The Edison Phonograph Was the First Time Machine

The Edison Phonograph Was the First Time Machine

Paintings and photographs are literal snapshots, but the phonograph was the first device to capture—and replay—life as it was being lived.
One of the most momentous inventions in history had an inauspicious first use. Thomas Edison received the first prototype of the phonograph just 30 hours after sketching out the plans. The inventor placed the needle against a sheet of tinfoil, turned the crank, and spoke a few lines into a mouthpiece. When he finished speaking, he played back the recording.

“Mary had a little lamb,” the recording began. “Its fleece was white as snow.”

When Edison heard those words in 1877, it was the first time that a human voice had been captured in a medium and played back as sound.

Today, we take sound recording for granted, but in the late 1800s, it was a revolutionary breakthrough.

“Up to that time, sound had always been transient,” said David Giovannoni, a historian of sound recording from Durwood, Md. The idea that speech, rather than being written on the wind, could be preserved and repeated changed the relationship between the past and the present, Giovannoni said.

Thomas Edison, shown here with an early model of his phonograph, became an international sensation with his invention of a sound-recording machine.
This prototype, the Edison Experimental Recording Phonograph, is recognized as a world-changing invention. In 1981, it was designated as an ASME Engineering Landmark and a plaque was presented for display at the Edison National Historical Site in West Orange, N.J.

The idea of recording sound was not new in the 1870s. Observers had long noted that sound could vibrate a drumhead or other tightly stretched membrane. While researchers have attempted to resurrect sounds that may have been recorded accidentally in grooves made in pottery, the earliest extant intentional recording of a human voice dates to 1860, when Edouard-Léon Scott de Martinville recorded someone singing “Au Clair de la Lune” on his phonautograph. Scott’s machine was able to turn the vibrations into a line scribbled onto paper much like a seismograph; he did not have the technology to turn those scribbles back into sound. (A team led by Giovannoni was able to reconstruct the sound from Scott’s recordings in 2008.)

Edison was already an established inventor in the 1870s, having developed a system for sending multiple messages simultaneously across a single telegraph line. He had been working on systems for mechanically recording telegraph messages when Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone in 1876. Edison turned his attention to inventions for improving the telephone, such as a microphone for converting sound into electrical signals.

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According to Giovannoni, Edison’s model for how a telephone industry would work would be similar to the telegraph industry: Customers with a message would go to a local office, record a telephone message, and have it sent across wires to the closest office of the recipient.

By mid-1877, Edison and his associate Charles Batchelor had an epiphany: They didn’t need a telephone to make a sound recording. As Giovannoni rephrased it, “What if we just yelled into a diaphragm and recorded the vibrations on a piece of tape?”

After writing down the idea, however, Edison and his colleagues let the invention lie dormant for a few months, until word of the phonograph began to leak. Edison and Batchelor improved their original idea and sent plans to their machinist, John Kruesi, who was able to produce the prototype in little over a day.

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Looking for publicity, Edison took his invention to the New York City offices of Scientific American on December 7, 1877, to demonstrate its features. According to the December 22, 1877, issue of the magazine, “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. These remarks were not only perfectly audible to ourselves, but to a dozen or more persons gathered around, and they were produced by the aid of no other mechanism.”

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Press reports of Edison’s talking machine created demand for demonstrations of the technology. People leased machines from Edison and toured the country lecturing about the phonograph; the reception was electrifying.

“They would make a recording and play it back, and people would go ‘wow.’ But then the lecturers would say, ‘Wait, there’s more.’ They’d take the same recording and slow it down, then speed it up, and then play it backward. Sound had never been heard backward. People were freaking out.”

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Over the next year, Edison and his colleagues patented improvements on the original design, but quickly those efforts lost steam. Edison had been contracted to perfect the lighting and power system in New York City, and he turned his attention to that problem.

It took more than a decade before sound recording and reproduction advanced to the point where it could become a consumer industry, involving mass reproduction of original recordings and devices inexpensive enough for individuals to purchase for home use. One of the largest advances was recording in wax rather than tinfoil, which often tore after a few playbacks. The switch in media also allowed the recording process to change from indentation, which is how Edison’s phonograph recorded into tinfoil, to engraving as the sharp recording stylus cut through the wax.

Another important change was in the record format, from a cylinder to a disk. Disk records were easier to mass produce—the grooves could be stamped into shellac (and eventually vinyl)—and could be stored more compactly than cylinders.

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Edison eventually returned to the sound recording industry and then combined that with photographic technology to help invent motion pictures.

But the original invention of the phonograph, Giovannoni said, was a societal shock like few before or since.

"In 1877, photography had been invented, so people had already understood the idea of taking an image. But taking a snapshot of sound makes no sense. The phonograph is considered one of the very first mechanisms that recorded a live phenomenon and preserved the time aspect of it. That was pretty spectacular as an engineering feat,” Giovannoni said. “But there was also a cultural impact. The idea that you could hear somebody's voice disembodied from the person, at will, repeatedly in the future, even after they were dead—that literally blew people's minds. We don't understand that today. We take it for granted. But for the first time in all of human history, the phonograph allowed us to take control of time itself.”

Jeffrey Winters is editor in chief of Mechanical Engineering magazine.

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