The modern masses can now listen to what experts say is the oldest playable recording of an American voice and the first-ever capturing of a musical performance, thanks to digital advances that allowed the sound to be transferred from flimsy tinfoil to computer. The recording was originally made on a Thomas Edison-invented phonograph in St. Louis in But that dinosaur opens a key window into the development of recorded sound. When the recording is played using modern technology during a presentation Thursday at a nearby theater, it likely will be the first time it has been played at a public event since it was created during an Edison phonograph demonstration held June 22, , in St.
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The Phonograph Overview The invention of the phonograph and other sound reproduction machines began a new way of producing historical archives. Expressions of the human voice were no longer limited to their abstraction as words on the page, and the artistry and passion of a musical performance could be preserved outside human memory.
People could bring the sounds of the world into their homes, and a global culture began to arise out of the mixture of influences that a broad diversity of recordings could provide. Before radio and sound motion pictures, the phonograph and other "talking machines" reigned for several decades as the great modern innovation in audio culture and entertainment.
The device consisted of a cylindrical drum wrapped in tinfoil and mounted on a threaded axle. A mouthpiece attached to a diaphragm was connected to a stylus that etched vibrational patterns from a sound source on the rotating foil. For playback the mouthpiece was replaced with a "reproducer" that used a more sensitive diaphragm. Edison recited "Mary Had a Little Lamb" into the mouthpiece for the first demonstration.
Even though he expected success he was startled to hear the "tinny" version of his own voice echo his performance. Edison prepared an encore presentation for the editor of The Scientific American, a close friend, who wrote the following in the Nov. Yet Science now announces that this is possible, and can be done Speech has become, as it were, immortal. The invention of the first "talking machine" is most commonly attributed to Edison, in part because of the publicity that attended his celebrity and the theatrical power of his demonstrations, and in part because previous inventions had earned him the means to have the device built.
The first to build a phonograph, of course, was Kruesi. The first to conceive of a workable design was most likely the Parisian Charles Cros, who delivered viable plans for a machine that would use discs to the French Academie des Sciences in April of This occurred several months before Edison happened on his idea while working on a telegraphy device designed to record readable traces of a Morse code signal onto a disk.
In January of , investors created the Edison Speaking Phonograph Company to oversee the manufacture and exhibition of the talking machines. He continued to refine the tin-foil phonograph through mid, feeding a popular enthusiasm for stage demonstrations of the "magic" machine which could imitate any language, cough, or animal sound that a skeptic from the audience could produce in an attempt to expose the "trick.
As the novelty of the phonograph exhibitions waned, the audiences tapered off and the invention went through a dormant period nearly a decade long before it would transcend its status as a curiosity. The Bell-Tainter Graphophone The late s and early s were full of inventive breakthroughs and rapid advancements in communication technologies that came from a number of well-organized laboratories. Fast-shutter motion photography, the first crude motion pictures, the electric light, the telephone, and vast improvements in the telegraph were all developed within a few years of the phonograph.
He gave his cousin, an engineer named Chichester Bell, and Charles Tainter, a scientist and instrument maker, the project of improving the phonograph. The Bell-Tainter "graphophone" released in displayed some key improvements to the Edison model. Cylinders were made entirely of wax instead of cardboard and tinfoil, which allowed for longer and more clearly defined recordings.
Early Recording Industry By this time Edison had renewed his interest in the phonograph and pursued improvements of his own, most notably replacing the tinfoil sheath with a coating of wax and developing a battery-powered electric motor to drive the instrument. He insisted the phonograph should be more than an amusement, and advocated its dignified use as an office dictation machine.
Something of a commercial recording industry had started up in Musicians would record on several phonographs at once, repeating their performance until enough cylinders were produced to satisfy demand. Wax was a poor medium for capturing music of any quality and the cylinders could only hold two minutes of music, but the entertainment value of having a wide variety of recordings to choose from made the new industry quite attractive nonetheless.
The leisure culture that the parlors spawned soon included individual coin-operated kinetoscopes that flipped photographs past a viewer, creating the first common motion picture illusions. The phonograph proved to be a useful advertising medium. Thomas Macdonald, the manager of a graphophone factory, developed an inexpensive and reliable clockwork motor.
This enabled the Bell-Tainter camp, now doing business as the Columbia Phonograph Company, to launch a full-fledged retail venture with a clockwork-driven machine they called the "Graphophone Grand.
The plan behind the first small-scale release was to attract more substantial backers by demonstrating the unique advantages of the gramophone. The discs were much cheaper to produce and any number of copies could be made from a zinc master. Berliner described the process this way: Gramophone: a talking machine wherein a sound is first traced into a fatty film covering a metal surface and which is then subjected to the action of an acid or etching fluid which eats the record into the metal.
This record being a continuous wavy line of even depth is then rotated and not only vibrates the reproducing sound chamber but also propels the same by the hold its stylus retains in record groove. The original record can be duplicated ad infinitum by first making an electrotyped reverse or matrix and then pressing the latter into hard rubber, celluloid or similar material which is soft when warm and quite hard when cold. The Major Talking Machine Corporations There were now three major selling agencies that would dominate the sale of home machines for years to come: The National Gramophone Company, which sold Berliner gramophones; the Columbia Phonograph Company, which sold Bell-Tainter graphophones; and the National Phonograph Company, which sold Edison phonographs.
