a pulley. This pulley was connected by a cord to a little paper toy representing a man sawing wood. Hence, if one shouted: ‘ Mary had a little lamb,’ etc., the paper man would start sawing wood. I reached the conclusion that if I could record the movements of the diaphragm properly, I could cause such records to reproduce the original movements imparted to the diaphragm by the voice, and thus succeed in recording and reproducing the human voice.

Instead of using a disk I designed a little machine using a cylinder provided with grooves around the surface. Over this was to be placed tinfoil, which easily received and recorded the movements of the diaphragm. A sketch was made, and the piece-work price, $18, was marked on the sketch. I was in the habit of marking the price I would pay on each sketch. If the workman lost, I would pay his regular wages; if he made more than the wages, he kept it. The workman who got the sketch was John Kruesi. I didn’t have much faith that it would work, expecting that I might possibly hear a word or so that would give hope of a future for the idea. Kruesi, when he had nearly finished it, asked what it was for. I told him I was going to record talking, and then have the machine talk back. He thought it absurd. However, it was finished, the foil was put on; I then shouted ‘Mary had a little lamb’, etc. I adjusted the reproducer, and the machine reproduced it perfectly. I was never so taken aback in my life. Everybody was astonished. I was always afraid of things that worked the first time. Long experience proved that there were great drawbacks found generally before they could be got commercial; but here was something there was no doubt of.”

Early phonograph in Deaf Smith County Museum, Hereford, Texas, USA. This is an Edison phonograph, which played recordings made on cylinders of wax. A needle attached to a diaphragm at the narrow end of the flowerlike acoustic horn rested in a groove in the wax which records the sound vibrations. The device was wound up by turning the crank (visible on right side of machine). Then a mainspring in the mechanism turned the wax cylinder, and the displacements of the groove caused the needle to vibrate, which were translated into sound waves by the diaphragm, and came out the horn. Two black wax cylinder recordings are seen in front of the machine. Photo taken by Billy Hathorn on July 26, 2010.

The music critic Herman Klein attended an early demonstration (1881–1882) of a similar machine. On the early phonograph’s reproductive capabilities he writes

It sounded to my ear like someone singing about half a mile away, or talking at the other end of a big hall; but the effect was rather pleasant, save for a peculiar nasal quality wholly due to the mechanism, though there was little of the scratching which later was a prominent feature of the flat disc. Recording for that primitive machine was a comparatively simple matter. I had to keep my mouth about six inches away from the horn and remember not to make my voice too loud if I wanted anything approximating to a clear reproduction; that was all. When it was played over to me and I heard my own voice for the first time, one or two friends who were present said that it sounded rather like mine; others declared that they would never have recognised it. I daresay both opinions were correct.”

Edison’s early phonographs recorded onto a thin sheet of metal, normally tinfoil, which was temporarily wrapped around a helically grooved cylinder mounted on a correspondingly threaded rod supported by plain and threaded bearings. While the cylinder was rotated and slowly progressed along its axis, the airborne sound vibrated a diaphragm connected to a stylus that indented the foil into the cylinder’s groove, thereby recording the vibrations as “hill-and-dale” variations of the depth of the indentation.

Playback was accomplished by exactly repeating the recording procedure, the only difference being that the recorded foil now served to vibrate the stylus, which transmitted its vibrations to the diaphragm and onward into the air as audible sound. Although Edison’s very first experimental tinfoil phonograph used separate and somewhat different recording and playback assemblies, in subsequent machines a single diaphragm and stylus served both purposes. One peculiar consequence was that it was possible to overdub additional sound onto a recording being played back. The recording was heavily worn by each playing, and it was nearly impossible to accurately remount a recorded foil after it had been removed from the cylinder. In this form, the only practical use that could be found for the phonograph was as a startling novelty for private amusement at home or public exhibitions for profit.

Patent drawing for Edison’s phonograph, May 18, 1880. From the National Archives, Washington, D.C.

Edison’s early patents show that he was aware that sound could be recorded as a spiral on a disc, but Edison concentrated his efforts on cylinders, since the groove on the outside of a rotating cylinder provides a constant velocity to the stylus in the groove, which Edison considered more “scientifically correct”. Edison’s patent specified that the audio recording be embossed.

The use of a flat recording surface instead of a cylindrical one was an obvious alternative which thought-experimenter Charles Cros initially favored and which practical experimenter Thomas Edison and others actually tested in the late 1870s and early 1880s. The oldest surviving example is a copper electrotype of a recording cut into a wax disc in 1881. The commercialization of sound recording technology was initially aimed at use for business correspondence and transcription into writing, in which the cylindrical form offered certain advantages, the storage of large numbers of records seemed unlikely, and the ease of producing multiple copies was not a consideration.

