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How Thomas Edison invented his phonograph, bringing new sound to the world

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Edison wax cylinder for vintage phonograph

Thomas Edison and the invention of the phonograph: Making a shrine for speech

From Thomas Alva Edison, by Francis Rolt-Wheeler (1922)

While the electric light is undoubtedly Edison’s greatest gift to mankind, his most unique one is the phonograph.

The earlier claimants to the proud title of “Father of the Telephone” were two Frenchmen, Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville, who in 1857 invented a “phonautograph,” and Charles Cros, who in 1877 invented an instrument which his friend the Abbe Leblanc called — creating the word — the “phonograph.”

Scott’s device was of the crudest, though he succeeded in causing his phonautograph to render back faint sounds from the blast of two huge organ pipes, three feet from the instrument.

But Cros’ phonograph was far more scientific. Its main, and utter, difference from Edison’s invention was that instead of depending on indentations in a soft substance which might be hardened, it was based on the wavings of a line which an index finger would make if attached to a diaphragm caused to vibrate by the sound-waves of the voice.

As compared with these two early ideas, Edison’s is entirely original. This invention of his was born with him absolutely. He is the discoverer as well as the inventor, and to his constant work in its improvement, the phonograph has come to be the almost perfect instrument of today.

Portrait of Thomas Edison

The phonograph was not due to any happy accident. It was not even a quick idea born from a sudden thought. It came to its inventor as a flash, indeed, but only after long thought along that very line and during experimentation on a line that was closely parallel.

It is well to emphasize this. Many inventors — especially young ones — are likely to think of inventions as “lucky ideas that happen to strike it right.” There are very few of these in the history of invention. As has been said before, an inventor has got to know his field before he can be sure whether an idea is of any value, and he has to work like a slave to perfect the idea.

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One more point may be made which illustrates Edison’s extraordinary genius. It is that he never fritters away time. He never wastes time on something which is merely interesting, as long as there is something of value to be done in perfecting matters which have already shown themselves to be of value to mankind.

“What’s the use?” he answered a visitor one day, when his caller was speaking of the vast possibilities as yet unexplored, that occur as suggestions here and there in his volumes of “Notion Books.” “What’s the use?” he repeated. “One lifetime is too short, and I am busy every day improving essential parts of my established industries.”

There are thousands of patents in the Patent Office which would bring fame and fortune to their inventors, if the men who had devised them had given as much time to their application to industry as they did to their invention.

Not more than one quarter of Edison’s life has been spent in actually inventing new devices, the other three- quarters has gone in industrializing them. The value of an invention does not lie in what it is itself, but in what it is made to do.

Thomas Edison and the phonograph c1907 (4)

In just such a way, the phonograph found its real beginning in the fact that Edison noticed a humming sound coming from a model he had made while experimenting on the automatic telegraph. He paid no especial attention to it at the time, but, like all subsidiary events occurring during experiment, it sank into his memory, unconsciously.

As it so happened, the telephone question became of supreme importance a few days later, and Edi- son was unable to proceed with the modification of the automatic telegraph. It was not until years later that, with the telephone puzzles solved, he returned to the automatic telegraph, his desire being to invent a machine which would repeat Morse characters that had been recorded on paper by indentations.

The main idea was that this indented paper should pass under a tracing point. This point was connected with an increaser, which multiplied its movements, and this again was connected with a telegraph-sending apparatus. By this means, a message received at a given office could be relayed and transmitted automatically.

In returning to his manipulation of this machine, Edison found that, when the cylinder carrying the indented paper was turned quickly, it gave out a sort of humming noise. Immediately he remembered a somewhat similar experience on an earlier model.

Edison, in some ways, is quite hard of hearing, but to other sounds, he is extraordinarily susceptible, and one of these is Morse. It seemed to him, then, he since has said, that the humming noise sounded like Morse heard indistinctly. The multiplication of small sounds to great ones has always been a pet hobby of Edison’s, and it occurred to him that this humming could be intensified. Here was the second clew, which also registered itself in the inventor’s mind, and then lay dormant.

Thomas Edison and the phonograph (4)

In Dickson’s “Edison,” the inventor is quoted as giving the third and the more immediate cause of the direction of his attention to the phonograph. The statement is reported as follows:

“I was singing to the mouth-piece of a telephone,” Edison is quoted as saying, “when the vibrations of the voice sent the fine steel point into my finger. That set me thinking. If I could record the actions of the point and send the point over the same surface afterwards, I saw no reason why the thing would not talk. I tried the experiment first on a strip of telegraph paper.

