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.
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.”
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.
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
- Inventing Entertainment: the Motion Pictures and Sound Recordings of the Edison Companies features over 300 motion pictures, over 75 disc sound recordings, and other related materials, such as photographs and original magazine articles. In addition, histories are given of Edison’s involvement with motion pictures and sound recordings, as well as a special page focusing on the life of the great inventor.
- Listen to another sampling of early recordings produced by the Edison Company found in the Variety Stage Sound Recordings and Motion Pictures collection. Browse the Audio Sampler to find such gems as the classic “rube” sketch “Arkansas Traveler” and Billy Murray singing George M. Cohan’s World War I anthem “Over There.”
- Search Chronicling America, the historic American newspapers database, to learn more about Thomas Edison and his work. Start with Thomas Edison: Topics in Chronicling America to view a sample of articles and suggested search strategies.
- Learn more about Emile Berliner who was responsible for the development of the microphone, flat recording disc, and gramophone player in Emile Berliner and the Birth of the Recording Industry. For example, search on the term acoustical engineering to read a 1927 newspaper clipping concerning a “New Acoustic Device Shown by Berliner” in the “echo infested” auditorium of the James F. Oyster school in Washington, D.C.
- Read the August 31st Today in History feature on Edison’s kinetoscope, the forerunner of the motion-picture film projector. Search the Today in History collection on the keywords inventor or invention to find more features on creative Americans including Alexander Graham Bell, Samuel F. B. Morse, Elias Howe, and Henry Ford.
- Search on the name Warren Harding in the collection American Leaders Speak: Recordings from World War I to hear Harding speak on subjects of concern to U.S. citizens at that time. Hear Harding speak, for example, on the topic of the nation’s readjustment following World War I.