On This Day: 21st November 1877 – Edison’s Phonograph

It’s 1870s America, industrialisation has taken hold, and there is rapid expansion of the great railroads and factories across the States. There is also a tremendous increase in the number of inventions, many of which were invented by Thomas Edison. On the 21st November 1877, this prolific pioneer announced the phonograph.

But what on earth is a phonograph? Only one of his most innovative inventions! As well as being the iconic device on the HMV logo, the phonograph was a revolutionary sound recording device.

Edison’s invention was simple. The phonograph consisted of a horn that collected sound and channeled it through a diaphragm that was attached to a metal stylus. This stylus touched against a drum, which was covered in tin foil and rotated by a hand-crank. As sound enters the horn, it hits the diaphragm, which causes the metal stylus to vibrate. These vibrations are then scraped into the drum by the stylus and a groove is formed.

Once the sound has been recorded, it can be replayed by turning the hand-crank in the opposite direction, which reverses the process. The grooves cause the stylus to vibrate and in turn the diaphragm too. This then produces sound which is amplified by the horn. Initially, the tin foil only lasted for a couple of playbacks, as the stylus would damage the grooves each time it passed through them. This would be heard by loss of definition in the sound and extra erroneous sounds similar to white noise. It took eleven years to solve this problem when Edison replaced the foil with wax, and finally vinyl, and each iteration increased the lifespan of the recording.

Edison nicknamed his device the “Talking Machine”, it was officially termed the phonograph and later became known as the gramophone. It was a serendipitous discovery, as Edison was in fact working on a device to record telephone communications and not reproduce the sounds it recorded. Edison recognised the gravity of his invention, saying “I was never so taken aback in my life.” It was hailed by major press and he received high accolades from prominent scientific publications. Since, it has become one of his greatest inventions, an impressive feat given that he owned over a thousand patents.

The phonograph was initially used to record phone conversations, but soon it became a music recording device. So if you’ve ever listened to music on a tablet or a video with sound, you need to thank Mr Edison. It was the first in a long line of similar music devices. Now, modern “turntables” still use a stylus to ‘read’ the vinyl records in a similar way to the phonograph. However, the vibrations do not directly contact with a diaphragm to produce sound. Instead, the motion of the stylus is converted to analogue or digital signals, which are sent to a speaker.

The first recording was Edison’s own dulcet tones singing “Mary Had a Little Lamb”. It’s been over one hundred years later and we’re not doing much better, with Nicki Minaj spitting ‘sick’ rhymes over an equally ‘sick’ beat. Edison was justified in his comment, “I was always afraid of things that worked the first time.” If you listen closely, you might be able to hear the first phonograph playing a recording of Edison turning in his grave.

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