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



Sep 142015


Today is the birthday (1769) of Friedrich Wilhelm Heinrich Alexander von Humboldt, Prussian geographer, naturalist, explorer, and influential proponent of romantic philosophy. Humboldt’s quantitative work on botanical geography laid the foundation for the field of biogeography. Humboldt’s advocacy of long-term systematic geophysical measurement laid the foundation for modern geomagnetic and meteorological monitoring. Humboldt is not exactly a household name these days, but in his lifetime he was one of the most famous people alive. What is professionally called “Humboldtian science” is still of major significance, although now it is more commonly referred to simply as “holism.” Humboldt believed in the oneness of all phenomena in the universe, so that it was impossible to understand the parts without understanding the whole, and the place of the parts within that whole. I am a great admirer of that way of thinking.

There is an old saying, “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” This sums up the great problem of specialization and professionalism. My doctor in New York told me once that if she thought you needed surgery she would send you to a surgeon, but if she thought you did not need surgery she would send you elsewhere. Her point is that all surgeons see medical problems as surgical problems because that is how they are trained. The same holds true for all professions – if you let it. Humboldt thought in exactly the opposite direction: see problems from ALL angles – bring in science, art, philosophy, or whatever else it takes to find an answer. Some of this kind of thinking still exists, but usually only among the brightest and best. Top quantum physicists, for example, read eastern mysticism and see connexions with their own work, whereas the drudge dig narrow channels to move along. We need more thinkers like Humboldt to widen our horizons, so I celebrate him today.


Humboldt was born in Berlin in 1769 and worked as a Prussian mining official in the 1790s until 1797 when he quit and began collecting scientific knowledge and equipment. His extensive wealth aided his infatuation with the spirit of Romanticism; he amassed an extensive collection of scientific instruments and tools as well as a sizeable library. In 1799 Humboldt, under the protection of King Charles IV of Spain, left for South America and New Spain, toting all of his tools and books. The purpose of the voyage was steeped in Romanticism; Humboldt intended to investigate how the forces of nature interact with one another and find out about the unity of nature. Humboldt returned to Europe in 1804 and was acclaimed a public hero.


The details and findings of Humboldt’s journey were published in his Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equatorial Regions of the New Continent (30 volumes). He spent the rest of his life mainly in Europe, although he did embark on a short expedition to Siberia and the Russian steppes in 1829. Humboldt’s last works were contained in Kosmos: Entwurf einer physischen Weltbeschreibung (“Cosmos: Sketch for a Physical Description of the Universe”). The book mainly described the development of a life-force from the cosmos, but also included the formation of stars from nebular clouds as well as the geography of planets. Humboldt died in 1859, while working on the fifth volume of Kosmos. Humboldt’s novel style has since been called Humboldtian science. Humboldt had the ability to combine the study of precise empirical data with a holistic view of nature and its aesthetically pleasing characteristics. Examining the interconnectedness of vegetation and its environment is one of the most important aspects of Humboldt’s work, an idea labeled as “terrestrial physics,” something that scientists who preceded him, such as Linnaeus, failed to do. Humboldtian science is founded on a principle of “general equilibrium of forces.” General equilibrium is the idea that there are infinite forces in nature that are in constant conflict, yet all forces balance each other out. Humboldt laid the groundwork for future scientific endeavors by establishing the importance of studying organisms and their environment in conjunction.


Natural history in the eighteenth century was the “nomination of the visible.” Carl Linnaeus was preoccupied with fitting all nature into an all-encompassing taxonomy, fixated on only what was visible. Move towards the turn of the nineteenth century where Immanuel Kant became interested in understanding where species derived from, he was not as concerned with an organism’s physical attributes. Next, Johann Reinhold Forster, one of Humboldt’s future partners, became interested in the study of vegetation as an essential way of understanding nature and its relationship with human society. Proceeding Forster, Karl Willdenow examined plant geography, the distribution of plants and regionality as a whole. All of these pieces in the history before Humboldt help to shape what is defined as Humboldtian science. Humboldt took into account both the outward appearance and inward “meaning” of plant species. His attention to natural aesthetics and empirical data and evidence is what set his scientific work apart from ecologists before him. It was through his holistic approach to science and the study of nature that Humboldt was able to find a web of interconnectedness despite a multitude of extensive differences between different species of organisms.

