Nov 292017


On this date in 1877 Thomas Edison publicly demonstrated what he called at the time a “talking machine.” As with most of Edison’s inventions he was not the first in the field, nor were his ideas completely original. But he did produce a workable prototype, based, in part, on ideas that others had been working on, and he had both the engineering and marketing skills to bring what became known as the phonograph to a wide public, hence he is generally credited with being the sole inventor of what evolved into the gramophone and record player. To set the record straight (no pun intended), here’s a small video demonstrating precursors of Edison’s device.

The great breakthrough that Edison made was that his device could both record and play back recorded sounds. The sounds on the video have been recreated via modern technology. Several inventors devised machines to record sound prior to Thomas Edison’s phonograph, Edison being the first to invent a device that could both record and reproduce sound. The phonograph’s predecessors include Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville’s phonautograph, and Charles Cros’s paleophone. Recordings made with the phonautograph were intended to be visual representations of the sound and could not be reproduced as sound until 2008. Cros’s paleophone was intended to both record and reproduce sound but had not been developed beyond a basic concept at the time of Edison’s successful demonstration of the phonograph in 1877.

Direct tracings of the vibrations of sound-producing objects such as tuning forks had been made by English physician Thomas Young in 1807, but the first known device for recording airborne speech, music and other sounds is the phonautograph, patented in 1857 by French typesetter and inventor Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville. In this device, sound waves travelling through the air vibrated a parchment diaphragm which was linked to a bristle, and the bristle traced a line through a thin coating of soot on a sheet of paper wrapped around a rotating cylinder. The sound vibrations were recorded as undulations or other irregularities in the traced line. Scott’s phonautograph was intended purely for the visual study and analysis of the tracings. Reproduction of the recorded sound was not possible with the original phonautograph. In 2008, phonautograph recordings made by Scott were played back as sound by US audio historians, who used optical scanning and computer processing to convert the traced waveforms into digital audio files. These recordings, made circa 1860, include fragments of two French songs and a recitation in Italian.

Charles Cros

Charles Cros, a French poet and amateur scientist, is the first person known to have made the conceptual leap from recording sound as a traced line to the theoretical possibility of reproducing the sound from the tracing and then to devising a definite method for accomplishing the reproduction. On April 30, 1877, he deposited a sealed envelope containing a summary of his ideas with the French Academy of Sciences, a standard procedure used by scientists and inventors to establish priority of conception of unpublished ideas in the event of any later dispute.

Cros proposed the use of photoengraving, a process already in use to make metal printing plates from line drawings, to convert an insubstantial phonautograph tracing in soot into a groove or ridge on a metal disc or cylinder. This metal surface would then be given the same motion and speed as the original recording surface. A stylus linked to a diaphragm would be made to ride in the groove or on the ridge so that the stylus would be moved back and forth in accordance with the recorded vibrations. It would transmit these vibrations to the connected diaphragm, and the diaphragm would transmit them to the air, reproducing the original sound.

An account of his invention was published on October 10, 1877, by which date Cros had devised a more direct procedure: the recording stylus could scribe its tracing through a thin coating of acid-resistant material on a metal surface and the surface could then be etched in an acid bath, producing the desired groove without the complication of an intermediate photographic procedure. The author of this article called the device a “phonographe”, but Cros himself favored the word “paleophone”, sometimes rendered in French as “voix du passé” (voice of the past), which accorded well with his vision of his invention’s potential for creating an archive of sound recordings that would be available to listeners in the distant future.

Cros was a poet of meager means, not in a position to pay a machinist to build a working model, and largely content to bequeath his ideas to the public domain free of charge and let others reduce them to practice, but after the earliest reports of Edison’s invention crossed the Atlantic he had his sealed letter of April 30 opened and read at the December 3, 1877 meeting of the French Academy of Sciences, claiming due scientific credit for priority of conception.

Throughout the first decade (1890–1900) of commercial production of the earliest crude disc records, the direct acid-etch method first invented by Cros was used to create the metal master discs, but Cros was not around to claim any credit or to witness the humble beginnings of the eventually rich phonographic library he had foreseen. He had died in 1888 at the age of 45.

