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H3168 Phonograph, Edison Tinfoil, spring driven model, metal / wood, made by the London Stereoscopic Company, London, United Kingdom, 1885-1891. Click to enlarge.

Edison Tinfoil Phonograph

Designed by Edison, Thomas A in United States of America, 1877.
This tinfoil phonograph is rare example of one of the earliest sound recording and playback machines. The phonograph was invented by Thomas Edison in 1877. It was an original innovation which allowed the recording and production of sound on a single machine, using the novel method of capturing sound on a cylindrical drum, originally covered in tinfoil. Not long after its creation, Edison was able to capitalise on his idea and produced a small number of these machines for commercial use, based on slightly later, improved designs. This phonograph is believed to be one of these commercial machines, produced and manufactured by the London Stereoscopic and Photographic Company between c 1885-1891.

Much was expected from Edison's 'talking' recording machine, but the original tin foil machine never achieved great commercial success. Many people, Edison included, had envisaged emergent devices which could function as reliable office stenographers, educational resources, in-home entertainment units, and more. However, the many applications of the machine were envisioned too soon - the tinfoil structure was prone to tearing and produced low quality sounds; often indiscernible recordings accompanied with metallic background noise. Thus, the tinfoil phonograph held uncharted potential and remained merely an amusing contraption for years after its creation.

Although the tinfoil phonograph did not prove to be Edison's most successful invention it did set the foundation for the development of improved versions of the cylinder recorder designed by Alexander Graham Bell and Charles Sumner Tainter, called the 'graphophone'. This eventually established a popular standard for the sound recording industry and paved the way for future developments in the sound, music and entertainment industry, resulting in technology such as flat record gramophones, double-sided discs and turntables.

Tinfoil machines like this one are rare examples of an invention which was not long in production and quickly superseded by improved designs. Nonetheless, it holds important cultural and historical significance as an early example of very early sound recording and playback machines.

Prepared by Erica Balilo, Intern, under supervision of Sarah Reeves, Assistant Curator, 2018

References:
'The Phonograph', Scientific American, July 25 1896, 66
V. K. Chew, Science Museum Talking Machines, Her Majesty's Stationary Office, London, 1981

Summary

Object No.

H3168

Object Statement

Phonograph, Edison Tinfoil, spring driven model, metal / wood, made by the London Stereoscopic Company, London, United Kingdom, 1885-1891

Physical Description

The Edison tinfoil phonograph consists of a mechanism, mounted on a long rectangular board. The mechanism comprises a crank, gears and governor mechanism, all joined to a large metal cylinder by a long metal pipe. The cylinder, which is wrapped in a layer of tinfoil, is connected to another metal pipe running from the centre to a supporting arm at the opposite end. The cylinder is flanked by a third metal attachment, the needle holder, which is slotted into metal grooves attached to the wooden base along with the main mechanism and the supporting arms by screws.

Separate to the Phonograph, there are several attachments including a handle, made from metal and wood, a coiled wire and a linked chain (in two parts).

Dimensions

Height

240 mm

Width

680 mm

Depth

266 mm

Production

Notes

Edison's tinfoil phonograph, invented in 1877, was a mechanical device which could both record and reproduce sound on a tinfoil wrapped recording cylinder. Not long after its initial creation, the phonograph was manufactured by The Edison Speaking Phonograph Company and made commercially available for sale and exhibit in the United States. In 1878, Edison's representatives travelled across the United States and Europe to exhibit and market the phonograph. From the early 1880s to early 1890s, nascent inventors and companies such as Columbia and the American Graphophone Company emerged with different models of the cylinder phonograph. This particular tinfoil machine was made in the United Kingdom by London Stereoscopic in London, England, c 1885-1891, likely produced for commercial use or demonstrations.

