Inventors · Modern Marvels · Record Player

November 21, 1877 – Edison Invents the Phonograph

illustration of music
illustration of music
Images Source: Dr. Eugene Clark Library

Besides a love of all things historical, Littlesparksoflife2 and I have a great many things in common. One of these common interests is our love of music.

Our musical tastes are both super eclectic and do not always overlap, yet we share our discoveries back and forth.

Music is the access to our souls. All through history, music and poetry have been important in almost all civilizations.

“Without music, life would be a mistake.” – Fredrich Nietzsche

“One good thing about music, when it hits you, you feel no pain.” – Bob Marley

“Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain silent”  -Victor Hugo

“Music has charms to soothe a savage breast,” – William Congreve

In the Book of Psalms, David expresses his sorrow and love in the form of poetry and song.

The Hebrew Torah is more sung than spoken.

Just yesterday in the article about Microsoft Windows 1.0, Littlesparksoflife2 said “I now have music on every single device and stream it from everywhere I possibly can.”

Music is vital to our everyday life.

How often —and it bugs the heck out of me— do you see people walking around with music blaring in their ears?

On this day in 1877, Thomas Alva Edison stumbled across an invention that would change our world forever. Edison had been deaf since he was a young man, and no one knows for sure why. He said “I have not heard a bird sing since I was twelve.”

On November 21, 1877 in his lab in Menlo Park, New Jersey, Mr. Edison was working on a way to record telephone conversations. (I guess we have Edison to thank for the NSA?) He developed a machine that would record his voice. He recorded himself singing “Mary Had a Little Lamb

The first phonograph was invented!

The First Edison Tin-Foil Phonograph
The First Edison Tin-Foil Phonograph
Image Source: Library of Congress

The first machine was pretty simple; it was a piece of foil wrapped around a cylinder. You shouted into one end of the cylinder while turning a crank. A needle picked up the sound of your voice and the vibrations etched grooves into the foil. A needle on the other side of the cylinder would “read” the grooves and play back your voice.

The major problem with this first machine was that after a few plays, the foil began to tear. So it was sadly temporary.

Side Note: There is a scene in Muppets from Space where Beaker says “sadly temporary” in Beaker speech.I could not find a clip to add it here. (If someone finds it, I would love you for it!)

Edison was dumbfounded by his ‘talking machine’ and said “I was never so taken aback in my life. I was always afraid of things that worked the first time.” The phonograph allowed him to record his own voice, and the first recording was of Edison singing ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’.

Edison took his new invention to the offices of Scientific American in New York City and showed it to staff there. As the December 22, 1877, issue reported, “Mr. Thomas A. Edison recently came into this office, placed a little machine on our desk, turned a crank, and the machine inquired as to our health, asked how we liked the phonograph, informed us that it was very well, and bid us a cordial good night.” Interest was great, and the invention was reported in several New York newspapers, and later in other American newspapers and magazines. – Library of Congress

Edison filed for a patent on December 24, 1877, and it was awarded on February 19, 1878.

On January 24, 1878, the Edison Speaking Phonograph Company was launched to sell these clever devices. Thomas Edison received $10,000 for the manufacturing rights and 20% of the profits of the company.

In the June 1878 edition of the North American Review, Mr. Edison listed the following uses for the phonograph.

  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. 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, going to meals, etc.
  8. The preservation of languages by exact reproduction of the manner of pronouncing.
  9. Educational purposes; such as preserving the explanantions 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.

As a novelty, these items sold pretty quickly. Because they were difficult to operate, and the foil would tear after a few uses, the popularity faded.

Edison, shelved the invention for a while in pursuit of the light bulb. He always came back to it over the next 50 years, calling the invention his baby.

Interesting FACT:

Teddy Ruxpin was not the first talking doll. Some of the first phonographs that Thomas made were actually talking dolls. The dolls were 18″ tall and each had a very small wax cylinder phonograph in its body.

Other people took interest in Mr. Edison’s product, and sought to improve upon it.

In 1886, Alexander Graham Bell and Charles Tainter were issued a patent for the Graphophone. It was an improvement on Edison’s design, mostly by using a wax cylinder instead of foil. Bell and Tainter approached Edison about cooperating on a joint venture. Mr. Edison was determined that HE would be the one to improve his product.

Side Note: – I have heard many different stories discussing how difficult Thomas Edison was to work with and get along with. Think of the advancement these men would have made if only egos were put aside!

Inspired by the demonstration of the graphophone ,(spell check HATES this word) Emile Berliner began working on his own version. In November 1887, he was issued a patent for the Gramophone (spell check is happy again).

Image Source: Library of Congress

Berliner was the first to use flat plates instead of a cylinder to record music.

Berliner’s records were made from everything he could get his hands on. Glass, rubber, zinc were all used to make these records.

Marine John Phillips Sousa became a household name thanks to gramophone recordings.

By 1915, records were made of shellac and very fragile.

The first LP —Long Playing Record for you younger readers— was created by Columbia Records in 1948. It was made from vinyl and held 20 minutes of music. It was soon adopted as the industry standard by all record companies. – I have a friend that has a collection of over 5,000 LPs.

In 1949, Columbia Records introduced the 45 RPM Single. Originally recorded in mono, they were switched to stereo in the 1960s. The 45 was seven inches in diameter and was recorded on both sides.

Side note: My first 45 was Benny and the Jets by Elton John – I was 4.

The Single —we still use the word and idea today— allowed an artist to sell and release a single song separate and often before the album was released to the public.

Timeline of Music Formats – If I forget something please forgive me.

  • 1947 – Dictabelt – plastic belt on a cylinder developed by Dictaphone company
  • 1948 – Vinyl record
  • 1951 – Minifon P55 – analog magnetic wire used to record voice – think Spies and NSA
  • 1957 – stereophonic vinyl – listen to records in stereo!!
  • 1957 – Dictet – magnetic tape cassette developed by Dictaphone
  • 1958 – RCA tape cartridge – the first attempt to offer reel-to-reel technology to the consumer
  • 1959 – NAB Cart tape – made by Collins Radio – allowed DJs to play bumper music and commercials (thanks for that!)
  • 1962 – 4-track – endless loop cartridge that held 4 songs
  • 1963 – Compact Cassette tape – I had TONS of these as a teen – 1970 added Dolby Noise Reduction
  • 1965 – 8-track – endless loop cartridge – held 4 songs on each side (My first memory of listening to music with my dad was an 8-track)
  • 1969 – Microcassette – compact, compact cassettes – mono mostly used for recording voice (I had one for college classes)
  • 1978 – laserdiscs – Welcome to the digital age! – These things were MASSIVE 12” in diameter
  • 1982 – Compact Discs – Digital Audio and is the way that current physical media is sold.
  • 1987 – Digital Audio Tape – used by DJs to record music prior to computers being everywhere
  • 1993 – MPEG-1 Audio Layer III  – MP3 –  probably the biggest leap forward in music ever

I am going to stop the list here, and yes I know that FLAC are better sound quality than MP3.

The MP3 player revolutionized the music industry, and the Apple iPod revolutionized that.

My iPhone is sitting next to me here and I have about 100 hours of music on it. I have a modest collection of digital music – about 11,000 songs. I don’t remember what half of them are.

But, this brings me back to today’s subject.

Yes, someone would have eventually created a way to record sound. Thomas Edison just did it first!

Thank you Mr. Edison for the phonograph and the ability to have my music everywhere I am!



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