Edison conceived the principle of recording and reproducing sound between May and July 1877 as a byproduct of his efforts to “play back” recorded telegraph messages and to automate speech sounds for transmission by telephone. He announced his invention of the first phonograph, a device for recording and replaying sound, on November 21, 1877 (early reports appear in Scientific American and several newspapers in the beginning of November, and an even earlier announcement of Edison working on a ‘talking-machine’ can be found in the Chicago Daily Tribune on May 9), and he demonstrated the device for the first time on November 29 (it was patented on February 19, 1878 as US Patent 200,521).

In December, 1877, a young man came into the office of the SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, and placed before the editors a small, simple machine about which very few preliminary remarks were offered. The visitor without any ceremony whatever turned the crank, and to the astonishment of all present the machine said: “Good morning. How do you do? How do you like the phonograph?” The machine thus spoke for itself, and made known the fact that it was the phonograph.

Edison presented his own account of inventing the phonograph:

I was experimenting, on an automatic method of recording telegraph messages on a disk of paper laid on a revolving platen, exactly the same as the disk talking-machine of to-day. The platen had a spiral groove on its surface, like the disk. Over this was placed a circular disk of paper; an electromagnet with the embossing point connected to an arm traveled over the disk; and any signals given through the magnets were embossed on the disk of paper. If this disc was removed from the machine and put on a similar machine provided with a contact point, the embossed record would cause the signals to be repeated into another wire. The ordinary speed of telegraphic signals is thirty-five to forty words a minute; but with this machine several hundred words were possible.

From my experiments on the telephone I knew of how to work a pawl connected to the diaphragm; and this engaging a ratchet-wheel served to give continuous rotation to a pulley. This pulley was connected by a cord to a little paper toy representing a man sawing wood. Hence, if one shouted: ‘ Mary had a little lamb,’ etc., the paper man would start sawing wood. I reached the conclusion that if I could record the movements of the diaphragm properly, I could cause such records to reproduce the original movements imparted to the diaphragm by the voice, and thus succeed in recording and reproducing the human voice.

Instead of using a disk I designed a little machine using a cylinder provided with grooves around the surface. Over this was to be placed tinfoil, which easily received and recorded the movements of the diaphragm. A sketch was made, and the piece-work price, $18, was marked on the sketch. I was in the habit of marking the price I would pay on each sketch. If the workman lost, I would pay his regular wages; if he made more than the wages, he kept it. The workman who got the sketch was John Kruesi. I didn’t have much faith that it would work, expecting that I might possibly hear a word or so that would give hope of a future for the idea. Kruesi, when he had nearly finished it, asked what it was for. I told him I was going to record talking, and then have the machine talk back. He thought it absurd. However, it was finished, the foil was put on; I then shouted ‘Mary had a little lamb’, etc. I adjusted the reproducer, and the machine reproduced it perfectly. I was never so taken aback in my life. Everybody was astonished. I was always afraid of things that worked the first time. Long experience proved that there were great drawbacks found generally before they could be got commercial; but here was something there was no doubt of.

The music critic Herman Klein attended an early demonstration (1881–2) of a similar machine. On the early phonograph’s reproductive capabilities he writes

It sounded to my ear like someone singing about half a mile away, or talking at the other end of a big hall; but the effect was rather pleasant, save for a peculiar nasal quality wholly due to the mechanism, though there was little of the scratching which later was a prominent feature of the flat disc. Recording for that primitive machine was a comparatively simple matter. I had to keep my mouth about six inches away from the horn and remember not to make my voice too loud if I wanted anything approximating to a clear reproduction; that was all. When it was played over to me and I heard my own voice for the first time, one or two friends who were present said that it sounded rather like mine; others declared that they would never have recognised it. I daresay both opinions were correct.

Edison’s early phonographs recorded on to a thin sheet of metal, normally tinfoil, which was temporarily wrapped around a helically grooved cylinder mounted on a correspondingly threaded rod supported by plain and threaded bearings. While the cylinder was rotated and slowly progressed along its axis, the airborne sound vibrated a diaphragm connected to a stylus that indented the foil into the cylinder’s groove, thereby recording the vibrations as “hill-and-dale” variations of the depth of the indentation.

Playback was accomplished by exactly repeating the recording procedure, the only difference being that the recorded foil now served to vibrate the stylus, which transmitted its vibrations to the diaphragm and onward into the air as audible sound. Although Edison’s very first experimental tinfoil phonograph used separate and somewhat different recording and playback assemblies, in subsequent machines a single diaphragm and stylus served both purposes. One peculiar consequence was that it was possible to overdub additional sound onto a recording being played back. The recording was heavily worn by each playing, and it was nearly impossible to accurately remount a recorded foil after it had been removed from the cylinder. In this form, the only practical use that could be found for the phonograph was as a startling novelty for private amusement at home or public exhibitions for profit.

