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Thomas Edison's Phonograph

By Edited Sep 14, 2014 2 5

A Revolution in Recorded Music Began in 1877

Early phonograph

Although we take recorded music for granted today, the history of the modern compact disc began with a simple invention that allowed people to record sound and replay it.

On November 21, 1877, Thomas Edison officially announced his invention of the first phonograph, a device that could record and replay sound. He demonstrated his talking machine for the first time on November 29. A few weeks later, he went to the offices of "Scientific American Magazine" and set up his machine in front of the editors. Saying very little, he turned the crank and shocked everyone there when the machine spoke the following words, "Good morning. How do you do? How do you like the phonograph?"

Edison's Invention

What an exciting time the late 19th century must have been for inventors. Even today, we still rely upon modern versions of the telephone, the phonograph, the light bulb and other inventions that were first created during this period of American creativity and ingenuity.

Edison invented the phonograph after spending time experimenting with early versions of the telephone, which had been invented by Alexander Graham Bell. According to Edison, his experiments with the telephone had taught him "how to work a pawl connected to the diaphragm." He decided that if he could record the movements of the diaphragm properly, he would be able to succeed in recording and reproducing the human voice. However, even he was surprised by how well his device worked.

Edison designed a small machine using a cylinder with a grooved surface. Around the cylinder he placed a thin piece of tinfoil which could receive and record the movements of a diaphragm. Once Edison came up with the idea and drew the design, he turned the design over to one of his workmen, named John Kruesi, who actually built it. When Kruesi asked what the new machine was for, Edison told him that it was to record people talking, and have the machine talk back. Kruesi was skeptical, but built it anyway. Edison admits that even he did not believe that it would work very well. He thought he might be able to pick out the sound of a word or two, that's all. Once the machine was built and they had it operating, he shouted, "Mary had a little lamb." According to Edison's own account, he "was never so taken aback" in his life. The machine repeated the phrase perfectly.

Edison was more than an inventor. He was also interested in the commercial success of the machines he created. He knew from experience with his other inventions that it would be a while before his new talking machine was a commercial success, but he could already see the possibilities and was pleased that it worked!

Today, you can purchase replicas of the original gramophone.  See an example using this direct link to a replica phonograph on Amazon.  


Edison Phonograph

Edison named his new invention the phonograph. He continued using his original design of a thin tinfoil sheet wrapped around the phonograph cylinder. He recorded sound by having a stylus move up and down over the grooves in the cylinder, creating indentations in the foil. His early patent applications indicate that he also believed that he could record sound on a round, flat disk, but he chose to concentrate on using cylinders, because he was better able to maintain a constant velocity. From the very beginning, however, he had considered the idea of producing commercial records!

Phonograph Parlors

In 1889, only a dozen years after Edison first demonstrated his talking machine, the first phonograph parlor opened in San Francisco. This was a place where clients could sit and listen to recorded music on a phonograph, for the price of a nickel. By the mid-1890's, most American cities had at least one phonograph parlor. Shortly afterwards, the first jukebox style phonographs were created, which allowed customers to drop a coin directly into a slot on the machine in order to start the music.

Early Recordings on Edison Cylinder Phonographs

Once Edison invented the phonograph, its use grew rapidly. By 1890, record manufacturers had sprung up, able to make 90 – 150 copies of each recording from an original master cylinder. Live performers would record music on the master cylinder, and this cylinder could then be duplicated. The duplicate cylinders sold in the mid-1890s for about fifty cents each. However, as certain songs became popular, the musicians had to record them over and over again, because initially no more than 150 copies could be made from the original, before a new master cylinder would have to be created. It is said that George Washington Johnson had to sing "The Laughing Song" thousands of times in order to satisfy the demand for commercial recordings of the song. He was paid 20 cents each time he recorded it!

There are few recordings from Edison's time that are still in existence. One of these is a phonograph cylinder of Handel's Chorus being performed on June 29, 1888 at the Crystal Palace in London.

Modifications to Edison's Invention

Edison's early recordings on tinfoil worked, but they were fragile. The sound was often distorted and squeaky. Because the tinfoil tore easily, it was only possible to play back the recordings a few times before they were unusable. Therefore, Alexander Graham Bell and two of his associates modified Edison's phonograph so that it could reproduce sound from wax instead of tinfoil.

Gradually during the late 19th century, other inventors began making their own versions of the phonograph. As often happens with inventions, there were many different versions being promoted. Some used a cylinder system similar to Edison's early creation. Others began using disc records and horizontal turntables.

Although sound recorded on the early Edison cylinder phonographs was actually better than the sound recorded on early record discs, the discs were commercially more viable because they were much easier to mass produce. They were also easier to store. The first commercial machines using disc records were called "gramophones" or "talking machines." Many of them were built into wood cabinets that were quite elaborate and beautiful. Early records were only five inches in diameter and recorded sound on only one side. Originally the sound quality was poor; however, gradually, other inventors began to improve the sound, so it became as good as the sound produced by Edison's cylinders. By 1908, the public began to demand double sided recordings.

Edison Disc Phonographs

Edison eventually realized that record discs were displacing his cylinders. By 1912, he also changed to producing disc records, naming his product the Edison Disc Record. He also began to produce a line of Edison home phonographs. Despite his new product line, until the early 1920's, both cylinder phonograph machines and disc recording machines were mass-marketed and sold. However, by 1929, even Edison stopped producing the cylinder phonograph.

In the 1940's, vinyl began to be used as disc record material. This allowed for long play records, and it was even possible to record an entire symphony. By the 1950's, turntables could be purchased relatively inexpensively, and nearly every middle class home had one. Today, although it is considered a niche market, turntables continue to be manufactured and sold.

Even though music production changed during the course of the 20th century, the records that the Beetles made in the 1960's were fundamentally based on technology that, though more sophisticated, was similar to the technology of the record discs that were designed by Thomas Edison. Today, we still owe much of the design of our current CDs and DVDs to the genius of Thomas Edison and the other creative inventors of the late 19th century.

photo courtesy of photoxpress.com

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Antique Replica Dark Wood Phonograph Gramophone with Large Engraved Brass Horn
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(price as of Sep 14, 2014)
What a charming addition to your music collection!


Nov 6, 2010 5:03pm
Thank you for a very interesting and detailed article about Edison's inventions in the 'musical sphere'.
I agree with you that we owe a lot to Thomas Edison, many of his ideas and inventions are still a part of our daily life.
Nov 6, 2010 6:14pm
Thank you, askformore, for your thoughtful comments. It is truly amazing what Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell were able to accomplish over 100 years ago!
Nov 9, 2010 1:37pm
Love this piece. I remember my mother going to a downtown store where she could make a 3 minute recording of her voice to send to my father when he was away. We thought that was the best invention!
Nov 21, 2010 12:54am
Awesome article!

This is just such interesting stuff!
Sep 14, 2014 1:08pm
I have always thought it was amazing how Thomas Edison was able to create his incredible inventions ... and start us on the path towards modern technology!
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