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article number 123
article date 04-26-2012
copyright 2012 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
Edison Invents the Phonograph, 1877
by George S. Bryan

From the 1926 book Edison, the Man and His Work.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Since this article was written in 1926, you may notice a writing style unusual to these times. Also, you may have to place yourself in 1926 to understand some of the concepts. One concept which stands out, later in this article, is the authors discussion of customers preferring wind up [springs] as opposed to ‘unreliable’ electric motors.

It is important to note that the phonograph was not a commercial success until after the patent expired. Edison kept making improvements until it was commercially viable. It was worth it. Records were a main source of music entertainment for 100 years after their invention. Those of you reading this article 100 years from now will also be reading about something called Compact Discs (CD’s). Wonder what will take their place.

An Easy Invention?

John Kruesi, Edison’s head machinist worked on a job priced basis. Kruesi had seen Edison accomplish some pretty amazing things, but John’s credulity had its limits. One day in the autumn of 1877, Edison handed to him a sketch of a model to be made as piece-work; and on the margin of the sketch was a memorandum of what Edison thought the right price for the job, $18. Kruesi set to work. He tried to figure out what such a queer affair was for; then he went to Edison and asked. When Edison had told him, he thought the whole scheme ridiculous. His business was, however, to complete the model; and so the model was completed and John stood by to see what would happen.

John Kruesi, Edison’s head machinist was an apprenticed clock maker in Switzerland.

There was no denying that the model did look rather odd. On a wooden base a metal shaft, having a thread cut in it (like a horizontal screw) and with a handle at one end, was mounted upon two supports. The shaft ran through a metal drum, into whose surface had been cut a spiral groove. On either side of the drum was a little tube; and over the inner end of each little tube was stretched a parchment diaphragm. In the center of each diaphragm was a steel needle.

Kruesi was positive the thing would be a failure. So was Carman, foreman of the machine-shop, who (according to the accepted story) backed his opinion with the bet of a box of cigars. Edison thereupon proceeded to act in a highly absurd manner. He put a thin sheet of tinfoil around the drum. Then he started o turn the handle of the shaft, while at the same time into one of the little tubes he declaimed in stentorian tones that immortal lyric, “Mary had a little lamb !“ Then he turned the shaft backward to the starting point, drew away the first tube, adjusted the other, and once more turned the shaft forward. Out from the machine, faintly but surely, came the voice of Edison reciting the classic adventure of Mary and the lamb.

“Mein Gott im Himmel” cried out John Kruesi. Carman admitted that the bet was lost. The entire staff began to collect about this marvelous cylinder whence somehow had issued the ghost of speech. Edison’s own feelings may be judged by his later words: “I was never so taken aback in my life. . . . I was always afraid of things that worked the first time.” The machine was the world’s first phonograph. To-day it is carefully preserved in the Victoria and Albert Museum, South Kensington, London. (EDITOR’S NOTE: It is now back in the United States.)

Original phonograph which Edison would show the world.
Replica of original phonograph. Source: Wikimedia Commons author Adrian Preston.

All that night, Edison and Kruesi kept trying for better results. They learned how to fit the tin foil more neatly to the cylinder, and how to turn the cylinder more steadily when they were making a record. Each time, as their singing or their recitation was repeated from the machine, the performance seemed astonishing. Next morning, Edison started for New York, taking the phonograph wrapped in a package. He went to the office of P. C. Beach of the “Scientific American” editorial staff. Let Beach’s own narrative tell what followed.

“I had not been at my desk very long that morning when Mr. Edison was announced. He came in, and set his parcel, which he appeared to handle somewhat carefully, on my desk. As he was removing the cover I asked him what it was. “Just a minute!” replied young Edison.

“Presently with a ‘here you are,’ he pushed the quaint looking little instrument towards me. As there was a long shaft having a heavy wheel at one end and a small handle at the other, naturally I gave the handle a twist, and, to my astonishment, the unmistakable words, emitted from a kind of telephone mouthpiece, broke out, ‘Good morning! What do you think of the phonograph?’

“To say that I was astonished is a poor way of expressing my first impressions, and Edison appeared to enjoy his little joke on me immensely. Like a flash the news went among the staff that Edison had brought in a machine which could talk, and soon there was an excited crowd around my desk.”