Alexander Graham Bell’s Volta Laboratory made several improvements in the 1880s, including the use of wax-coated cardboard cylinders and a cutting stylus that moved from side to side in a zigzag groove around the record. it was not until 1886 that vertically modulated engraved recording using wax-coated cylinders was patented by Chichester Bell and Charles Sumner Tainter. They named their version the Graphophone.

In 1887, Emile Berliner patented a variant of the phonograph which he named the Gramophone. Berliner’s approach was essentially the same one proposed, but never implemented, by Charles Cros in 1877. The diaphragm was linked to the recording stylus in a way that caused it to vibrate laterally (side to side) as it traced a spiral onto a zinc disc very thinly coated with a compound of beeswax. The zinc disc was then immersed in a bath of chromic acid; this etched a groove into the disc where the stylus had removed the coating, after which the recording could be played. With some later improvements the flat discs of Berliner could be produced in large quantities at much lower cost than the cylinders of Edison’s system.

“Thomas Alva Edison, three-quarter length portrait, seated, facing front”. Photographic print, circa 1922. From the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

In the 1890s, Berliner’s gramophone initiated the transition from phonograph cylinders to flat discs with a spiral groove running from the periphery to near the center. The term gramophone for disc record players remains predominantly used in many languages. Later improvements through the years included modifications to the turntable and its drive system, the stylus or needle, and the sound and equalization systems.

In May 1889, in San Francisco, the first “phonograph parlor” opened. It featured a row of coin-operated machines, each supplied with a different wax cylinder record. The customer selected a machine according to the title that it advertised, inserted a nickel, then heard the recording through stethoscope-like listening tubes. By the mid-1890s, most American cities had at least one phonograph parlor. The coin-operated mechanism was invented by Louis T. Glass and William S. Arnold. The cabinet contained an Edison Class M or Class E phonograph. The Class M was powered by a wet-cell glass battery that would spill dangerous acid if it tipped over or broke. The Class E sold for a lower price and ran on 120V DC. The phenomenon of phonograph parlors peaked in Paris around 1900: in Pathé’s luxurious salon, patrons sat in plush upholstered chairs and chose from among many hundreds of available cylinders by using speaking tubes to communicate with attendants on the floor below.

By 1890, record manufacturers had begun using a rudimentary duplication process to mass-produce their product. While the live performers recorded the master phonograph, up to ten tubes led to blank cylinders in other phonographs. Until this development, each record had to be custom-made. Before long, a more advanced pantograph-based process made it possible to simultaneously produce 90–150 copies of each record. However, as demand for certain records grew, popular artists still needed to re-record and re-re-record their songs. Reportedly, the medium’s first major African-American star George Washington Johnson was obliged to perform his “The Laughing Song” (or the separate “The Whistling Coon”) literally thousands of times in a studio during his recording career. Sometimes he would sing “The Laughing Song” more than fifty times in a day, at twenty cents per rendition. The average price of a single cylinder in the mid-1890s was about fifty cents.

A recording made on a sheet of tinfoil at an 1878 demonstration of Edison’s phonograph in St. Louis, Missouri has been played back by optical scanning and digital analysis. A few other early tinfoil recordings are known to survive, including a slightly earlier one which is believed to preserve the voice of U.S. President Rutherford B. Hayes, but as of May 2014 they have not yet been scanned. These antique tinfoil recordings, which have typically been stored folded, are too fragile to be played back with a stylus without seriously damaging them. Edison’s 1877 tinfoil recording of “Mary Had a Little Lamb”, not preserved, has been called the first instance of recorded verse. On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the phonograph, Edison recounted reciting “Mary Had a Little Lamb” to test his first machine. The 1927 event was filmed by an early sound-on-film newsreel camera, and an audio clip from that film’s soundtrack is sometimes mistakenly presented as the original 1877 recording. Wax cylinder recordings made by 19th century media legends such as P. T. Barnum and Shakespearean actor Edwin Booth are amongst the earliest verified recordings by the famous that have survived to the present.

A late 20th-century turntable and record. Photo taken by Tomasz Sienicki on November 4, 2004.

The disc phonograph record was the dominant audio recording format throughout most of the 20th century. From the mid-1980s on, phonograph use on a standard record player declined sharply because of the rise of the cassette tape, compact disc and other digital recording formats. Records are still a favorite format for some audiophiles, DJs and turntablists (particularly in hip hop and electronic dance music), and have undergone a revival in the 2010s. The original recordings of musicians, which may have been recorded on tape or digital methods, are sometimes re-issued on vinyl.

Scott #945 was released by the United States Post Office Department on February 11, 1947, in Milan, Ohio, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Thomas Alva Edison’s birth there.  The 3-cent bright red violet stamp pictures the inventor and a cogwheel, wings, and lightning, which symbolize power, flight, and electricity. The Bureau of Engraving & Printing used the rotary press to produce 156,540,510 copies of the stamp, perforated 10½ x 11.

Flag of the United States, 1877-1890

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