“I shouted the words ‘Hello! Hello!’ into the mouthpiece, ran the paper back over the steel point, and heard a faint ‘Hello! Hello!’ in return. I determined to make a machine that would work accurately, and gave my assistants instructions, telling them what I had discovered. They laughed at me. That’s the whole story. The phonograph is the result of the pricking of a finger.”

The statement, as quoted, is interesting and modest, but it conveys an entirely false impression. It suggests a discovery that was more or less of a “fluke.” Yet it was nothing of the kind. Edison had been experimenting for years on the telephone; he knew as much about sound waves and voice vibrations as he did about electricity, and he had already done some preparatory work on the microphone. The question of voice vibrations on a diaphragm was one to which he had given years of thought, and he could instantly tell the amount of vibration that any given vowel or consonantal sound would give to a diaphragm of any given substance.

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When, therefore, Edison attached a diaphragm to the machine in order to record the sounds, and when he spoke against that diaphragm, he was following a clear line of reasoning. When to this diaphragm he attached a mechanism which would multiply the vibration sufficiently to indent a given material, and when he selected paraffined paper as this material, every step was the result of a logical process.

The inventor sent for Krusei, the best of his early model-makers, gave him a rough sketch of the idea, and told him to make one. It is of interest to know that the price Krusei charged was eight dollars and that it took him thirty hours without sleep to build it. At the end of that time, he brought the first actual working phonograph into the world, a clumsy-looking affair, now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, in London.

Carman, the foreman of the machine shop, was present when Krusei brought in the model. On being told what it was for, he declared it impossible, and bluntly bet Edison a box of cigars that it wouldn’t work. With a slow smile, Edison took the bet; then, sliding the model along the table in front of him, he turned the crank slowly, speaking into the receiver the first verse of the child-rhyme, “Mary had a little lamb.”

Thomas Edison and the phonograph (2)

The cylinder was returned to the starting point again and the handle turned once more. Then, very faintly, but still unmistakably, came back, “Ma’y ‘ad .. ‘it’ ‘am,” with a reminiscent hint of “his Master’s voice” in it. This extraordinary success with a first model, this first phonograph in history, was ushered into the world to the accompaniment of a disgusted remark from the foreman,

“Well, I guess I’ve lost again!”

So far, so good, but when it came to perfecting the phonograph, the difficulties were great. Developing, as it did, mainly along the lines of pleasure-giving, it was necessary that the phonograph should attain a high standard of perfection. The actual machinery gave little trouble — indeed, the phonograph is one of the simplest mechanisms possible — but the records were another matter.

The tinfoil, although it had served its purpose faithfully and efficiently, proved worthless as a recorder. It did not retain the impression accurately, and after being used once or twice, was useless. Edison turned his attention to some other substance, wax naturally suggesting itself to him as the best.

The securing of wax for the records was another case similar to that of filaments for the electric light. Edison bought every book that dealt with animal or vegetable fats — even in the most remote way — and studied them all. He sent for samples of every known fat in the two hemispheres. He set at work the best men in his staff, blending, mixing, and testing hundreds of varieties; he engaged special chemists; and at last, he secured a combination of waxes that answered his purpose. From this, excellent records were made.

In Dyer & Martin’s “Life of Edison,” the inventor is quoted as giving the story of how the marvel of enshrining the voice was first given to the world.

“That morning,” the account reads, “I took it [the newborn phonograph] over to New York, walked into the office of the Scientific American, went up to Mr. Beach’s desk, and said I had something to show him. He asked what it was.

I told him that I had a machine that would record and reproduce the human voice.

“I opened the package, set up the machine, and recited ‘Mary had a little lamb,’ etc. Then I reproduced it so that it could be heard all over the room. They kept me at it until the crowd got so great that Mr. Beach was afraid the floor would collapse.

“The papers, next morning, contained columns about it. None of the writers seemed to understand how it was done. I tried to explain it to them, it was so very simple, but the results were so surprising that the reporters made up their minds probably that they never would understand it — and they didn’t.

