NotesThomas 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.
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.