Prior to Thomas Edison’s invention of the phonograph in 1877, the world had no means of recording the human voice; and the enjoyment of prerecorded music was limited to the player piano.
Edison was born in Alva, Ohio in 1847. He established a laboratory in Menlo Park which eventually employed a staff of 100. During the 7 ½ years of its existence, he and his staff accumulated 400 patents for their inventions.
One of Edison’s favorite creations, and the one he was the proudest of, was the phonograph. While tinkering with one of his inventions, a device to record telegraph messages onto a paper tape, he accidentally played the tape at a high rate of speed and noticed that the sound coming from the machine sounded like spoken words.
Being fascinated by the possibilities, he experimented using a needle attached to a telephone receiver diaphragm. Edison drew up plans for the device and gave them to his mechanic, John Kruesi, who completed the machine in 30 hours. Utilizing paraffin-coated paper on a cylinder as the recording medium, he placed the needle on the paper and cranked the cylinder. As he spoke into the mouthpiece, the vibrating needle moved up and down, creating indentations in the paper as an up and down groove pattern. When he played it back, he was astonished to hear his own voice speaking back to him from the machine. Those now famous words were, “Mary had a little lamb...” the first recording ever made. He later used tin foil as the recording medium as it was more durable.
Edison took his speaking machine to the New York City offices of Scientific American in 1877, and demonstrated it for the staff. In their December issue they reported that “Mr. Thomas A. Edison recently came into this office, 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.” Edison’s fame spread throughout the world.
Thomas Edison established the Edison Speaking Phonograph Company in 1878 and began the construction of his recording machines, primarily for the commercial and business world. The machine was a novelty and Edison exploited its features by demonstrating it wherever he could. But it was difficult to operate and required an expert. Also, the metal foil could only be played a few times before deteriorating.
Some of the uses that he envisioned were dictation, phonographic books for the blind, music boxes, clocks that announce the time, recording family member’s voices, and as a device to record telephone conversations. Early machines retailed for around $150, which is about $3,000 in today’s dollars.
The National Phonographic Company began manufacturing phonographs for the home in 1896, and it was the first instrument to carry the Edison trademark design. Prices had come down to as low as $7.50, about $150 in today’s dollars, for a machine called the “Gem,” which debuted in 1899.
The Edison phonograph in the collection of the Sauk County Historical Society is a model C, built around 1908 and at the time, retailed for $35, or about $700 in today’s dollars. The large morning glory horn amplified the sound so that everyone in the room could enjoy the music. The Society’s machine has been made functional and now works as it did over 100 years ago.