Corporations that held and manufactured under patent rights added to the tangle. The commercial success of the machines in the late s sparked a number of corporate lawsuits and patent battles, and fueled several new technical innovations. The Berliner people developed a new disc-stamping process and Duranoid, a shellac-based plastic material that proved far superior to rubber. An inventor named Harold Short developed a compressed-air amplifier.
Some odd new twists on turn-of-the century talking machines included an intriguing variety of handsome and at times bizarre cabinets and horns, a disc design that allowed for 12 minutes of play and moved the stylus from the center outward, a method of linking the sound patterns to a mouthpiece so people could plug their ears and "listen with their teeth," and records made of chocolate that could be eaten when they were too worn out to play.
Worldwide Recording Boom As executives of the Gramophone Company sought greater international influence, they sent a young musician and talent scout named Fred Gaisberg to the great cities of Europe and Asia with an elaborate and bulky assemblage of recording equipment. The talking machines were enjoying a tremendous surge in popularity among Europeans near the turn of the century. Most of the singers scoffed at the idea of being associated with an amusement gadget, but a new wax engraving process improved recording quality dramatically and by the Gramophone Company made sixty records by four stars of the Russian Imperial Opera.
Technological advances included a pleated and varnished paper diaphragm speaker which could replace the horn, more durable cylinders and discs which also facilitated longer and better quality recordings, and a way of installing a tone arm mount for the stylus in a box lid that made possible the "Decca," the first truly portable talking machine.
And now that the War is over, I still pursue my calling but under pleasanter conditions The recording industry experienced unprecedented growth after the war. By more than manufacturers had taken advantage of lapsed phonograph patents and went into production.
Recording in the Jazz Age The corporate push to expand the range of music coincided with the emergence of a few white musicians who began to emulate black New Orleans jazz. Soon after the Original Dixieland Jazz Band cut the first jazz record in , the "authentic New Orleans sound" found its way into white homes and became a national craze. As music historians Russel Miller and Roger Boar put it, " Jazz musicians were usually more than happy to record. Whites who hungered for jazz could always find it.
Records allowed the improvised sound that inspired a passion for dancing in some and puritan rage in others to burst across geographic and racial borders and leave its mark on all forms of popular music.
Through most of the jazz era, recording artists had to crowd around and sing or play directly into the mouths of large metal recording horns. They also had to redo from the beginning any performance with a glitch in it.
Recorded music had to do without drums, which made the recording stylus vibrate too much. Radio and Electronic Recording Research in "wireless telephony" conducted during World War I yielded viable microphones and amplifiers that made the radio broadcast boom possible. When the recording industry began to apply these technologies and embraced electronic recording in , the studio experience and the quality of recordings improved dramatically.
Individual microphones replaced shared recording horns, and artists could now overdub mistakes. Electric amplification made it possible for studio acoustics to emulate the atmosphere and clarity of live performances. A much-expanded frequency range allowed for the improved definition of sharper treble and the weighty force of deep bass. These innovations sparked another surge in enthusiasm for recorded music that now appeared to complement the popularity of radio.
A number of radio-phonograph combination machines were marketed successfully. Depression and Decline Later in the same year, however, the predicted death of the phonograph seemed to suddenly become a reality. The industry ground to a halt almost overnight in October when the stock market crashed.
People saw little point in spending bread money on records when the radio continued to provide free entertainment. In November, eighty-two year old Edison and his corporate allies discontinued production of records and phonographs.
Cylinder records had already begun a sharp and steady decline since the advent of electronic recording. The Edison announcement finally rendered them extinct. Thomas Edison died in In , , machines were produced and ,, records were sold. In those numbers dropped to 40, and 6,, respectively.
With the exception of a few die-hard collectors, consumers not only quit buying records, they also began to think of the whole phenomenon of "canned music" as part of an outdated culture. Free live radio and the first sound motion pictures the first feature-length "talkie," The Jazz Singer, was released in seemed to provide more vibrant, immediate and modern cultural outlets.
Millions of machines and records found their way into attics and junkpiles. In decades to come, of course, recording would be revived and go through even more dramatic technological, cultural and corporate transformations.
From Tin Foil To Stereo: Evolution Of The Phonograph (Paperback)
Problems playing this file? See media help. In , Thomas B Lambert was granted a patent that described a process for mass-producing cylinders made from celluloid , an early hard plastic Henri Lioret of France was producing celluloid cylinders as early as , but they were individually recorded rather than molded. That same year, the Lambert Company of Chicago began selling cylinder records made of the material. They would not break if dropped and could be played thousands of times without wearing out, although the choice of the bright pink color of early cylinders was arguably a marketing error. The color was changed to black in , but brown and blue cylinders were also produced.
Share Paul Edie talks about collecting antique Victor Victrola phonographs , including inside and outside horn models, the history of the company, and the evolution of the phonograph machines in general. When I was around 10, my grandfather passed away, and my dad brought home his Victrola and stuck it under the stairs in the basement. It was a — my grandfather bought it right before World War I. One day I was messing around and opened it up and started playing with it. It intrigued me.
Tin Foil Stereo