On This Day

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Thomas Edison with his phonograph in 1877.

On This Day: Thomas Edison Announces Invention of Phonograph

November 21, 2008 06:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On Nov. 21, 1877, Thomas Alva Edison announced that he had devised a method to record sound; the phonograph was a marvel of engineering that ushered in a new era of music, spoken word and celebrity.

Edison's ‘Talking Machine’

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The 1870s in the United States were years of entrepreneurial spirit and industry. Thomas Edison, owner of 1,093 U.S. patents, embodied this “pull oneself up by the bootstraps” ethos, gaining fame and fortune with his first major invention, the phonograph.

On Nov. 21, 1877, Edison announced his invention of a sound-recording device. The hand-cranked, tinfoil covered cylindrical drum played back Edison reciting “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”

The inventor was at first dumbfounded by what he originally called a “talking machine.” He said, “I was never so taken aback in my life. I was always afraid of things that worked the first time.”

The phonograph was Edison’s first invention to get major press coverage; it received high accolades from such prominent publications such as Scientific American and Harper’s Weekly. The once destitute paperboy was now a national hero, winning a Legion of Honor medal from the French government.

Background: How the first phonographs worked

A phonograph uses a horn to collect sound, channeling it through a sound diaphragm connected to a stylus. The stylus is pressed into either a drum covered in tinfoil or a wax cylinder. When the cylinder or drum is turned, the stylus, as it vibrates with the sound, creates a groove on the drum. The sound can be played back by turning the drum in the opposite direction, so the stylus translates the groves into sound, which is amplified via the diaphragm and horn.

The first records were made on tinfoil wrapped around a four-inch diameter drum. The drum was cranked by hand and the phonograph machine made grooves on the tinfoil. These first “records” only lasted through a few playbacks. By 1888, two-inch wax cylinders had become the standard. The average playing time was four minutes, spun at 90 revolutions per minute (RPM) for spoken word recordings, and two to two and a half minutes at 160 RPM for music. 

Historical Context: The Gilded Age and the Second Industrial Revolution

From the 1870s to the 1890s, a period often termed the Gilded Age, America saw the gap between rich and poor grow enormously. Industrialization, powered by the expansion of the railroads and the proliferation of factories, created rapid growth in production. Opulence was de rigueur among the fashionable elite. Yet this boom in wealth only benefited a sliver of the U.S. population, many of whom were new immigrants.

“In 1890, 11 million of the nation's 12 million families earned less than $1,200 per year; of this group, the average annual income was $380, well below the poverty line,” PBS writes. At the same time, the United States was at the forefront of technological development. Some 500,000 new patents were issued between 1860 and 1890.

Key Player: Thomas Alva Edison

Thomas Alva Edison was born on Feb. 11, 1847, in Milan, Ohio. When he was 7 years old he moved with his family to Michigan. He left home at age 16, having had little formal education. He settled in Boston briefly, where he successfully applied for his first patent in 1868, for an electric vote recorder.

A year later, Edison moved to New York City, and then onward to New Jersey, where he stayed for the rest of his career. On Nov. 21, 1877, he unveiled the phonograph. In December 1879, he demonstrated what would become the pinnacle of his career—an economical and safe incandescent light.

He spent the next few years developing the electricity industry. In December 1882, the world’s first commercial power station opened in lower Manhattan, signaling the beginning of the era of electricity. Eventually, his business became General Electric.

In the 1890s, he further developed the phonograph and unveiled the motion picture. His alkaline battery came along in 1899. By this point, his fame and his position as a cultural icon were well established. Edison died on Oct. 18, 1931.

Opinion & Analysis: ‘The Wizard of Menlo Park’

In hus “The Wizard of Menlo Park: How Thomas Alva Edison Invented the Modern World,” author Randall Stross argues that Edison, in addition to his other accomplishments, was the first to imbue business with celebrity status.

“No one of the time would have predicted that it would be an inventor, of all occupations, who would become the cynosure of the age,” writes Stross. “In retrospect, fame may appear to be a justly earned reward for the inventor of practical electric light in 1879—yet Edison’s fame came before light. It was conferred two years earlier, for the invention of the phonograph. Who would have guessed that the announcement of the phonograph’s invention was sufficient to propel him in a matter of a few days from obscurity into the firmament above?”

Reference: Edison resources

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