As you listen to your music on your cell phone or stereo at home, consider what it would be like if you lost part or all of your hearing. Then take a moment to think back to a man who lost most of his hearing over 100 years ago who was the pioneer of the recording industry.
Thomas Alva Edison was born in Milan, Ohio on February 11, 1847. He was the youngest of seven kids and was greatly influenced by his mother who was an accomplished school teacher. When Edison was a child, he suffered from a bout of scarlet fever. Coupled with a number of ear infections, Edison lost a large part of his hearing when he was still young. In 1885, Edison wrote:
“I have not heard a bird sing since I was twelve.”
Yet, he never let his hearing loss interfere with his many inventions that included the phonograph. His inventor’s mind sought to find a way to record sound and be able to play it back.
In 1856, Leon Scot, a French inventor developed a machine called a Phonoautograph which recorded sound, but was unable to reproduce it. The Phonoautograph only recorded sound waves onto a smoke coated glass cylinder using a stylus that pressed against the glass as it rotated, tracing the sound wave in the black carbon smoke.
In April 1877, Charles Cros, another French inventor, wrote a description of a device that could record and reproduce sound, but he never demonstrated his device to anyone nor did he ever file for a patent.
On this day, August 12, 1877, Edison, working at his now famous Menlo Park lab in New York City, demonstrated his first phonograph. He used a thin piece of tinfoil wrapped around a cylinder. He shouted into the horn shaped sound collector as he turned a crank which turned the cylinder and a needle cut a sound groove into the tinfoil. Another needle was then placed on the groove in the tinfoil and using the hand crank to turn the cylinder, the sound that was recorded on the tinfoil was reproduced and heard out of the horn-shaped part on the top of the phonograph.
The main problem with Edison’s first phonograph was that the tinfoil had a tendency to tear after being played back a few times. Eventually, Edison replaced the tinfoil with a hard wax that was able to be played back more times, but after so many times being played, even the wax cylinders began to be distorted and lose the recording. Edison continued to improve his phonograph, which was introduced to the public as the gramophone, for the next 50 years.
In late 1877, Edison took his phonograph to the offices of Scientific American where he demonstrated the new invention.
The December 22, 1877 issue of Scientific American reported:
“Mr. Thomas A. Edison recently came into this office, placed a little machine on our desk, turned a crank, and the machine inquired as to our health, asked how we liked the phonograph, informed us that it was very well, and bid us a cordial good night.”
On December 24, 1877, Edison filed his patent for the phonograph.
On January 24, 1878, the Edison Speaking Phonograph Company was established.
In the June 1878 issue of the North American Review, Edison advertised his phonograph with the following list of possible future uses:
Letter writing and all kinds of dictation without the aid of a stenographer.
Phonographic books, which will speak to blind people without effort on their part.
The teaching of elocution.
Reproduction of music.
The “Family Record”–a registry of sayings, reminiscences, etc., by members of a family in their own voices, and of the last words of dying persons.
Music-boxes and toys.
Clocks that should announce in articulate speech the time for going home, going to meals, etc.
The preservation of languages by exact reproduction of the manner of pronouncing.
Educational purposes; such as preserving the explanantions made by a teacher, so that the pupil can refer to them at any moment, and spelling or other lessons placed upon the phonograph for convenience in committing to memory.
Connection with the telephone, so as to make that instrument an auxiliary in the transmission of permanent and invaluable records, instead of being the recipient of momentary and fleeting communication.
From tinfoil wrapped cylinders to wax cylinders to vinyl cylinders to flat vinyl records to magnetic tape to CDs to DVDs to MP3 and WAV files and more, it all started on this day in 1877 with the brilliant mind of a man who may not have even been able to hear the results of his own invention. There is no doubt that Thomas Edison revolutionized the world with his many inventions – telegraph, phonograph, electric light bulb, alkaline storage batteries, Kinetograph (precursor to motion picture camera), and so much more including an electric company that transmitted an electric current through lines to light up light bulbs in part of New York City.
There is not a day that goes by where any of us are not using something that started with the inventions of Thomas Edison. I hope when you turn on your music today that you’ll take a moment to reflect on the historical importance of this day and how much it led to your listening enjoyment.
Sources for the above includes: History of the Cylinder Phonograph; The Phonograph; Edison’s Top Ten Uses for the Phonograph; Phonograph Record Technologies from their invention to the death of 78-rpm records; Edison Invents the Phonograph (August 12, 1877); Phonograph History; Sound, The Phonograph and Its Impact On the Art of Music