This edited article about Edison and the history of the gramophone originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 701 published on 21 June 1975.
“I was never so taken aback in all my life!” So said the great American inventor, Thomas Alva Edison, when he heard his own voice coming from the little machine he had just created, quoting the simple rhyme, “Mary had a little lamb.” Scratchy and indistinct the words may have been, but they were the first recorded sounds ever heard.
It was 1877 when Edison hit upon the idea of a machine to record and reproduce sound. He called it a phonograph.
His first model had a grooved, brass cylinder covered with tin foil and cranked by a handle. It also had two diaphragms (metal discs), each with a steel needle fixed in the centre, on either side of the cylinder. When a person spoke into the mouthpiece of one of the diaphragms, the vibrations made by his voice caused it to move so that the attached needle made a pattern of tiny indentations on the rotating tin foil. By placing the needle of the other diaphragm at the start of the groove and cranking again, a crude reproduction of the voice was heard. The sound could be amplified by placing a small horn over the reproducing diaphragm.
In December of that year, Edison took his invention to New York, where a demonstration was arranged for the editors of the “Scientific American” magazine. Here is how it was reported.
“Mr. Thomas A. Edison recently came into the 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 goodnight.”
In the following months, the public flocked to exhibitions of the new machine, but, like most novelties, its appeal soon faded and, by the latter half of 1878, it had been almost forgotten.
In the meanwhile, Edison had put aside his phonograph in order to concentrate on other work.
Ten years later, when he returned to his sound machine, he realised that improvements in the quality of reproduction were imperative. His talking tin foil toy needed further thought if it was to become more popular.
Tin foil would have to be replaced because of its harsh, metallic sound and because it wore out after only half-a-dozen playings. The idea of a wax substitute was suggested, and cylinders were then made entirely of this material. Greater clarity and longer playing time resulted, though there was a slight loss of volume.
In 1888, Edison produced his new, improved phonograph, which had an electric motor, driven by batteries, which ensured a constant speed. This, together with clearer reproduction, encouraged him to try more ambitious recordings of music.
He set up two of his phonographs in the Metropolitan Opera House, New York, and recorded part of an orchestral concert conducted by German pianist and conductor, Hans Von Bulow. This was the first orchestral recording, but, unfortunately, like so many priceless early cylinders, it has been lost.
Musicians were not the only prominent people to record for posterity. Henry Stanley, the explorer, visited Edison’s laboratory in New Jersey and spoke a few words into the machine.
In Britain, Georges Gouraud, Edison’s agent, captured the voices of many eminent Victorians, including Gladstone, Florence Nightingale, Robert Browning and Lord Tennyson, who read his epic poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” Queen Victoria herself is known to have made cylinder recordings privately and her son, Edward VII, went to Gouraud’s house in Upper Norwood, London, to record his voice.
Gouraud’s enthusiasm even led him to search out the actual bugler who had sounded the charge at Balaclava and he got him to record it on the original bugle.
Few of these early recordings are still in existence, although the B.B.C. has copies of those made by Florence Nightingale and Robert Browning, the poet. The cylinder made by Florence Nightingale and Robert Browning, the poet. The cylinder made by Lord Tennyson is thought to be in the possession of the present Lord Tennyson. But the biggest mystery surrounds the record made by Queen Victoria. This was a message of greeting to an eastern potentate who was asked to destroy it after it had been played. It is assumed that he did so, although this is not known for certain.
With their heavy batteries, the early phonographs were not only unsuitable, but far too expensive for most private homes. However, once coin-operated versions (the ancestors of today’s juke-boxes) started to appear in cafes and bars, the public were quick to show their enthusiasm for recorded entertainment.
The increasing demand for more and more cylinder recordings presented problems for their makers. As yet no way of duplicating them had been thought of and each cylinder had to be separately recorded.
A typical example of a recording session in the early 1890s would probably follow this pattern.
A band, encircled by ten phonographs, each with a huge horn, would play for two minutes (the maximum playing-time of early cylinders). The ten used cylinders would then be replaced by ten blank ones and the whole business repeated, the band playing the same piece of music. After ten such operations, one hundred cylinders were then ready to go on sale to eager buyers.
Tear-jerking ballads, comedy songs and spoken monologues, comic or sad, were great favourites. Most popular of all, however, were brass bands, which also managed to fit most happily into the narrow, limited range of sound in this early form of recording.
By 1894, Edison had to reconsider his phonograph’s future. Always an inventor who could see the commercial possibilities of his discoveries, he realised that the next step was to find a cheaper form of his machine, which could find its way into most people’s homes.
Refusing to abandon his expensive electric motor with its awkward batteries, he was beaten by his greatest rival, the Columbia-Graphophone Company. They came up with an efficient clockwork motor, which set the pattern for all “wind-up” phonographs (and later, gramophones) for the next thirty years. This enabled prices to be dramatically slashed. Edison had to give in and he, too, changed over to the clockwork system.
Now, at last, the phonograph was to become as much a regular fixture in everyone’s “front parlour” as the upright piano. In Britain, some models could be bought for as little as £2.
Obviously, the sales of cylinders (or phonograms as they were called) rose tremendously, and their future looked really rosy. However, it was to be short-lived, for a shadow loomed on the horizon. That shadow was in the shape of a thin, flat disc with a little hole in the middle.
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