“We watched the inventor wrap his little sheet of tinfoil — (this was the medium used for recording the sound waves in the first machine) — round the cylinder, adjust the stylus, and intently followed the operation as he shouted the lines of the nursery rhyme, ‘Mary had a little lamb,’ into the mouth-piece. We listened just as surprised when, instantly this was completed, the machine was started again and the well-known words were repeated. Time after time the machine was handled first by myself and then by my colleagues, one and all testing the instrument both in recording and reproducing.

“Information respecting this remarkable demonstration leaked out, and in a short space of time the office was inundated with excited reporters dispatched in hot haste from the various newspapers to examine the machine and witness the tests. Edison was kept going for two or three hours, but at last the crowd attained such proportions that I feared the floor would give way under the abnormal weight, and I requested the inventor to stop.”

On the following day the New York newspapers carried long stories about the new mechanism, of whose principles they had but the vaguest ideas. At the time when Edison was making public his improvements in the telephone, the papers had begun to call him “The Wizard of Menlo Park”—a title that clung to him even after be bad left Menlo forever. In the common thought, the phonograph made him far more of a “wizard” than ever before. Probably no other modern invention has aroused so immediate and so great a furore. An American periodical referred to it as “an instrument destined to turn the old groove of every-day routine topsy-turvy” The railway ran special trains to Menlo Park, and the laboratory was thronged with visitors.

Many suspected fraud. Among them seems to have been the Rev. John H. Vincent, a bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church and an originator, with Lewis Miller, of the “Chautauqua movement.” The bishop talked into the recorder at top speed a long collection of proper names from the Bible. When these had been correctly repeated by the machine, he announced that he was now convinced there was no deception, since not another man in the country could recite the selected names with an equal velocity! The bishop had evidently, supposed a ventriloquist was concealed somewhere about the premises; and this was a frequent conjecture.

Edison accepted an invitation to Washington and there put a phonograph through its paces in the apartment of Mary Abigail Dodge (better known by her pen-name, “Gail Hamilton”), a journalist, a cousin of Mrs. James G. Blame, and author of “Twelve Miles from a Lemon.” Throughout the day the rooms were thronged with folk prominent in legislative and other circles. Senator Roscoe Conkling of New York came in and was introduced to Edison, who apparently did not recognize him and who, because of deafness, did not catch the name.

Edison recited into the recorder the nonsense stanza beginning “There was a little girl who had a little curl”; and the phonograph repeated it. At this, there was considerable half-suppressed merriment. Over Conkling’s brow hung a prominent lock of hair, much emphasized by the caricaturists of the period; and Conkling had become highly sensitive about it. He was a rather touchy individual, and the “curl” stanza with the ensuing laughter did not please him a bit. It is possible that he may have thought Blaine, to whom he was bitterly hostile, was indirectly responsible for it. From about 11 o’clock that evening until 3:30 the next morning, Edison was at the Executive Mansion, explaining and operating the machine for the entertainment of President and Mrs. Hayes and their guests—among them Carl Schurz, who, as Edison entered, was playing the piano, as he was so fond of doing.

Edison’s second phonograph. Source: Library of Congress, United States Public Domain

Edison at once began making a number of improved phonographs of larger size and better adapted to exhibition purposes. One diaphragm served for both recording and reproducing; and for reproducing, a horn was provided to amplify the sound. A company was formed to manufacture machines and promote their use. The phonographs first offered for sale were made by Sigmund Bergmann in a little shop on Wooster Street in New York. Bergmann had worked at the same bench with Kruesi in Newark, where his skill had attracted Edison’s attention. Having saved money, he started in business for himself and was employed by Edison to manufacture not only phonographs but also carbon transmitters. Under the direction of James Redpath’s once noted Lyceum Bureau (Boston), the country was parceled out in territories and the rights of exhibition within a given territory were leased on a percentage basis. In Great Britain and continental countries, manufacturing and sales rights were assigned. Prof. Fleeming Jenkin (the subject of Stevenson’s “Memoir”) exhibited the contrivance before the Royal Society of Edinburgh and also made use of it in scientific researches.

