On Dec. 6, 1877, Thomas Alva Edison made the first recording in his tinfoil cylinder phonograph, the invention that made him famous.
Edison’s “Talking Machine”
In July 1877, Thomas Edison was attempting to build a machine that could transcribe telegraph messages by making indentations on paraffin paper when he hypothesized that telephone messages could be recorded the same way. Using a diaphragm with an embossing point that was pressed against moving paper, he found that noise vibrations made indentations in the paper.
By late November, he had completed a design with tinfoil substituted for the paraffin paper; it “consisted of grooved cylinder mounted on a long shaft with a screw pitch of ten threads per inch and turned by a hand crank,” describes Rutgers University Thomas Edison Papers project.
Edison gave the design to his mechanic, John Kruesi, who built the phonograph within days. In his first test of the phonograph, which likely occurred on Dec. 6, Edison recited the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb” into the mouthpiece as he turned the crank. When he played the recording back, he was astonished to hear his words repeated.
“I was never so taken aback in my life,” he recounted. “I was always afraid of things that worked the first time.”
On Dec. 7, Edison brought the phonograph into the Scientific American offices in New York and demonstrated it. The magazine published a story about the invention in its Dec. 22 edition.
“Mr. Thomas A. Edison recently came into this office,” it began, “placed a little machine on our desk, turned a crank, and the machine inquired as to our health, asked how we liked the phonograph, informed us that it was very well, and bid us a cordial good night.”
The Edison National Historic Site has a large collection of sound recordings on the Edison phonograph. It includes Edison’s 1927 re-enactment of the “Mary Had a Little Lamb” recording.
How the First Phonographs Worked
Sources in this Story
- Library of Congress: The History of the Edison Cylinder Phonograph
- Rutgers University: The Thomas Edison Papers: Tinfoil Phonograph
- PBS: Rough Science: Sound Recording Challenge
- Cylinder Music Shop: Early Recorded Sound & Wax Cylinders
- National Park Service: Edison
- The New York Times: Edison the Inventor, Edison the Showman
- PBS: The American Experience: Gilded Age
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.
Biography: Thomas Alva Edison
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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 Menlo Park, N.J., where he stayed for the rest of his career. The phonograph was Edison’s first invention to get major press coverage.
It “made Edison’s reputation as the ‘Inventor of the Age’ and led to his most famous nickname ‘The Wizard of Menlo Park,’” according to Rutgers University. “Newspaper reporters flocked to the Menlo Park Laboratory to see the new invention and to interview Edison. A constant stream of articles about the inventor, including anecdotes and biographical sketches, led to his becoming one of the most famous men in the world.”
In 1879, Edison made his most famous invention: 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.
In “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?”
The Thomas Edison Papers, maintained by Rutgers University, has a searchable online database of over 5 million pages of Edison-related primary source material. It also includes a detailed biography, articles on his most significant inventions, and a list of his 1,093 U.S. patents.