Humboldt was committed to what he called ‘terrestrial physics.’ Essentially Humboldt’s new scientific approach required a new type of scientist: Humboldtian science demanded a transition from the naturalist to the physicist. Humboldt described how his idea of terrestrial physics differs from traditional “descriptive” natural history when he stated, “[traveling naturalists] have neglected to track the great and constant laws of nature manifested in the rapid flux of phenomena…and to trace the reciprocal interaction of the divided physical forces.” Humboldt did not consider himself an explorer, but rather a scientific traveler, who accurately measured what explorers had reported inaccurately. According to Humboldt, the goal of the terrestrial physicist was to investigate the confluence and interweaving of all physical forces. An incredibly extensive array of precise instrumentation had to be readily available for Humboldt’s terrestrial physicist.


One concept that is central to Humboldtian science is that of a general equilibrium of forces. Humboldt explains: “The general equilibrium which reigns amongst disturbances and apparent turmoil, is the result of infinite number of mechanical forces and chemical attractions balancing each other out.” Equilibrium is derived from an infinite number of forces acting simultaneously and varying globally. In other words, the lawfulness of nature, according to Humboldt, is a result of infinity and complexity. Humboldtian science promotes the idea that the more forces that are accurately measured over more of the earth’s surface results in a greater understanding of the order of nature.

The voyage to the Americas produced a number of discoveries and developments that help to illustrate Humboldt’s ideas about this equilibrium of forces. Humboldt produced the Tableau physique des Andes (“Physical Profile of the Andes), which aimed at capturing his voyage to the Americas in a single graphic table. Humboldt meant to capture all of the physical forces, from organisms to electricity, in this single table. Among many other complex empirical recordings of elevation-specific data, the table included a detailed biodistribution. This biodistribution mapped the specific distributions of flora and fauna at every elevation level on a mountain.


Humboldt’s study of plants provides an example of the movement of Humboldtian science away from traditional science. Humboldt’s botany also further illustrates the concept of equilibrium and the Humboldtian ideas of the interrelationship of nature’s elements. Although he was concerned with physical features of plants, he was largely focused on the investigation of underlying connexions and relations among plant organisms. Humboldt worked for years on developing an understanding of plant distributions and geography. The link between the balancing equilibrium of natural forces and organism distribution is evident when Humboldt states:

As in all other phenomena of the physical universe, so in the distribution of organic beings: amidst the apparent disorder which seems to result from the influence of a multitude of local causes, the unchanging law of nature become evident as soon as one surveys an extensive territory, or uses a mass of facts in which the partial disturbances compensate one another.

The study of vegetation and plant geography arose out of new concerns that emerged with Humboldtian science. These new areas of concern in science included integrative processes, invisible connexions, historical development, and natural wholes.

Humboldtian science applied the idea of general equilibrium of forces to the continuities in the history of the generation of the planet. Humboldt saw the history of the earth as a continuous global distribution of such things as heat, vegetation, and rock formations. In order to graphically represent this continuity Humboldt developed the idea of isothermal lines. These isothermal lines functioned in the general balancing of forces in that isothermal lines preserved local peculiarities within a general regularity. According to Humboldtian science, nature’s order and equilibrium emerged “gradually and progressively from laborious observing, averaging, and mapping over increasingly extended areas.”


Ralph Waldo Emerson once dubbed Humboldt to be “one of those wonders of the world… who appear from time to time, as if to show us the possibilities of the human mind.”

