Guest Essayist: Paul Israel

In mid-July 1877, while working to develop an improved telephone for the Western Union Telegraph Company, Thomas Edison conceived the idea of recording and reproducing telephone messages. Edison came up with this extraordinary idea because he thought about the telephone as a form of telegraph, even referring to it as a “speaking telegraph.” Thus, on July 18, he tried an experiment with a telephone “diaphragm having an embossing point & held against paraffin paper moving rapidly.” Finding that sound “vibrations are indented nicely” he concluded, “there’s no doubt that I shall be able to store up & reproduce automatically at any future time the human voice perfectly.”

At the time Edison was also working on his repeating telegraph known as the translating embosser. This device recorded an outgoing message as the operator sent it, enabling automatic, rapid retransmission of the same message on other lines. This would be particularly desirable for long press-wire articles that required very skilled operators to transmit and receive. The incoming, high-speed message recorded by the embosser at each receiving station could be transcribed at a slower speed by an operator using a standard sounder. Edison thought his telephone recorder could be used in a similar fashion by allowing the voice message to be “reproduced slow or fast by a copyist & written down.”

Busy with telephone and translating embosser experiments, Edison put this idea aside until August 12, when he drew a device he labeled “Phonograph,”  which looked very much like an automatic telegraph recorder he had developed a few years earlier. For many years, researchers were fooled by another drawing containing the inscription “Kreuzi Make This Edison August 12/77.” However, the text for this drawing, which was published twice in the mid-1890s without the inscription, was added during the 40th anniversary of the invention to represent the drawing from which machinist John Kruesi constructed the first phonograph.

Over the next few months, Edison periodically experimented with “apparatus for recording & reproducing the human voice,” using various methods to record on paper tape. The first design for a cylinder recorder, apparently still using paper to record on, appeared in a notebook entry of September 21. However, it was not until November 5, that he first described the design that John Kruesi would beginning making at the end of the month. “I propose having a cylinder 10 threads or embossing grooves to the inch cylinder 1 foot long on this tin foil of proper thickness.” As Edison noted, he had discovered after “various experiments with wax, chalk, etc.” that “tin foil over a groove is the easiest of all= this cylinder will indent about 200 spoken words & reproduce them from same cylinder.” On November 10, he drew a rough sketch of this new tinfoil cylinder design. This drawing looks very similar to the more careful sketch he later inscribed “Kreuzi Make This Edison August 12/77.”  It also resembles the large drawing Edison made on November 29, which may have been used by Kruesi while he was making the first phonograph during the first six days of December.

These drawings of the tinfoil cylinder phonograph looked very much like those for the cylinder version of Edison’s translating embosser while a disc design was based on another version of his translating embosser. The disc translating embosser can be found today at the reconstructed Menlo Park Laboratory at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.  This device also became part of the creation myth for the phonograph when it appeared in the 1940 Spencer Tracy movie Edison the Man. In the movie an assistant accidentally starts the embosser with a recording on it, resulting in a high-pitched sound that leads Edison to the idea of recording sound.

Although Edison did not have a working phonograph until December, he had drafted his first press release to announce the new invention on September 7. 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 speakers voice so that persons familiar with it would at once recognize it.

This text and its drawings of a paper-tape phonograph would become the basis for a letter to the editor by Edison’s associate Edward Johnson that appeared in the November 17 issue of Scientific American. Not surprisingly, when this was republished in the newspapers it was met with skepticism.

On December 7, the day after Kruesi finished making the first tinfoil cylinder phonograph, Edison took the machine to Scientific American’s offices in New York City, accompanied by Johnson and laboratory assistant Charles Batchelor. He amazed the staff when he placed the little machine on the editor’s desk and turned the handle to reproduce a recording he had already made. As described in an article in the December 22 issue, “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.”

By the New Year, Edison had an improved phonograph that he exhibited at Western Union headquarters, where it attracted the attention of the New York newspapers. These first public demonstrations produced a trickle of articles that soon turned into a steady stream and by the end of March had become a veritable flood. Edison soon became as famous as his astounding invention. Reports soon began calling Edison “Inventor of the Age,” the “Napoleon of Invention,” and most famously “The Wizard of Menlo Park.”

Edison had grand expectations for his invention as did the investors in the newly formed Edison Speaking Phonograph Company. However, Edison and his associates were unable to turn the tinfoil phonograph from a curiosity suitable for exhibitions and lectures into a consumer product. The phonograph’s real drawback was not the mechanical design on which they focused their efforts but the tinfoil recording surface.  Compared to later wax recording surfaces developed in the 1880s, tinfoil recordings had very poor fidelity and also deteriorated rapidly after a single playback. As a result, for the next decade the phonograph remained little more than a scientific curiosity.

Historian, Dr. Paul Israel, a former Californian, moved East to NJ over 30 years ago to do research for a book on Thomas Edison & the electric light. Today he is the Director and General Editor of the Thomas A. Edison Papers at Rutgers University, the New Jersey State University. 

The Thomas A. Edison Papers Project, a research center at Rutgers School of Arts and Sciences, is one of the most ambitious editing projects ever undertaken by an American university.

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