Thomas Edison and the phonograph (3)

“For a long time, some people thought there was trickery. One morning at Menlo Park, a gentleman came to the laboratory and asked to see the phonograph. It was Bishop Vincent … I exhibited it, and then he asked if he could speak a few words. I put on a fresh foil (this was in the days when the wax was as yet in the experimental stage) and told him to go ahead. He commenced to recite Biblical names with immense rapidity. On reproducing it, he said, ‘I am satisfied now. There isn’t a man in the United States- but myself who could recite those names with the same rapidity.'”

But instead of being a piece of claptrap, or even a nine-days’-wonder, the phonograph advanced with giant strides. In Europe it was widely exhibited, men of science and royalty vying with each other in their eagerness to hear the marvelous invention. The Paris Exposition of 1889 confirmed the triumph of Edison in Europe. Forty thousand people a day flocked to hear the phonograph. Its success was complete.

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Again the situation may be compared to that of the electric light. The perfect phonograph record, like the perfect light, had been secured. But it was costly and it was fragile. Edison, who never lets go a thing until it is put on a practical basis, tried every device, even making the cylinders of thin paper with an eighth of an inch covering of wax. This reduced their cost but increased their fragility, and considerable care had to be taken in handling them.

The public is not careful, and an article which is to be much used has got to withstand a certain amount of rough usage. Since every kind of wax had been tested, Edison discarded wax and tried stearate of soda. It was the solution of all his difficulties. From that time on, numerous changes have been made in phonograph records, the chemical composition of them has varied from time to time, but the principle remains unswervingly the same.

Thomas Edison and the phonograph (1)

The principle of the phonograph being early established, Edison turned his attention to the electric light, and for several years little was done on the voice-recorder. Its perfecting and its introduction as a commercial asset, therefore, date after the incandescent light. Though born first, its maturity was delayed.

One of the main reasons for delay was the phonograph’s seemingly incurable habit of lisping. Thousands, yes, tens of thousands of records were made of “Mary had a little lamb, lamb, LAMB, LAMB,” and not a few of them are decorated with such following sentences as, “You gol-swingled beast, can’t you say LAMB!”

Another word of which the very walls of the old buildings must have got tired was the word “Spezia,” used innumerable times in an effort to educate those early phonographs to distinguish between the two sounds of ‘s,’ and to say a ‘p’ properly.

The inventor’s conceptions of the various uses to which the phonograph would be put are of considerable interest, as showing the ends he sought and as compared with the actual development that has occurred in the nearly forty years since the first phonograph patent was secured. In the North American Review in 1878, he wrote :

“Among the many uses to which the phonograph will be applied are the following :

1. Letter-writing and all kinds of dictation without the aid of a stenographer.

2. Phonographic books which will speak to blind people without effort on their part.

3. The teaching of elocution.

4. The reproduction of music.

5. The Family Record (a registry of sayings, reminiscences, etc., by members of a family, in their own voices), and of the last words of dying persons.

6. Music boxes and toys.

7. Clocks that should announce, in articulate speech, the time for going home, time for meals, etc.

8. The preservation of languages by exact reproduction of the manner of pronouncing.

9. Educational purposes, such as preserving the explanations made by a teacher, so that the pupil can refer to them at any moment; and spelling or other lessons placed upon the phonograph for convenience in committing to memory.

10. Connection with the telephone, so as to make that instrument an auxiliary in the transmission of permanent and invaluable records, instead of being the recipient of momentary and fleeting communication.”

The year 1888 was the phonograph year. The Patent Office, in that one year alone, granted Edison thirty patents on improvements connected with the phonograph. The wax had been substituted for the foil, a sapphire point had taken the place of the steel pencil, and the reproducing needles” had become exceedingly fine, globe-pointed devices.

Part of a phonograph record from 1922

From the exceedingly fine details required in the phonograph, where indentations one-thousandth part of an inch make all the difference between the various tone qualities of a singing voice, Edison’s attention turned to matters on a large scale.

His next years of effort were given to his great magnetic ore separator. This was an example of a perfect principle, perfectly applied, brought to perfection by Edison, to which he gave five years of constant thought and attention, and which ended in a tremendous monetary loss. To a smaller man, the result would have been nothing less than utter ruin, but Edison’s only comment was, “Well, the money’s all gone, but we had a whale of a good time spending it.”

