Little Bits of History


Posted in History by patriciahysell on November 29, 2013
Thomas Alva Edison and his phonograph

Thomas Alva Edison and his phonograph

November 29, 1877: Thomas Alva Edison demonstrates the phonograph for the first time. Record players and gramophones (Gramophone in the US was a trade name) refer to the same invention. As the technology progressed, they were also called turntables, record changers, or hi-fis. The term phonograph is from the Greek for “sound writer” and early machines did, in fact, both record and play back the sounds. F. B. Fenby coined the term in 1863 and received a patent for something called the Electro-Magnetic Phonograph. No workable model was ever made of the device which was to record musical notes on paper. It was the forerunner of the player piano.

Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville patented a machine that transcribed words to paper in 1857. This device could not play the sounds back. Charles Cros of France produced a theoretical phonograph bur no actual machine in 1877. Edison saw the invention as more of a “talking machine” than a music machine. From May to July 1877, he tried to record and play back sounds in order to record telegraph messages. He announced his first workable machine on November 21 and gave a public demonstration on this date. The machine was patented on February 19, 1878, US Patent #200,521.

Edison’s early recordings were made on tinfoil cylinders. Various types of cylinders with varying playback capabilities were tried over the years. Emile Berliner introduced a flat disc as the medium of choice where a single groove carried a needle ever inward. The ease of stamping or pressing the discs was a point in their favor. Discs have a higher linear velocity at the outer rim whereas cylinders have a constant velocity, a point in their favor. Both types of recording media were used until the 1920s when discs became the preferred method.

Berliner’s original discs were five inches in diameter and used only one side. The discs grew first in size to seven and then ten inches. By 1908, two sided recordings were on the market. This was the deciding factor for the move away from cylinders. Different types of records played at different speeds. The turntable was set for 78, 45, or 33 revolutions per minutes. Records were pressed either as singles with one song per side or as albums with several songs on each side. Vinyl was first used in the 1940s. The sound quality was improved in the 1970s with high fidelity records and precision playback equipment. By the late 1970s, a new recording option was developed – the compact disc.

“I was experimenting on an automatic method of recording telegraph messages on a disk of paper laid on a revolving platen, exactly the same as the disk talking-machine of to-day.” – Thomas Alva Edison

“Mr. Thomas A. Edison recently came into this office, placed a little machine on our desk, turned a crank, and the machine enquired as to our health, asked how we liked the phonograph, informed us that it was well, and bid us a cordial good night. These remarks were not only perfectly audible to ourselves, but to a dozen or more persons gathered around.” – Alfred Beach

“PHONOGRAPH, n. An irritating toy that restores life to dead noises.” – Ambrose Bierce

“The greatest Electrical Pioneer of them all was Thomas Edison… Edison’s first major invention, in 1877, was the phonograph, which could soon be found in thousands of American homes, where it basically sat until 1923, when the record was invented.” – Dave Barry

This article first appeared at in 2009. Editor’s update: Thomas Alva Edison was born in 1847 in Milan, Ohio. He is the fourth most prolific inventor in history with 1,093 US patents in his name. (Kia Silverbrook of Australia has 4,629, Shunpei Yamazaki of Japan has 3,193, and Paul Lapstun also of Australia has 1,266.) Edison contributed greatly to several different areas of communication. He is responsible for a motion picture camera and the stock ticker. He was interested in electric power and invented a long lasting light bulb. He was a proponent of Direct Current in the war of currents with Nikola Tesla. He is sometimes called “The Wizard of Menlo Park” as he applied principles of mass production to the discovery of new idea. His idea of teamwork to gain patents was credited as being the first industrial research laboratory. His first bride was 16 years old and they married only months after meeting. They had three children and she died at age 29 of unknown causes. He married again when he was 39 and his new bride was 20. They had three more children. Edison died in 1931 at the age of 84, with his second wife surviving him.

Also on this day: Warren Commission formed – In 1963 the Warren Commission was formed to investigate President Kennedy’s assassination.
Zong – In 1781, the Zong Massacre took place.
Going South – In 1929, the first fly-over of the South Pole occurred.