edison phonographs

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On this day in music history: February 19, 1878 - Inventor Thomas Edison is awarded U.S. Patent No. 200,521 for his invention the phonograph by the U.S. Patent Office. Edison develops the phonograph with mechanic John Kreusi as an off shoot of his ongoing research in telegraphy and telephony. Having previously created a method of recording Morse code by indenting the communications on a roll of paper, the phonograph uses a similar method, using an embossing point (a stylus) and speaking into the diaphragm while revolving a metal cylinder covered with a sheet of tin foil (paraffin paper is used in the initial experiment to capture the sound. The first demonstration of Edison’s phonograph takes place in December of 1877. Edison recites the nursery rhyme “Mary Had A Little Lamb”, while hand cranking the cylinder, and recording his voice on to the tin foil sheet. Though his rival Alexander Graham Bell, chemist Chichester Bell (Bell’s cousin), and fellow inventor Charles Tainter makes marked improvements on the phonograph by creating the cardboard wax cylinder and a more advanced cutting method to record sound, Edison is widely acknowledged as the primary inventor. The phonograph establishes Edison’s reputation as an innovator, leading the public and the press to label him “The Innovator Of The Age” and “The Wizard Of Menlo Park”.  Thomas Edison’s original phonograph is on permanent display at the National Museum Of American History at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC.

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Is this a record?  Kind of.  These are Edison Diamond Discs, a format used between 1912 and 1929 by–you guessed it–Edison Records.  I came upon three of them today while checking on some of our uncatalogued materials.

Unlike most records of their day (or any day, really), diamond discs are about 1/4″ thick with very thin grooves.  As their name suggests, they’re meant to be played with a diamond-tipped stylus, rather than a more typical steel needle; in fact they flat-out won’t play on the Victrola machine most people envision when thinking about playing older records.  Instead, they’re built to be played on Edison’s own Edison Disc Phonograph–something our library is sadly lacking.

Their fine grooves allowed for a longer playback than contemporary 10″ records, but the medium never quite caught on with the public.  Whether it was because of the musical selection (Edison favored more traditional music over the jazz that was becoming increasingly popular during the era), the cost, or the fact that they were incompatible with most other types of contemporary records and machines, the technology ultimately vanished from the marketplace when Edison Records closed in 1929.

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Scientists Recover the Sounds of 19th-Century Music and Laughter From the Oldest Playable American Recording 

REBECCA J. ROSEN

Computer analysis of a piece of foil reveals audio captured by a Thomas Edison-invented phonograph in St. Louis in 1878.

Last night at the GE Theatre in Schenectady, New York, an audience of about 200 people sat and heard the sounds of a someone playing the cornet, a man laughing, and a recitation of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and “Old Mother Hubbard.” It is believed that this event was the first time that any public audience had heard those sounds since they were captured by a Thomas Edison-invented phonograph in St. Louis in 1878.

For years the audio was trapped on the piece of foil you see above. There was no device that could play it and even if there had been, doing so would have likely ruined it. This summer, at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, California, physicist Carl Haber and his team were able to create a 3D picture of the foil whose topography could then be translated into sound using techniques of mathematical analysis and physical modeling to calculate how a needle would have played the recording. They were able to do so “without physically having to touch them,” he explained to me. “And that’s kind of the key issue, because these things are so old and fragile and torn-up, broken, and delicate that in many cases it just would not be possible to play them back in any of the more standard ways.”

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