The phonautograph (1857) of Leon Scott has been called the “precursor” of the phonograph; and this in a certain sense it undoubtedly was, though nothing appears to have been authoritatively stated as to Edison’s previous familiarity with Scott’s experiments. It must be pointed out, however, that Scott’s device was intended merely to make on lampblacked paper a graphic record (or tracing) of sound vibrations. This was all it could do. On December 24th, 1877, Edison filed an application for a United States patent, and on February 19th, 1878, the patent was issued. When Edison’s application was being examined at the United States Patent Office, nothing could be found to show that anybody had up to that time attempted what Edison had accomplished. Hence it was that the patent was issued so promptly and without a reference.

The fundamental idea of the phonograph was to make phonograms (“records,” they now are called) of such kind that the original sound vibrations could be mechanically reproduced. From the authentic account of how the machine came to be, it would seem that the working theory of the phonograph had as its starting point the idea of reproduced sound. In other words, that first crude apparatus built by John Kruesi was based on what might now appear like reverse reasoning.

“Speaking phonograph” is what the instrument was called by a staff writer in “Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper”; and this would seem to have been an attempt to find a more nearly accurate name for it. The representative of “Frank Leslie’s” visited the laboratory at Menlo Park, where Edison personally explained the phonograph and its action. “The instrument,” asserts the article, “is so simple in its construction, and its workings are so easily understood, that one wonders why it was never before discovered. There is no electricity about it, it can be carried around under a man’s arm, and its machinery is not a fifteenth part as intricate as that of a sewing-machine. It records all sounds and noises.”

An oft-repeated story is to the effect that the invention just happened through an accident—that Edison chanced to notice that the sound waves of his voice vibrated the diaphragm of a telephone transmitter with such force that a steel point attached to the diaphragm was driven into his finger. Just how all this took place, or how it could lead in the direction of reproducing sound, is not clear.

Edison himself has explained that the phonograph had a definite beginning during experiments with the automatic telegraph. He had a revolving platen with a volute spiral groove incised in its upper surface, suggesting the disc records of to-day. On the platen he put a circular sheet of paper; and then over this sheet he passed an embossing point that was connected by an arm to an electro-magnet. When the arm was actuated by the magnet, the point embossed Morse characters on the sheet of paper. Then Edison discovered that when the sheet of paper was plated on a corresponding device having a contact point, the embossed characters were repeated and thus could be re-sent automatically and at any rate of speed.

This arrangement really dated back to the brief period (from the autumn of 1864 to February, 1865) when he was a telegraph operator at Indianapolis. At that time he was working a circuit by day, but at night he and another operator would take “press report” for the sake of the practice. Both found that they “broke” pretty often. Edison thereupon arranged two old Morse embossing registers in such a way that one recorded the characters on a strip of paper as rapidly as they were transmitted, and the other repeated them at a lower rate of speed. That is, the “press report” might be received at the rate of forty words a minute and repeated at the rate of twenty-five. By this means, Edison and Parmley, the other operator, relieved of the need for “breaking,” could leisurely turn out “copy” of surprising regularity and clearness. At one o’clock in the morning, they would quit, hide away the “automatic recorder,” and leave to the regular press reporter (who in the meantime had been taking a nap or perhaps attending the theater) the remainder of the report.

Under ordinary conditions the system ran smoothly— so smoothly, in fact, that the manager of the office was puzzled and the newspapers complained of inferior “copy” furnished after one o’clock. Then one night brought an uncommon pressure of work; the system fell badly behind and still the receiving instrument held to top speed. The newspapers protested, the manager investigated; the “automatic recorder” was discovered and banned.

Patent Sheet.

It was this general scheme that in 1877 was applied by Edison to those experiments in automatic telegraphy to which reference has already been made. He had also been working on his carbon transmitter for Bell’s telephone and studying the action of diaphragms in transmitting sound vibrations. He now observed that when the paper on the telegraphic “repeater” moved (and it could be moved rapidly enough to send several hundred words a minute), a humming note arose. Why, he queried, if indentations on paper may be made to repeat the click of a telegraph sounder, may not the vibrations of a diaphragm also be recorded and repeated? Here we have a chain of reasoning that is directly connected with the sketch Edison handed to Kruesi on that autumn day in 1877. It remains to be added that in 1879 Edison filed an application for a United States patent covering the disc principle substantially as employed to-day. Owing to certain purely minor objections, the application was held up; and the vast new detail of Edison’s work in electric lighting apparently caused the matter to be neglected.

