Edison's Invention of the Phonograph

How a young inventor startled the world by recording sound

Photograph of Thomas Edison with an early phonograph.
Edison with his early phonograph. Getty Images

Thomas Edison is best remembered as the inventor of the electric light bulb, but he first attracted great fame by creating an astounding machine that could record sound and play it back. In the spring of 1878, Edison dazzled crowds by appearing in public with his phonograph, which would be used to record people talking, singing, and even playing musical instruments.

It's hard to imagine how shocking the recording of sounds must have been. Newspaper reports of the time describe fascinated listeners. And it became clear very quickly that the ability to record sounds might change the world.

After some distractions, and a few missteps, Edison eventually built a company which created and sold recordings, essentially inventing the record company. His products made it possible for professional quality music to be heard in any home.

Early Inspirations

Photograph of Thomas Edison with an early phonograph.
Edison with his early phonograph. Getty Images

In 1877, Thomas Edison was known for having patented improvements on the telegraph. He was operating a successful business that manufactured devices such as his machine that could record telegraph transmissions so they could be decoded later.

Edison's recording of telegraph transmissions did not involve recording the sounds of the dots and dashes, but rather notations of them which were embossed onto paper. But the concept of recording inspired him to wonder if sound itself could be recorded and played back.

The playing back of the sound, not the recording of it, was actually the challenge. A French printer, Edoard-Leon Scott de Martinville, had already devised a method by which he could record lines on paper that represented sounds. But the notations, called "phonautographs," were merely that, written records. The sounds could not be played back.

Creating a Talking Machine

Drawing of an early Edison phonograph.
Drawing of an early Edison phonograph. Getty Images

Edison's vision was for a sound to be captured by some mechanical method and then played back. He spent several months working on devices that might do that, and when he achieved a working model, he filed for a patent on the phonograph in late 1877, and the patent was awarded to him on February 19, 1878.

The process of experimentation seems to have begun in the summer of 1877. From Edison's notes we know he had determined that a diaphragm vibrating from sound waves could be attached to an embossing needle. The point of the needle would score a moving piece of paper to make a recording. As Edison wrote that summer, the "vibrations are indented nicely and there is no doubt that I shall be able to store up and reproduce at any future time the human voice perfectly."

For months, Edison and his assistants worked to build a device that could score the vibrations into a recording medium. By November they arrived at the concept of a rotating brass cylinder, around which tin foil would be wrapped. Part of a telephone, called a repeater, would function as a microphone, converting the vibrations of a human voice into grooves which a needle would score into the tin foil.

Edison's instinct was that the machine would be able to "talk back." And when he yelled the nursery rhyme "Mary Had a Little Lamb" into it as he turned the crank, he was able to record his own voice so that it could be played back.

Edison's Expansive Vision

Photograph of Native American being recorded by a phonograph.
Recording a Native American language with a phonograph. Getty Images

Until the invention of the phonograph, Edison had been a businesslike inventor, producing improvements on the telegraph designed for the business market. He was respected in the business world and scientific community, but he was not widely known to the general public.

The news that he could record sound changed that. And it also seemed to make Edison realize that the phonograph would change the world.

He published an essay in May 1878 in a prominent American magazine, the North American Review, in which he set forth what he called "a clearer conception of the immediate realizations of the phonograph."

Edison naturally thought of usefulness in the office, and the first purpose for the phonograph he listed was for dictating letters. Besides being used to dictate letters, Edison also envisioned recordings that could be sent through the mail.

He also cited more creative uses for his new invention, including the recording of books. Writing 140 years ago, Edison seemed to foresee today's audiobook business:

"Books may be read by the charitably-inclined professional reader, or by such readers especially employed for that purpose, and the record of such book used in the asylums of the blind, hospitals, the sick-chamber, or even with great profit and amusement by the lady or gentleman whose eyes and hands may be otherwise employed; or, again, because of the greater enjoyment to be had from a book when read by an elocutionist than when read by an average reader."

Edison also envisioned the phonograph transforming the tradition of listening to orations on national holidays:

"It will henceforth be possible to preserve for future generations the voices as well as the words of our Washington, our Lincolns, our Gladstones, etc., and to have them give us their 'greatest effort' in every town and hamlet in the country, upon our holidays."