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The origin of Edison’s connection with the magnetic ore separator is stated to be the washing in of a patch of blackish sand on the seabeach at Quogue, L.I. As it is an unfailing rule of Edison’s life never to pass a new thing, and always to bring to his great storehouse every available substance, the “Wizard” filled his pockets with the sand.

When, a few days later, he returned to the laboratory, thrusting his hand into his pocket, he found the sand, which he promptly emptied out upon the laboratory table. On this table there chanced to be a magnet lying, and as the sand poured near the magnet, a number of the little black grains were attracted to it. Edison at once saw that the magnet separated the magnetic from the non-magnetic particles, and his mind jumped to the possibility of using this in practical mining of low-grade ores, or ores in which the proportion of valuable and magnetic material is small.

The idea was not precisely new, as, in the seventeenth century, Gilbert, that extraordinary scientist of Queen Elizabeth’s court, suggested that the magnet could be used for “separating the pure from the impure,” as he phrased it. But Gilbert’s prophecy had nothing to do with Edison’s planning. The metallic sand lay before him. Obviously, if ore could be crushed into particles as small as that sand, they could be separated. Or, if the magnet were larger and more powerful, the particles need not be quite so small. There was the principle; the working of it out was only a matter of experiment.

Unfortunately for the inventor, this was not the sort of thing which could be carried out on a small scale. Innumerable laboratory tests were made, ores were shipped in from all parts of the world, crushers were made with magnets in proportion to their size. Certain ores were found more or less refractory, but still, all of them could be brought into their proper relations. The laboratory test was conclusive, the problem was solved, and hundreds of millions of tons of metalliferous rocks, which had been deemed too low- grade for mining, immediately became available.

Thomas Edison and the phonograph c1907 (5)

Had Edison stopped there, had he taken out patents on his inventions and the ideas for machinery connected with it, he would have been the richer by half a million dollars and the world would have gained almost five years of the inventor’s time. But Edison, in his characteristic way, wished to establish his invention as a commercial industry. He had done this with the electric light, he had done this with his duplex telegraph, while other of his inventions he had sold in such a way that they were commercially gainful, and he desired to place his magnetic milling on the same basis of advantage.

With his accustomed concentration, Edison set his mind resolutely to the problem. No machinery existed which contemplated the crushing of the hardest rocks to powder, and the inventor had to plan all these. A few of the devices were machines in general use carried to a finer scale; some were modifications of existing machines; but the string of patents taken out in Edison’s name in connection with ore-milling machinery shows to how large an extent his inventive powers were devoted to this end alone.

Under his fertile mechanical planning, a marvelous metallurgical plant was built. A big tract of land in Sullivan County was the scene of operations, and around the milling plant grew up a small town of over two hundred houses. All these were modern, equipped with electric light and conveniences strange to so small a place.

From the inventor’s point of view, the experiment was thoroughly successful. Scarcely an ore of any consequence was found to fail, and in the five years, practically every detail was finished and every obstacle overcome. But Edison was not fortunate in his commercial appeal.

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Capital did not pledge itself readily to the work, the shipping facilities to the ore-milling plant were poor, and the organization necessary to extend the new metallurgical system throughout the country would have taken all of Edison’s time. It would have made a good life work for most men, but Edison’s brain was too multifold for him to remain perpetually at milling. One day he closed down the mine.

No one lives now at “Edison” and the miners’ cottages still stand there, falling into decay. Many of the buildings are in ruins and the machinery has rusted in the pits where it stood. The project, as a business venture, was a failure, but in Australia and in Norway, in the Andes and in the Himalayas, are mines where magnetic ore separators are at work. The “Wizard’s” ore works are shut down, but his wizardry continues unbroken.

Thomas Edison and the phonograph c1907 (6)

There is a very decided hint of the combination of stoicism and the love of work which has descended to him from his Dutch ancestry in Edison’s comment on the ore-milling work, when years later, telling his reminiscences of that time, he said:

“I never felt better in my life than during the five years I worked there. Hard work, nothing to divert my thoughts, clear air and simple food made my life very pleasant. We learned a great deal. It will be of benefit to someone some time.”

How much of the interpretation of Edison’s character lies in that phrase, “We learned a great deal”!

To the inventor, then verging toward fifty years of age, the value of five years of painstaking and arduous toil found sufficient reward in the knowledge that “We learned a great deal.” It is the clew to his combined simplicity and greatness.

