Mr. Edison’s Phonograph

August 12, 1877, is the date popularly given for Thomas Alva Edison’s completion of the model for the first phonograph, a device that recorded sound onto tinfoil cylinders. It is more likely, however, that work on the model was not finished until November or December of that year, since Edison did not file for the patent until December 24, 1877.

Thomas A. Edison, head-and-shoulders portrait. Between 1900 and 1920. Detroit Publishing Company. Prints & Photographs Division

While working to improve the efficiency of a telegraph transmitter, Edison noted that the tape of the machine gave off a noise resembling spoken words when played at a high speed. This caused him to wonder if he could record a telephone message. Edison began experimenting with the diaphragm of a telephone receiver by attaching a needle to it. He reasoned that the needle could prick paper tape to record a message. His experiments led him to try a stylus on a tinfoil cylinder, which, to his great surprise, played back the short message he recorded, “Mary had a little lamb.”

President Harding’s voice has been preserved in phonograph records in the government archives. 1922. National Photo Company Collection. Prints & Photographs Division

Edison’s discovery was met first with incredulity, then awe, earning him the moniker “The Wizard of Menlo Park.” The sound recording industry, which evolved from Edison’s invention, soon emerged as a source of popular entertainment as recordings of concerts, comedic sketches, opera and other performances were made available to the American public to play on their phonographs.

High class phonograph entertainments. ca. 1885. Prints & Photographs Division

As a young boy growing up on an Illinois farm in the late nineteenth century, Harry Reece remembered the invention of the phonograph as one in a series of technological marvels:

Electric lights were something to marvel at…the old Edison phonograph with its wax cylinder records and earphones was positively ghostly…and trolley cars, well they too were past understanding!

“Harry Reece.” Earl Bowman, interviewer; New York, NY, November 29, 1938. American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940. Manuscript Division

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