Origins of Sound Recording: Edison's Path to the Phonograph

Scott phonautograph and Edison phonograph (267 px w)
Top:  Scott de Martinville's cylinder phonoautograph of 1859.  Directly above:  Edison's cylinder tinfoil phonograph of 1877.
When compared with Edouard-Léon Scott de Martinville's cylinder phonautograph of 1859, Thomas Edison’s cylinder phonograph of 1877 may seem obvious in design and function. In hindsight today, one might assume that Edison's idea came to the inventor fully-formed. The phonograph could, in fact, have taken any number of forms. Indeed, Edison did not initially envision a “phonograph” per se. He always claimed that the inspirations that eventually distilled into this singular invention evolved from his efforts to improve on Alexander Graham Bell's telephone of 1876.

Obvious similarities between the phonautograph and the phonograph raise the questions: Did Edison set out to improve upon Scott's phonautograph? Was he explicitly building on this existing technology, or did he come to the idea of sound recording independently?

Primary sources are silent on whether Edison even knew of the phonautograph in 1877. Had he run across accounts of the phonautograph in scientific literature, evidence suggests he would have concurred with the scientific community’s underestimation of its recording fidelity. He wrote as much in a marginal comment in his copy of German physicist Hermann von Helmholtz’s book On the Sensations of Tone: “Untrue Record—this instrument never gives true record[ing].” (Partially erased, this could have been written before or after the invention of the phonograph.)
Edison's marginalia in Helmholtz book, p. 250

National Park Service (EDIS 225532)

This is page 250 from Thomas Edison’s personal copy of the book On the Sensations of Tone as a Physiological Basis for the Theory of Music by German physicist Hermann von Helmholtz. Published first in German in 1863, the book contains Helmholtz's analysis of music and acoustics. Edison’s copy is a first edition English translation, published 1875. As can be found in many of Edison’s books, he penciled comments in page margins to note thoughts as he read. On page 250, beside Helmholtz’s description of Scott de Martinville’s Phonautograph, Edison apparently wrote and erased: “Untrue Record—this instrument never gives true record[ing].” It is unknown when Edison read this book.
The following documents sketch Edison’s indirect path to the phonograph. Had he been working to improve the phonautograph rather than the telephone, he would certainly have travelled a much different path.

JULYEdison conceives of the phonograph. At the bottom of a page of ideas for the telephone (“speaking telegraph”, below left) Edison scribbled his idea that telephonic signals (voices) could be recorded and reproduced in the same way as telegraphic signals (dots and dashes) for the same practical reasons: to time-shift incoming messages, speed them up for efficient retransmission, and slow them down for accurate transcription:

Just tried experiment with a diaphragm having an embossing point and held against paraffin paper moving rapidly. The speaking vibrations are indented nicely and there’s no doubt that I shall be able to store up and reproduce automatically at any future time the human voice perfectly reproduced slow or fast by a copyist and written down…. Sheet after received is sent to copyist who’ll pass it in machine similar to that shewn on other page and copied at rate of 25 words per minute whereas it was sent at rate of 100 per minute…
Phonograph drawings dated July 18 and 17, 1877. (2200 pxw)
"Speaking Telegraph" (July 18, 1877) and "Speaking Telephone" (July 17, 1877) notes and drawings.

National Park Service

[Document references: TI2197 & NV12016.]

These two pages (above) were separated more than a century ago. Indeed, the first page exists only in facsimile. Note how the dates differ–a result of Edison and his associates gathering loose sheets from the lab and signing them in batches. Only in 2007 did researcher Patrick Feaster realize the two pages went together. In this way, ready online access to The Thomas A. Edison Papers at Rutgers University allows us to more accurately track Edison’s inventive process.
Edison's strip phonograph of July 1877
Edison's "strip" design, first attempted in July 1877, as illustrated in Scientific American magazine, August 24, 1878.

Scientific American

A PROTOTYPE PHONOGRAPHIn this first-person account, Charles Batchelor recalled how a device like the one shown proved that sound could be stored and retrieved at will. Arguably the first working phonograph, it remained just a prototype in the lab. No example survives.

When making different sized telephone diaphragms it was a very common usage to mount them in a frame with a mouthpiece, hold them up, and talk to them in a loud or low voice; at the same time putting a finger close to the centre to feel how much vibration was communicated to them.

One night, after supper (which was prepared for us at midnight) and at which all the principal workers sat down together; Mr. Edison who had been trying different diaphragms in this manner suddenly remarked "Do you know Batch I believe if we put a point on the centre of that diaphragm and talked to it whilst we pulled some of that waxed paper under it so that it could indent it, It would give us back talking when we pulled the paper through the second time’—The brilliancy of the suggestion did not at first strike any of us—It was so obvious that it would do so that everyone said `Why of course it must!!’

