centuries man had dreamed of capturing the sounds and music of
his environment. Many had attempted it but no one had succeeded
until Thomas Alva Edison discovered a method of recording and
playing back sound. What had started out as an apparatus intended
as part of an improved telephone led to the development of an
instrument which would change the world, making it a happier,
even a better, place to live. Here are the facts, in reverse order:
Frenchman Leon Scott invented the phonautograph which translated
fluctuating air pressures into a scribed trace on a smoked cylinder
by means of a stylus attached to a membrane. The resulting transcription
could not reproduce the sound.
In April another Frenchman, Charles Cros, a poet and inventor
of photographic colour processes proposed that Scott’s method
be improved by photoengraving the trace onto metal with the possibility
of retracing the pattern resulting in the replay of the original
sound. In July Thomas Alva Edison, the prolific American inventor,
discovered a method of recording and replaying sound having followed
a somewhat different line of research from Scott or Cros. He filed
a provisional specification for a British patent 2909/1877. On
December 24, Edison applied for the US Patent 200 521 which covered
talking machines and sound writers to be known as Phonographs.
The first phonographs used tin foil cylinders.
Edison considered the use of compressed amplifiers to overcome
the problem of lack of replay volume. The Englishmen, Horace Short
and C.A. Parsons (the steam turbine expert) succeeded in perfecting
the compressed air amplifiers known as Auxetophones but they were
eventually used for other purposes.
Emile Berliner, an American of German origin, recorded ‘The Lord’s
Prayer’ on an Edison cylinder machine. The original recording
is preserved by the BBC in London.
Edison was granted US patent 341 214 for a wax coated recording
cylinder. This signified the beginning of the end of the tin foil
Berliner developed a successful method of modulating the sound-carrying
groove laterally in the surface of a disc. (The groove on cylinders
was modulated vertically.) He also invented a method of mass producing
copies of an original recorded disc.
Jesse Lippincott, a financier, took over the commercial exploitation
of the Phonograph and the Graphophone as dictating machines on
a lease and service contract. The Graphophone had been developed
by Edison’s rivals, Chichester Bell (the brother of Alexander
Graham Bell) and Charles Tainter at the Volta laboratory and in
terms of ease of operation and fidelity of sound reproduction
it was a vast improvement on the phonograph. The use of either
machine as an entertainment medium was still seen as a novelty.
Coin-in-the slot public access replay facilities, a primitive
form of juke box, which could be used in amusement arcades, became
immensely popular in the US creating a demand for entertainment
recordings, mainly comic monologues.
Edison’s Phonograph and the Bell-Tainter Graphophone were in intense
competition for the popular market. The Phonograph was beginning
to prove the more popular, and the New York Phonograph Company
opened the first purpose-built recording studios.
Pathe Freres started the world famous French company making phonographs
By now recorded music as a medium of entertainment had become
firmly established with the public. The demand for recordings
provided the incentive for research and investment in the infant
Eldridge R. Johnson designed and manufactured a ‘clockwork’ spring
motor which helped establish F. Seaman’s National Gramophone Company
of New York as a serious rival to the Phonograph and the Graphophone