Musical Appreciation ► Thomas Edison Unveils First Phonograph
Edison with the 2nd model
of his phonograph in 1878

He invented the stock ticker, a mechanical voting machine, batteries for electric cars, motion pictures, not to mention the electric light bulb and electric power distribution. However, nothing Thomas Alva Edison invented has brought more pleasure to more people than the phonograph.

Edison demonstrated his first phonograph, a word he also invented, on this day in 1877. Edison was not trying to invent a phonograph when he came upon the inspiration. He was trying to improve the high technology of his day, the telegraph transmitter. However, he noticed that when the paper tape was moved through the transmitter at high speed, it sounded a bit like human speech. This led him to begin experimenting with a hard needle to etch sound waves into a rotating cylinder covered with a thick tin foil. Voila! An invention is born.

An advertisement for Edison’s phonograph

Eventually the tin foil gave way to wax cylinders, which eventually gave way to the gramophone, on which 10″ platters spun at 78 revolutions per minute, then at 45 RPM, and finally at 33 & 1/3 RPM. All of these forms of sound recreation were just variations of Edison’s original invention in which sound waves moved a diaphragm. The movement of the diaphragm made a needle quiver, which etched the sound into whatever medium was being used. The principle was reversed for playback: A needle was placed in a groove in which sound waves were already etched. The movement of the needle moved a diaphragm, which reproduced the sound through a horn. It was a totally mechanical process. Eventually electronics was added to the mix, but that still didn’t change how the sound was etched into the medium.

When the compact disc and digital recording came along, there was no more need for Edison’s great idea of a moving membrane etching and recreating the sound. Now sound waves are electronically converted into ones and zeros and encoded on computer equipment to be turned back into sound at the press of a button. This led to the invention of the ubiquitous MP3. Now one can put 10,000 songs on a device smaller than a pack of matches.

It’s also how I can share with my faithful readers a playlist of cover songs I have been collecting for many years.

Enjoy, and don’t forget to say a big THANK YOU to Thomas Edison, The Wizard of Menlo Park.

About Headly Westerfield

Calling himself “A liberally progressive, sarcastically cynical, iconoclastic polymath,” Headly Westerfield has been a professional writer all his adult life.