Edison’s early patents show that he was aware that sound could be recorded as a spiral on a disc, but Edison concentrated his efforts on cylinders, since the groove on the outside of a rotating cylinder provides a constant velocity to the stylus in the groove, which Edison considered more “scientifically correct”. Edison’s patent specified that the audio recording be embossed, and it was not until 1886 that vertically modulated engraved recording using wax-coated cylinders was patented by Chichester Bell and Charles Sumner Tainter. They named their version the Graphophone.

The use of a flat recording surface instead of a cylindrical one was an obvious alternative which Charles Cros initially favored and which Edison and others actually tested in the late 1870s and early 1880s. The oldest surviving example is a copper electrotype of a recording cut into a wax disc in 1881. The commercialization of sound recording technology was initially aimed at use for business correspondence and transcription into writing, in which the cylindrical form offered certain advantages, the storage of large numbers of records seemed unlikely, and the ease of producing multiple copies was not a consideration.

In 1887, Emile Berliner patented a variant of the phonograph which he named the Gramophone. Berliner’s approach was essentially the same one proposed, but never implemented, by Charles Cros in 1877. The diaphragm was linked to the recording stylus in a way that caused it to vibrate laterally (side to side) as it traced a spiral onto a zinc disc very thinly coated with a compound of beeswax. The zinc disc was then immersed in a bath of chromic acid; this etched a groove into the disc where the stylus had removed the coating, after which the recording could be played. With some later improvements the flat discs of Berliner could be produced in large quantities at much lower cost than the cylinders of Edison’s system.

When Edison moved to New York in 1869 he had no money, but managed to trade some tea leaves for a breakfast of baked apple dumplings, and he states that they remained his favorite food. This recipe comes Gold Medal Flour Cook Book of 1904. Previously it had been printed on Gold Medal flour bags, so is likely to be close to what Edison ate.

Baked Apple Dumplings


2 cups all-purpose flour or whole wheat flour
1 teaspoon salt
⅔ cup plus 2 tablespoons cold butter or margarine
4 to 5 tablespoons cold water
6 baking apples, about 3 inches in diameter (such as Braeburn, Granny Smith or Rome)
3 tablespoons raisins
3 tablespoons chopped nuts
2 ½ cups packed brown sugar
1 ⅓ cups water


1. Heat the oven to 425°F. In a large bowl, mix the flour and salt. Cut in the butter, using a pastry blender or fork, until particles are the size of small peas. Sprinkle with the cold water, 1 tablespoon at a time, mixing well with fork until all flour is moistened. Gather the dough together, and press it into a 6×4-inch rectangle.

2. Lightly sprinkle flour over a cutting board or countertop. Cut off ⅓ of the dough with a knife; set aside. On the floured surface, place ⅔ of the dough. Flatten dough evenly, using hands or a rolling pin, into a 14-inch square; cut into 4 squares. Flatten the remaining ⅓ of the dough into a 14×7-inch rectangle; cut into 2 squares. You will have 6 squares of dough.

3. Remove the stem end from each apple. Place the apple on a cutting board. Using a paring knife, cut around the core by pushing the knife straight down to the bottom of the apple and pull up. Move the knife and make the next cut. Repeat until you have cut around the apple core. Push the core from the apple. (Or remove the cores with an apple corer.) Peel the apples with a paring knife.

4. Place 1 apple on the center of each square of dough. In a small bowl, mix the raisins and nuts. Fill the center of each apple with raisin mixture. Moisten the corners of each square with small amount of water; bring 2 opposite corners of dough up over apple and press corners together. Fold in sides of remaining corners; bring corners up over apple and press together. Place dumplings in a 13×9-inch (3-quart) glass baking dish.

5. In a 2-quart saucepan, heat the brown sugar and 1 ⅓ cups water to boiling over high heat, stirring frequently. Carefully pour the sugar syrup around the dumplings.

6. Bake about 40 minutes, spooning syrup over apples 2 or 3 times, until crust is browned and apples are tender when pierced with a fork.

7. Serve warm or cooled with syrup from pan.

Makes 4