The primitive phonograph turned out to be too imperfect for general use. To begin with, tinfoil was not a satisfactory material for records. It was hard to adjust and remove; the impressions made on it were faint and easily effaced. Again, the cylinder could not be turned at a strictly uniform speed, so that satisfactory records of music could not be made; and speech might be much altered in pitch, according as it was reproduced either too rapidly or too slowly. Contemporary observers also detected a certain softening of the consonants, by which the character of spoken words was appreciably affected. For several months the popular stir continued. Everywhere the exhibitions aroused great interest; royalty receipts were large. Then the craze subsided, the exhibitions ceased, and for nearly a decade the phonograph was shelved, save for such use as was made of it for scientific purposes.

Nevertheless, it remained Edison’s pet invention; and in 1887 he took it from the shelf and started to eliminate its defects. Sure of its possibilities, he set out to realize them. It is said that in June, 1888, he actually worked continuously for five days and nights in his effort to develop a better instrument. This long stretch of uninterrupted labor was remarkable even for him. Some testimony to the changes he wrought in the phonograph may be found in the statement that up to 1893 more than sixty-five patents bad been issued to him in connection with it; and up to 1910, more than a hundred.

Edison would improve the phonograph over the years, even after its patents expired.

For tinfoil strips he substituted hollow cylinders of specially prepared wax. This improvement was so decided that the wax-cylinder type of machine was at once established. The cylinder walls were something less than a quarter-inch in thickness, and the maximum depth of the record groove was one one-thousandth of an inch. To take the place of the needle in making the records, he designed a cutting-tool of sapphire; and for reproduction, a blunt sapphire stylus. Sapphire is a variety of the mineral corundum and for hardness is ranked next to the diamond among precious stones. The sapphire stylus followed the record groove with a minimum of wear. Instead of the unsatisfactory adjustment screws that had been used to hold the needle in place, he added the very ingenious “floating weight,” which kept both the cutting-tool and the stylus in proper engagement with the wax cylinder and prevented distortion of tone.

Then he altered the process of recording, making the shaft or mandrel rotate in fixed bearings while the cutting-tool travelled longitudinally (as, for example, the cutting-tool of an engine lathe does). Other changes were made— some permanently to be retained, some later to be rejected.

Edison with a later model phonograph.

Of decided importance in rendering possible the commercial success of the phonograph on a large scale, was the method arrived at by Edison for making any number of copies of an original record. In the case of the tinfoil machine, attempts would appear to have been made to take a plaster cast of the original foil and thus to get impressions on other strips. With the wax-cylinder type, difficulty in obtaining a mold was at once confronted through the fact that wax is a non-conductor; hence, of course, the original record in its “first state” could not be electroplated. Edison at last got around this obstacle by the “vacuous deposit” process. The record was placed in a vacuum; and suspended on either side of the record was a piece of gold-leaf. High-tension electricity was then discharged between these gold-leaf electrodes while the record was revolved.

The electricity vaporized the gold-leaf and deposited it on the record in a film so extremely thin that three hundred such would have, if superimposed, a total thickness about like that of tissue-paper; and three hundred thousand so placed would not altogether be thicker than an inch. A heavier deposit of other metal could then be electroplated on this gold film. The result, after the original record had been withdrawn, was a strong, durable mold. When this mold was chilled by means of a jacket of cold water and dipped in liquefied material of a wax-like nature, a heavy deposit, forming a duplicate record, would be congealed on the chilled surface.

Will It Be a Commercial Success?

A company was organized in Philadelphia to introduce the “revised” phonograph commercially. This company believed that the future of the instrument lay chiefly in its use as a business appliance for all sorts of dictation without the aid of a stenographer. The fact was that the phonograph had not yet reached the stage of refinement and simplicity that later made it easily adapted, under the trade-name “Ediphone,” to practical use in offices. By the first plan, the machines were leased; but renewals of the leases rarely followed. Then selling was tried and proved unsuccessful. The company failed. This time, however, the phonograph was not permitted to lapse into “innocuous desuetude.” Edison took over the assets of the old company and formed a new one of his own, of which the policy was to withdraw from the business field and enter that of entertainment, especially musical. Thenceforward he devoted a great deal of energy to this enterprise, which ultimately passed into his control.