The original invention was constructed with three main parts: a mouth-piece, where speech was uttered; a tinfoil-covered cylinder, on which sound was transcribed and recorded; and a speaking tube or horn, from which sound was reproduced. Edison devised a system of sound recording and playback by transferring and manipulating the mechanical vibrations of sound. The machine was driven by a hand-powered crank which allowed for the rotation of the cylinder as sound vibrations travelled through an embossing needle to cause indentations on the tinfoil. The helical pattern of indentations formed a record which could then be replayed by the machine to reproduce the original sounds.

The original phonograph was a complex machine which could initially only be operated by experts. The earliest tinfoil phonographs were most easily operated by two people; one person would turn the crank during recording while the other spoke into the mouth piece. The operator turning the crank would have had to rotate the cylinder at a constant speed (approximately 100 rpm) to form an audible recording. To play the record back, the needle and mouthpiece were moved away from the tinfoil, and the track rewound by turning the crank in the reverse direction (counterclockwise) to return the cylinder to its original position and the needle to its initial groove. The horn was then placed in the mouthpiece, the crank rotated again in the clockwise direction at the same pace of recording, replaying the sound input.

There were, however, several issues with the original tinfoil cylinders. Firstly, the device had no amplification mechanism, and consequently, the volume of the sound produced was dependent on the sheer lung power of the operator who had to speak within very close distance of the mouth piece (approximately 2 cm). Secondly, recordings contained a large amount of background noise due to the tinfoil structure. As a result, tinfoil recordings were of extremely poor quality and difficult to translate and reformat to other media. Thirdly, the tinfoil used for recording was too fragile for sustainable use of the machine. After a repeated use, the tinfoil would require replacement as the foil was flattened or torn so much so that further recordings were often incomprehensible and ineffective. As a result of these functional issues, the tinfoil phonographs only produced temporary, novel recordings. Following a few demonstrations, the tinfoil could only be disposed of or kept merely as tokens or souvenirs.

After the release of the initial phonograph, other inventors quickly worked on improving the design by modifying aspects of the original cylindrical machine or completely restructuring it. Edison's main competitors in the United States, Alexander Graham Bell and Charles Sumner Tainter worked on changing the tinfoil to wax and replacing the weight-driven hand-crank with spring-driven mechanics for longer-lasting and more efficient use. Edison himself did not manufacture improved machines until the late 1880s, however, models such as this one were still likely manufactured and sold as late as the early 1890s.


References:
'The Phonograph', Scientific American, July 25 1896, 66
Graham Hollister-Short and Frank James, 'History of Technology' Volume 13 Bloomsbury Publishing, 30 Sep. 2016.
Andrew McNeese, Jason D. Sagers, Richard D. Lenhart, and Preston S. Wilson, 'A homemade Edison tinfoil phonograph' Acoustical Society of America, 15 Sep 2011.

History

Notes

Thomas Edison was an American inventor and businessman who lived from 1847-1931. During his lifetime, he patented over 1000 inventions, including innovations such as the phonograph, telegraph and kinetoscope.

In 1877, Edison designed one of his first major inventions, the tinfoil phonograph, at his laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey. The phonograph was a novel sound recording and play back machine which was unparalleled at the time. The development of the phonograph was said to have been inspired by his work on two other inventions, the telephone and telegraph. Given that it was possible to create and send transcriptions of telegraphic messages through indentations on paper, Edison speculated it would be possible to do this with sound. His ideas were also influenced by preceding inventions such as Leon Scott de Martinville's phonautograph, which could visually demonstrate sound waves through mechanical vibrations of a bristle on soot-covered paper, and ideas of sound reproduction by French inventor and poet, Charles Cros who theorised that phonoautograph soot tracings could be converted onto grooves or ridges on a metal disc or cylinder.

The original phonograph, was first built by Edison's head mechanic John Kruesi in early December 1877. Edison then executed a patent application on 15 December 1877, which was granted and approved 19 February 1878. Following the patent approval, Edison signed agreements with companies across the US and Europe for the commercial manufacture of phonograph machines. This included the London Stereoscopic Company, with whom Edison signed an agreement on 22 March 1878 for £1500 for manufacture and sale of the phonograph for greater commercial use in the UK.