I said We’ll try it mighty quick! and we went to work—Mr. Kruesi the Chief Mechanician took the diaphragm to solder on to it at the middle a needle point about ¼” long; he also took one of the automatic telegraph wheels and stands to fasten the diaphragm to so that we could draw the paper through easily—

I cut and got ready some strips of paper of different thicknesses of parafin coating— It was a matter of an hour or so when we all got together again to make a trial— We fixed the instrument on to a table and I put in a strip of paper and adjusted the needle point down until it just pressed lightly on the paper— Mr. Edison sat down and putting his mouth to the mouthpiece delivered one of our favorite stereotyped sentences used in experimenting on the telephone "Mary had a little lamb" whilst I pulled the paper through—

We looked at the strip and noticed the irregular marks, then we put it in again and I pulled it through as nearly at the same speed as I had pulled it in the first place and we got "ary ad elll am" something that was not fine talking, but the shape of it was there, and so like the talking that we all let out a yell of satisfaction and a "Golly it’s there"!! and shook hands all round— We tried it many times and in many different ways continually improving the apparatus during the early morning— During the time that some of these changes were being made Edison & I would talk about the possibilities of such an invention and it was then that we fully realized the brilliancy of the suggestion and the magnitude of its possible applications—Before breakfast the next morning we had reproduced almost perfect articulation from a strip of the waxed paper which I had embossed as it were with a ridge in the middle running the whole length, the needle point in this case was ground chisel shaped.

[Transcribed from: Charles Batchelor Journal, November 4, 1905 to June 19, 1908, NPS catalog # EDIS 1339.]
Phonograph drawings and notes, September 9, 1877. (1100pxw)
"Phonograph" notes and drawings, September 7, 1877.

National Park Service

SEPTEMBEREdison sketched this amazing series of forgotten phonograph designs in his quest to imagine various means of recording. Look closely and you’ll see several methods of registering sound waves, including embossing, mechanical, and electro-chemical solutions. Perhaps the most surprising is the bottom sketch of a thread being pressed into a sheet of waxed paper moving beneath it. The thread travelled through the eye of a needle that was vibrated by the diaphragm of a telephone receiver. In this way it formed lateral squiggles similar to those made on Scott’s phonautograph or displayed by today’s audio editing software.

[Document reference: NV17015.]
Phonograph drawings, November 29, 1877.  (1100pxw)
"Phonograph" drawings, November 29, 1877.

National Park Service

NOVEMBERTwo possible designs for the first phonograph to be demonstrated outside of the laboratory. The bottom design was assigned to mechanic John Kruesi to build. Days later Kruesi delivered the machine to Charles Batchelor, who tested and adjusted the finicky mechanism before showing it to Edison: “I shouted 'Mary had a little lamb,'” recalled Edison, “and the machine reproduced it perfectly. I was never so taken aback in my life.”

[Document reference: NS7703D.]
Phonograph notes and drawings, December 3, 1877. (1100pxw)
"Phonograph" notes and drawings, December 3, 1877.

National Park Service

DECEMBERSketches made while the iconic “first phonograph” was being built by mechanic John Kruesi. They confirm that Edison and his assistants, Charles Batchelor and James Adams, were considering several recording formats: cylinder, plate (or disc), and strip—i.e. a ribbon of plain paper, waxed paper, chemically-treated paper, or paper backed with tinfoil. At least one version of the strip recorder had been made earlier in the year (refer to Batchelor’s recollections). The plate recorder, attempted and abandoned in 1878, was a direct extension of the Embossing Translating Telegraph.

[Document reference: NV17022.]
Patent drawing of Edison's Plate (Disc) Phonograph of 1878
Drawing of Edison's Plate (Disc) Phonograph, from British Patent No. 1644, April 24, 1878.
Edison's Plate (Disc) Phonograph

Edison’s Embossing Translating Telegraph made evident the many advantages of recording messages on a flat surface: Unlike foil wrapped around a mandrel, the flat record could be taken off the turntable and later put back on; it could be filed away in a folder for later use; and it held the greatest promise for making copies.

In 1877 and 1878 plate (later called “disc”) designs appeared in laboratory sketches and patent applications nearly as much as cylinder designs. From lab records and published accounts we know that Edison had a plate phonograph built early in 1878. It was driven by a spring motor to help maintain a constant speed during recording and playback.

Although Edison called it his “improved phonograph”, accounts suggest that it worked better in theory than in practice. In order to meet commercial demands for reliable phonographs, Edison’s shop designed simpler hand-cranked cylinder machines with large flywheels instead of motors. Simplicity has its virtues.
This exhibit continues here: Charles Cros: The Paléophone Process

Go back to Thomas Edison: The Phonograph

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Research further:

THE TINFOIL PHONOGRAPH: Inventing Sound Recording (website) by the Thomas A. Edison Papers at Rutgers University.

'Perfectly Reproduced Slow or Fast': A New Take on Edison's First Playback of Sound (article) by Patrick Feaster, in The Sound Box 29:1 (March 2011), 3-7.

Speech Acoustics and the Keyboard Telephone: Rethinking Edison's Discovery of the Phonograph Principle (article) by Patrick Feaster, in ARSC Journal 38:1 (Spring 2007), 10-43.

Working at Inventing: Thomas A. Edison and the Menlo Park Experience (book) by William S. Pretzer. (2002). Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Tinfoil Phonographs: The Dawn of Recorded Sound (book) by René Rondeau (2001). Corte Madera, CA: Rondeau.

The Papers of Thomas A. Edison. Volume 3: Menlo Park: The Early Years, April 1876-December 1877 (book) by Thomas A. Edison , Robert A. Rosenberg , Paul B. Israel , Keith A. Nier , Martha J. King. (1994). Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

The Edison Invention of the Phonograph (article) by Raymond Wile, in ARSC Journal, 14 (1982), 19–32.

Last updated: July 17, 2017

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