To this general period belonged the nickel-in-the-slot phonograph, a high box-like affair with a glass top through which, as if looking into a Swiss music-box, one could see details of the mechanism at work. It had long rubber listening-tubes, the tips of which were inserted in one’s ears, giving rather the effect of a stethoscope on a grand scale. Through these were borne—thinly and squeakily, as compared with later results—fragments of music and scraps of talk.

Up to this time, the motors used to actuate the machines had been of the electric type. These were relatively heavy, rather expensive, and available only where electric current could be had. Furthermore, at that stage of development, the management and care of even small electric motors were matters too difficult for the inexpert. A substitute was found in the spring motor still in use— a mechanism relatively light, everywhere available, and practically “fool-proof.”

In February, 1889, in connection with a lecture on “Edison and His Inventions” before the Franklin Institute (Philadelphia), William J. Hammer, one of Edison’s ablest and moat trusted assistants at Menlo Park, gave a noteworthy demonstration of how the phonograph might be combined with those other Edison inventions, the carbon telephonic transmitter (or microphone) and the “loud-speaking” telephonic receiver (or electro-motograph). Phonograph records made in New York were reproduced into a carbon transmitter. The vibrations were sent to Philadelphia over 104 miles of telephone circuit, of which six were underground and underwater; received by an electro-motograph at the Philadelphia telephone headquarters and repeated into a phonograph; again reproduced into a carbon transmitter; and delivered by wire to the lecture-hall, where an electro-motograph passed them to the audience. The sound waves travelled by means of fifteen distinct mediums; and their physical characteristics went through a series of forty-eight changes. This may justly be called an early example of “broadcasting.”

A writer in the “Journal of the Franklin Institute” for April, 1878, thought it then impossible even to conjecture the uses to which “this wonderful might be put. Very soon afterward—in a signed article in the “North American Review” for May-June, 1878 — Edison indicated the various fields in which he believed the phonograph might reveal its usefulness—”all enumerated,” to use his own words, “under the head of probabilities.” These may thus be summarized: (a) Letter-writing and other forms of dictation; (b) records of books as read by elocutionists; (c) educational purposes (as, for example, oral instruction in languages or in elocution); (d) music; (e) family record; (f) toys, musical-boxes, etc.; (g) enunciator attachments on clocks; (h) advertising; (i) preserving the “voices as well as the words of our Washingtons, our Lincolns, our Gladstones.”

“Lastly, and in quite another direction,” he wrote, “the phonograph will perfect the telephone and revolutionize present systems of telegraphy. That useful invention the telephone is now restricted in its field of operation by reason of the fact that it is a means of communication which leaves no record of its transactions, thus restricting its use to simple conversational chit-chat, and such unimportant details of business as are not considered of sufficient importance to record. Were this different, and our telephone-conversation automatically recorded, we should find the reverse of the present status of the telephone. It would be expressly resorted to as a means of perfect record.” From this it is evident that Edison had even then considered the general idea of his telescribe device, which was not to be developed until long afterward and to which reference will be made later in this volume.

Of the varieties of everyday use thus indicated by Edison in 1878, the phonograph has thus far been applied with general success to four—namely, to (a) the dictation of letters that are subsequently written out on a typewriting-machine; (b) the teaching of the correct pronunciations of languages; (c) oral instruction in general, among which may be included that in calisthenic exercises; (d) the reproduction of music (with which may also be grouped spoken selections designed for entertainment). It is for the reproduction of music that most phonographs, as well as similar instruments based on the phonographic idea, are employed; and hence it is for this purpose that most of the commercial records are made. Doubtless with this fact in mind, James F. Cooke, editor of “The Étude,” a popular musical magazine (Philadelphia), once declared Edison to be for our time the greatest living factor in musical advance.

