The Disembodied Voices of Thomas Edison

BY Christian Sager / POSTED November 22, 2013
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I may have been a little hard on Thomas Edison in our post about Nikola Tesla harnessing Niagara Falls a few weeks ago. While he may have been a sore loser regarding the “war of currents,” Edison did make his mark 136 years ago when he announced his invention of the phonograph. The patent wasn’t filed until December 24, 1877, but Edison revealed the device on November 22, demonstrating the first invention to make him famous.

Like some of his later inventions, other people had already developed similar technology to the phonograph before Edison. Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville had previously imprinted sound waves upon glass cylinders with his phonoautograph, but it couldn’t record permanent inscriptions of vibrations. Charles Cros designed a device called the paleophone that was close to Edison’s invention, but Cros never patented it. Vibrographs and vibroscopes were also invented, but their transcriptions couldn’t create acoustical waveforms. Edison later claimed he spent 52 years of his life trying to perfect the phonograph. Even though he had a public relations tantrum over Tesla’s alternating currents, due to the sheer amount of time he invested in it, the phonograph was probably the invention he most wanted credit for.

Edison’s initial phonograph concept had two functions. First, it recorded vibrations in the air that we call sound waves. A thin membrane connected to a needle on the device responded to these tiny pulses and pressed grooves into a rotating tin covered cylinder, so long as Edison was spinning a hand crank.

The phonograph’s second function was to reproduce the original sound, by pressing another needle into the tin foil grooves that transmitted waves through an amplifier. “Scientific American” first reported on Edison’s phonograph playback by describing how fascinated they were when it asked about their health before bidding them goodnight. But taunting journalists wasn’t all Edison planned to use his device for.

Since his first recording was his own voice shouting the lyrics to “Mary Had A Little Lamb,” it couldn’t have been that surprising when Edison hired little girls to record songs and nursery rhymes. Their voices were recorded for tiny phonographs Edison had inserted inside doll stomachs, giving the toys an eerie disembodied voice. Think that’s creepy? Because of the poor quality recordings, the dolls simultaneously popped and hissed too. Sometimes their voices were very faint and children had to lean in close to hear their ghostly songs. Eventually it was the fragility of the dolls that killed the idea, as kids could easily break the apparatus inside, probably in attempts to silence the haunting replicas.

Luckily Edison had other uses planned for the phonograph beyond making dolls weirder. He originally sold it as a recorder for the telephone and thoroughly believed it would be successful as a dictation device for families, teachers and offices. We know now that the reproduction of music became the phonograph’s primary utility, but Edison had one more purpose in mind… he wanted to record the last words of people on their deathbeds for their family to listen to postmortem. This never caught on though. Let us all hope Edison never played those recordings through his menagerie of dolls, because that is the stuff of nightmares.

Edison did invent the phonograph, but because its sound quality was poor and the tinfoil wouldn’t last, most businesses weren’t interested in what he was selling. When Edison shelved the idea, other inventors made improvements to the device, adding wax cylinders, acoustic horns and uniform speeds for recording and playback. Ten years later, Edison himself came back to the phonograph, hoping to perfect the invention that originally made him a household name.

Photo courtesy of the National Park Service Museum.

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