Thomas Edison and the phonograph c1907 (2)


Everybody dances when the phonograph plays (1907)

The dance music of the Edison Phonograph is irresistible.

Its selections are clear, distinct, tuneful and in perfect time. It offers the most fascinating waltzes and spirited two-steps of the world’s, great composers as well as the popular dance music of the hour. It is a military band or a symphony orchestra at will, affording a delightful and widely varied program without expense or attention.

The Phonograph represents the personal work of Mr. Edison, the inventor of the talking machine idea. Hear it at any Edison store; you must compare it with others to fully appreciate its entertaining powers.

Antique Edison phonographs 1906 1907 1908 (4)

Thomas Edison and the phonograph c1907 (1)


An unfailing source of real entertainment (1907)

Start an Edison Phonograph going anywhere and it immediately becomes the center of interest. As an entertainer, it has no competition — its fund of music, songs, or stories is unlimited.

With each new record, whether an air from the latest musical comedy, a waltz or two-step by band or orchestra, a selection from grand opera or a ballad of long ago, the Phonograph becomes a new pleasure. A Phonograph in your home means enjoyment for each member of the family and for all occasions. Hear it at any Edison store.

Antique Edison phonographs 1906 1907 1908 (5)

Thomas Edison and the phonograph c1907 (3)

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Have you a Phonograph? (1907)

How long has it been since you have critically listened to one? Do you know how good The Edison Phonograph is today, how pure the tone, how satisfying the reproduction? If you have one, you know. If you have not one, you ought to know — it’s easy to know.

Somewhere near you there is an Edison Store. Go there and hear. Learn how inexpensive it is for a complete outfit, including records — and how favorable the terms. Then think of the pleasure you can give yourself, your family and your friends with the world’s best music, its most catchy songs and the monologues and dialogues of its funniest comedians. And after doing all this you’ll buy one — you simply can’t help it.

Antique Edison phonographs 1906 1907 1908 (1)


What you want is your kind of music. (1906)

It may be classical or it may be “rag-time.” It may be the “hit” of the latest musical comedy or it may be a selection from “Faust.”

With the Edison Improved Phonograph, you can have your kind of music and your friends can have their kind. This wonderful music- maker has no single specialty. It is a versatile entertainer. It produces, With fidelity, the songs of all singers; the music of the masters; the old tunes as well as the popular airs of the day.

“The American Nights Entertainment,” a booklet which will suggest many ways of making home more desirable than the club, which will help entertain friends, which will give ideas for money-making programs, sent free on request.

Antique Edison phonographs 1906 1907 1908 (2)


A pleasure shared is a pleasure doubled (1907)

To the Edison Phonograph can be applied the old saying: “A pleasure shared is a pleasure doubled.” It is the art of entertainment expressed in tangible form. Three is never a crowd when one of the three is an Edison Phonograph.

Love songs, dances, funny songs, ballads, all kinds of music in your own home, with less trouble and greater enjoyment than any other form of entertainment, and especially than any form of musical entertainment. Today is the best day for going to your dealer’s to hear an Edison. You cannot possibly know how well the Edison Phonograph reproduces by listening to any other make of talking machine.

Antique Edison phonographs 1906 1907 1908 (3)

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The Joys of the Phonograph (1907)

Edison has produced in the Phonograph the greatest amuser of modern times — the most perfect instrument for reproducing music, the human voice and other sounds.

There is only one Phonograph, and that was invented by Mr Edison and is made under his supervision. Naturally, the best form of a sound-producing machine is the one in which the inventor takes a personal interest — not an adaptation of his idea by others.

As a reproducer of music, it brings into the home every form of music, some of which would cost a great deal bought in any other way.

But its best use all over this great continent is as an entertainer, amusing in every home crowds of people, young and old, every evening, with its marvelous reproduction of songs, dialogues, instrumental music and every other form of entertainment produced by sound.

To get all the fun you can out of such an instrument you must get the Edison Phonograph, and in order to know how much better it is than other talking machines you must compare them. Go to your nearest dealer and judge for yourself.

Every new Record renews the Edison Phonograph. It is what you hear in the Phonograph that makes it interesting, not the phonograph itself. So keep your Phonograph always fresh by supplying it with the newest Records. Hear the November Records at your nearest store, and then order them there.

Thomas Edison and the phonograph c1907 (7)

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