When Humboldt first began his studies of organisms and the environment he claimed that he wanted to “reorganize the general connections that link organic beings and to study the great harmonies of Nature.” He is often considered one of the world’s first genuine ecologists. Humboldt succeeded in developing a comprehensive science that joined the separate branches of natural philosophy under a model of natural order founded on the concept of dynamic equilibrium. Humboldt’s work reached far beyond his personal expeditions and discoveries. People from all across the globe participated in his work. Some such participants included French naval officers, East India Company physicians, Russian provincial administrators, Spanish military commanders, and German diplomats. Furthermore, Charles Darwin carried a copy of Humboldt’s Personal Narrative aboard H.M.S. Beagle and it influenced his observations and theorizing. Humboldt’s projects, particularly those related to natural philosophy, played a significant role in the influx of European money and travelers to Spanish America in increasing numbers in the early 19th century. Sir Edward Sabine, a British scientist, worked on terrestrial magnetism in a manner that was certainly Humboldtian. Also, British scientist George Gabriel Stokes depended heavily on abstract mathematical measurement to deal with error in a precision instrument; certainly Humboldtian science. Maybe the most prominent figure whose work can be considered representative of Humboldtian science, is geologist Charles Lyell. Despite a lack of emphasis on precise measurement in geology at the time, Lyell insisted on precision in a Humboldtian manner.


On this day let us remember a man whose work showed us how to see the totality which too often these days we miss because the whole is so often torn into parts. If we saw humanity as one unified whole we would not be hung up on racism, nationalism, and xenophobia. If we saw the planet as a unity we would not pollute, pillage and exploit.

Humboldt was a Prussian, a Berliner. “Berliner” has been a word that is the subject of much debate ever since JFK visited the Berlin wall and announced “Ich bin ein Berliner” which, despite the gibes of linguistically challenged morons, means “I am a Berliner.” He was intending to express his unity with the residents of West Berlin who at the time were encircled by the Berlin Wall and his sentence is grammatically correct. But critics unfamiliar with German and Berlin tried to argue that he had said “I am a jelly doughnut” because “Berliner” can also mean a species of doughnut (NOT the jelly doughnut of the U.S.). Oh dear. Wrong in so many ways. Yes, “Berliner” can mean a kind of doughnut but not the way JFK used the term.

A Berliner Pfannkuchen (Berliner for short) is a traditional German pastry similar to a doughnut with no central hole, made from sweet yeast dough traditionally fried in lard (as fish and chips should be), with a marmalade or jam filling and usually topped with icing, powdered sugar or granulated sugar. They are sometimes made with chocolate, champagne, custard, mocha, or advocaat filling, or with no filling at all.


The yeast dough contains flour, eggs, milk, and butter. The classical Pfannkuchen made in Berlin consists of two halves filled, stuck together and deep-fried in lard, whereby the distinctive bright bulge occurs. The filling is related to the topping: for plum-butter, powdered sugar; for raspberry, strawberry and cherry jam, granulated sugar; for all other fillings, sugar icing, sometimes flavored with rum. Today the filling is usually injected with a large syringe or pastry bag after the dough is fried in one piece.

Today Berliners can be purchased throughout the year, though they were traditionally eaten to celebrate on New Year’s Eve (Silvester) as well as the carnival holidays (Rosenmontag and Fat Tuesday). A common German practical joke is to secretly fill some Berliners with mustard instead of jam and serve them together with regular Berliners without telling anyone. Germans are so amusing !!

The terminology used to refer to this delicacy differs greatly in various areas of Germany. While called Berliner (Ballen) in Northern and Western Germany as well as in Switzerland, the Berliners themselves and residents of Brandenburg, Western Pomerania, Saxony-Anhalt and Saxony know them as Pfannkuchen, which in the rest of Germany generally means pancakes; pancakes are known in Berlin as Eierkuchen (“egg cakes”). JFK was not misunderstood in Berlin.