Yet another use, perhaps dimly contemplated in 1878 but not suggested in the “Review” article, was found for the phonograph, as an essential part of the kinetophone, Edison’s device for the “talking” motion- picture. The kinetophone will be treated in the proper place in a later chapter of this book. Scientists have employed the phonograph for various purposes, notably in analyzing and studying wave-forms. J. R. Hewett, editor of the “General Electric Review” (Schenectady), wrote: “This discovery is in the realm of science and the uses of the devices that can be, and have been, made by virtue of this discovery are of real scientific import as well as of great popular value.” …

In 1888, at a private exhibition of the improved phonograph in England before a distinguished gathering that included the Earl of Aberdeen, Sir Morell Mackenzie, and W. E. Gladstone, the instrument recited a “Salutation” that had been written by the Rev. Horatio N. Powers of Piermont, N. Y., and spoken into it by the author.

Archives for phonographic records have since been established both in this country (for example, by the Library of Congress and Harvard University) and abroad. These are intended to preserve the interpretations of vocal artists, the speaking voices of eminent persons, folk-songs, the peculiarities of local dialects, and any other records that may be thought desirable.

The original phonograph patent expired and other makers manufactured instruments of the phonographic sort, all depending, though under various trade-names, on the basic principle defined by Edison. The Edison machine had, however, come back to stay. Disc records were adopted for the cabinet phonographs; but in these records Edison adhered to his idea of a line incised to varying depths by what is known as the “hill-and-dale” method, instead of a zig-zag line of uniform depth.

Edison Phonograph about 1899. Source: Wikimedia Commons author Norman Bruderhofer.

Never completely satisfied with the results obtained in reproducing music—striving for a veritable as his ideal, Edison, after another period of research and experiment, developed for his disc records a new material designed to be virtually indestructible and to have a smoothness of surface that would do away with the hissing sound produced by the friction of the needle. He also originated a new recorder and a diamond-point reproducer. It was stated that laboratory tests showed such a reproducer would be unimpaired after playing more than four thousand records.

Edison was constantly seeking perfection, and he insisted on the utmost precision and care in all details of manufacture. “‘Throw it out!’ he would say when some slight flaw in the disk records caught his ears. . . . If the disk was not perfect he would not let it go out of his factory.”

Of course, phonographs would improve over the years. This modern version shows just how far the concept has come. Source: Wikimedia Commons author Adrian Preston.

He also clung stoutly to the opinion that, for the best results, recording for the phonograph required of vocalists a special quality of voice and a particular technique. What he most valued was a pleasing quality in the record; and he did not think this was always best attained by the much-acclaimed artists of the opera. To Meadowcroft, his secretary, he said on one occasion that he wished “voices that will stand the test of the phonograph and give permanent pleasure to people, irrespective of stage environment, or the press agent, or pleasing personality.”

A writer in “The Independent” related that, having ordered some disc records to be destroyed, Edison added: “People may think some of these folks are great singers. Lots of little defects don’t sound in the concert hall, but when they come out of that hole they do! They can’t fool my phonograph! I’ve got them!“

One might naturally wonder how Edison, with his pronounced deafness—so pronounced, indeed, that he could not hear at all a phonograph three feet from him—could successfully experiment with such an apparatus or could prove to be, as he did, an unsparing critic of phonographic records. “I hear through my teeth,” he explained to an interviewer, “and through my skull. Ordinarily I merely place my head against a phonograph. But if there is some faint sound that I don’t quite catch this way, I bite into the wood, and then I get it good and strong.”

He thought his inner ear particularly sensitive because it had been “protected from the millions of noises that dim the hearing of ears that hear everything.” It was said that he once rejected an orchestra record as defective, remarking, “The keys on that fellow’s flute squeak.” “Do you hear the pedal of that harp?”, he suddenly asked an interviewer as a record was being tested. “I could hear no pedal,” the interviewer afterward admitted, “but the Wizard’s splendidly attuned ear could detect it as well as other imperfections.”

In 1922 the forty-fifth anniversary of the invention of the phonograph was made by Edison’s associates the occasion for various informal celebrations in honor of the inventor. “Now,” declared he, “I have set my heart on reproducing perfectly, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with seventy-five people in the orchestra. When I have done that, I’ll quit.” Forty-five years before, he had begun with that feeble, halting rendition of “Mary had a little lamb.”

After this article was written, Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Edison Received the Congressional Medal of Honor from Andrew Mellon, Secretary of the Treasury.
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