And, of course, Edison saw the phonograph as a useful tool for recording music. But he did not yet seem to realize that the recording and selling of music would become a major business, which he would eventually dominate.

Edison's Amazing Invention in the Press

In early 1878, word of the phonograph circulated in newspaper reports, as well as in journals such as Scientific American. The Edison Speaking Phonograph Company had been launched in early 1878 to manufacture and market the new device.

In the spring of 1878, Edison's public profile increased as he engaged in public demonstrations of his invention. He traveled to Washington, D.C. in April to demonstrate the device at a meeting of the National Academy of Sciences held at the Smithsonian Institution on April 18, 1878.

The next day's Washington Evening Star described how Edison drew such a crowd that meeting room doors had been taken off their hinges to afford a better view to those left standing in the hallway.

An assistant of Edison spoke into the machine and played back his voice to the delight of the crowd. Afterward, Edison gave an interview which indicated his plans for the phonograph:

"The instrument I have here is only useful as showing the principle involved. It reproduces words only one-third or one-fourth as loud as one I have in New York. But I expect to have my improved phonograph ready in four or five months. This will be useful for many purposes. A business man can speak a letter to the machine, and his office boy, who need not be a shorthand writer, can write it down at any time, as rapidly or slowly as he desires. Then we mean to use it to enable persons to enjoy good music at home. Say, for instance, that Adelina Patti sings the 'Blue Danube' into the phonograph. We will reproduce the perforated tin-foil on which her singing is impressed and sell it in sheets. It can be reproduced in any parlor."

On his trip to Washington, Edison also demonstrated the device for members of Congress in the Capitol. And during a night visit to the White House, he demonstrated the machine for President Rutherford B. Hayes. The president was so excited he woke up his wife so she could hear the phonograph.

Music Played in Any Home

Engraved illustration of corner player being recorded by a phonograph.
The recording of music became extremely popular. Getty Images

​Edison's plans for the phonograph were ambitious, but they were essentially set aside for a time. He had a good reason to get distracted, as he directed most of his attention in late 1878 to working on another remarkable invention, the incandescent lightbulb.

In the 1880s, the novelty of the phonograph seemed to fade for the public. One reason was that recordings on tin foil were very fragile and couldn't really be marketed. Other inventors spent the 1880s making improvements on the phonograph, and finally, in 1887, Edison turned his attention back to it.

In 1888 Edison began marketing what he called the Perfected Phonograph. The machine was greatly improved, and used recordings engraved onto wax cylinders. Edison began marketing recordings of music and recitations, and the new business slowly caught on.

One unfortunate detour occurred in 1890 when Edison marketed talking dolls which had a small phonograph machine inside them. The problem was that the miniature phonographs tended to malfunction, and the doll business quickly ended and was considered a business disaster.

By the late 1890s, Edison phonographs began to flood the market. The machines had been costly, approximately $150 a few years earlier. But as prices dropped to $20 for a standard model, the machines became widely available.

The early Edison cylinders could only hold about two minutes of music. But as the technology was improved, a great variety of selections could be recorded. And the ability to mass produce cylinders meant the recordings could get out to the public.

Competition and Decline

Photograph of Thomas Edison with a phonograph in the 1890s
Thomas Edison with a phonograph in the 1890s. Getty Images

Edison had essentially created the first record company, and he soon had competition. Other companies began producing cylinders, and eventually, the recording industry moved on to discs.

One of Edison's main competitors, the Victor Talking Machine Company, became extremely popular in the early years of the 20th century by selling recordings contained on discs. Eventually, Edison also moved from cylinders to discs.

Edison's company continued to be profitable well into the 1920s. But finally, in 1929, sensing competition from a newer invention, the radio, Edison shut down his recording company.

By the time Edison left the industry he had invented, his phonograph had changed how people lived in profound ways.

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McNamara, Robert. "Edison's Invention of the Phonograph." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/invention-of-the-phonograph-4156528. McNamara, Robert. (2020, August 27). Edison's Invention of the Phonograph. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/invention-of-the-phonograph-4156528 McNamara, Robert. "Edison's Invention of the Phonograph." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/invention-of-the-phonograph-4156528 (accessed March 25, 2023).