This tinfoil phonograph was manufactured after The London Stereoscopic Company acquired an exclusive license for this particular design. It is a later model, in a style that highly resembles the structural designs by Augustus Stroh, whose designs were exhibited by the Royal Institution in 1878. Stroh's designs were innovative and distinct from Edison's, as they included a gravity feed chain and weights which acted as a motor for the recorder, and a brass, instead of lead, cylindrical mandrel. In the early to mid-1880s both spring and weight driven models were available in the UK. It is believed that this particular model is a spring driven model.

From the time of its invention, the potential uses of the machine were exciting but for the most part, left unexplored by Edison and his team. As a result of the fragility of the tinfoil structure and low sound quality, the phonograph was not considered commercially viable for much longer without further improvement. While Edison's team, focused on other major inventions such as the incandescent lamp, the most significant improvements were made by other notable inventors and competitors, such as Alexander Graham Bell. In 1886, Bell made considerable structural changes, such as replacing the tinfoil cover with a more durable wax coating, introducing horns of various sizes and changing the rigid indenting needle to a more flexible stylus. This new and improved version of the phonograph later became known as the 'graphophone'.

After huge commercial successes with his other inventions, Edison returned to his work on the phonograph in the 1880s. In 1887 the Edison Phonograph Company was formed, and the sale of the improved and perfected phonographs shortly followed. His later improvements revived the popularity of the phonograph in 1888, closely adapting the more modern features innovated by Bell. By the 1890s the size of phonographs was reduced to that of an ordinary sewing machine as the later models functioned on more compact electric motor systems. Further, its construction was more durable and functional for its intended applications with the use of other materials such as celluloid beeswax, ceresin and stearic wax in lieu of tinfoil. The phonographs were ultimately more widely available for office use, as toys and entertainment units, and inspired the invention of other music recordings and record players.

Cylindrical phonographs were soon replaced by flat disc gramophones, which were first invented by German-born American inventor Emile Berliner in 1887 (see MAAS collection, 94/57/1). The introduction of disc records had far greater commercial advantages than Edison's cylinders, as flat discs could be manufactured in larger quantities and at lower costs. Both the flat disc and cylinder recordings and machines were widely marketed and sold between mid-1890s to early 1920s. However, the flat disc gradually dominated the market and Edison ceased manufacture of cylinder phonographs in 1929.

In 2003, the British Library Sound Archive partnered with the Surface Scanning of Archived Sound Recordings research project at the University of Southampton to recover one of the British Library's genuine tinfoil sound recordings over 130 years old. This project proved successful, and although no words were discernible, the tinfoil was scanned and some of the world's oldest audio recording was recovered.

This phonograph was purchased by the Museum in 1915 from a Miss C.S. Stephen in Chatswood, Sydney. It was originally believed to be a model of Edison's 1877 invention, but later research showed it to be a fully functioning commercially made machine, which gives unique insight into very early sound recording and playback machines.

References:
Nigel Bewley, 'Play the Un-playable: Tinfoil Recording Recovered by the Sound Archive Project' International Association of Sound and Audio-visual Archives Journal (32), January 2009 pp. 85-88.
Allen P. Britton, 'The Fabulous Phonograph: From Tin Foil to High Fidelity by Roland Gelatt' Journal of Research in Music Education, 1956, (4)2, p. 147.
Roland Gellatt The Fabulous Phonograph: From Tin Foil to High Fidelity. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1955.
Andrew McNeese, Jason D. Sagers, Richard D. Lenhart, and Preston S. Wilson, 'A homemade Edison tinfoil phonograph' Acoustical Society of America, 15 Sep 2011.

Source

Credit Line

Purchased 1915

Acquisition Date

10 July 1915

Cite this Object

Harvard

Edison Tinfoil Phonograph 2019, Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences, accessed 11 August 2020, <https://ma.as/236328>

Wikipedia

{{cite web |url=https://ma.as/236328 |title=Edison Tinfoil Phonograph |author=Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences |access-date=11 August 2020 |publisher=Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences, Australia}}

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