Phonozoic Text Archive, Document 010


"The Speaking Phonograph," Scientific American Supplement, March 16, 1878, p. 1828. 
Reprinted from the New York Sun.

The writer lately visited Menlo Park, to chat with Prof. Thomas A. Edison.  This gentleman is the inventor of the automatic telegraph, quadruplex and sextuplex dispatches, the carbon telephone, the stock indicator, the electric pen, the airophone, the marvelous speaking phonograph, and a score or more of similar machines.  He is also the discoverer of the electro-motograph, by which dispatches may be telegraphed without magnetism.  Scientific men regard it as his greatest discovery, and predict that it will some day prove of immense value.  

Menlo Park is a small place on the line of the New York and Philadelphia Railroad, two miles north of Metuchin.  Mr. Edison's manufactory stands forty rods west of the depot.  A high bank shuts out the view from the car windows.  The building is a long wooden structure, something like an old-fashioned Baptist tabernacle.  It faces to the east.  Nine lightning rods pierce the sky above it.  A dozen telegraph wires are led into it by sentry-like poles connecting with the main line along the railroad.  The front doors open directly into the office.  The writer entered.  A man sat at a table studying a mechanical drawing.  An inquiry for Mr. Edison drew from him the words, "Go right up stairs, and you'll find him singing into some instrument."

The stairs were climbed, and the writer stepped into a long room forming the second story.  It was an immense laboratory, filled with electrical instruments.  A thousand jars of chemicals were ranged against the walls.  A circle of kerosene lamps was smoking viciously on an empty brick forge.  Their chimneys were the essence of blackness.  There was no disagreeable smell, for the smoke was borne off by the draught of the forge.  An open rack loaded with jars of vitriol stood in the middle of the room, and the rays of the sun struck through them, flecking the floor with green patches.  The western end of the apartment was occupied by telephones and other instruments, and there was a small organ in the southwestern corner.  

The Professor was manipulating a machine upon the table before him.  He had something resembling a gutta-percha mouthpiece of a speaking-tube shoved against a cylinder wrapped in tinfoil, which he turned with a crank.  The small end of a tin funnel was clapped over the mouthpiece, and strange ventriloquial words were issuing forth from it.  He shook hands, and pointing to the instrument said, "This is my speaking phonograph.  Did you ever see it and hear it talk?"

The reply was a negative.  Thereupon, he picked up the gutta-percha mouthpiece, saying, "This mouthpiece is simply an artificial diaphragm.  Turn it over," suiting the action to the word, "and you see this thin disk of metal at the bottom.   Whenever you speak in the mouthpiece the vibrations of your voice jar this disk, which, as you see, has in its center a fine steel point.  Now for the other part of the machine.  Here is a brass cylinder grooved something like the spiral part of a screw, only much finer.  I wrap a sheet of tinfoil around the cylinder, and shove the mouthpiece up to it so that the tiny steel point touches the tinfoil above one of the grooves.  I then turn the cylinder with a crank, and talk into the mouthpiece.   The vibrations arouse the disk, and the steel point pricks the tinfoil, leaving performations resembling the old Morse telegraphic alphabet.  They are really stereoscopic views of the human voice, recording all that is said, with time and intonations.  It is a matrix of the words and voice, and can be used until worn out.   Now let us reset the cylinder, so that the steel point may run over the holes or alphabet made when we talked in the mouthpiece.  The thin metal disk rises, and, as the steel point trips from perforation to perforation, opening the valves of the diaphragm, the words, intonation, and accent are reproduced exactly as spoken.  For instance, before you came up, I was talking to the instrument, and here is the matrix or stereoscopic view, if you please, of what I said," putting his finger on the tinfoil which still remained on the cylinder.  "Now I reset the instrument," sliding the cylinder to the right.  "Here the steel point starts at the same spot as when I talked through the mouthpiece, but its action is now controlled by the perforated alphabet.  It repeats what I said.  I use this sort of an ear trumpet to bring out the sound, so that you can hear it more distinctly.  Listen."

He placed the small end of the funnel over the mouthpiece, shoved the mouthpiece against the cylinder, and turned the crank.  The following words chased each other out of the funnel:

  Mary had a little lamb,
   Its fleece was white as snow,
  And everywhere that Mary went
   The lamb was sure to go--to go--to go--
    Ooh ooh ooh--ah!
    Cockadoodle doo--ah!
    Tuck--a--tuck--a--tuck!
    Tuck--ah!  tuck--ah!

The cylinder was again set back, and the crank turned very slow.  The effect was ludicrous, for the Professor had originally pronounced the words with great gravity and dignity, and the drawling way in which the instrument repeated them would have made a horse laugh.  The cylinder was then turned very fast, and the words flew out of the funnel so fast that they struck the ear in a confused mass.  But a most extraordinary effect was produced when the Professor turned the cylinder backward.  It said:

  Go to sure was lamb the,
   Went Mary that everywhere and,
  Snow as white was fleece its,
   Lamb little a had Mary.

All this with profound gravity, as if the fate of the world depended upon the accent and pronunciation.  Mr. Edison then tore off the tinofil and wrapped a fresh sheet around the cylinder.  One of old Mother Goose's rhymes was murmured into the mouthpiece, and its alphabet pricked out by the action of the steel point.  The cylinder was then reset, and the crank turned, with the following result:

   Rub a dub dub,
   Three men in a tub,
  And who do you think was there?
   The butcher, the baker,
   The candlesitck maker,
  They all jumped out of a rotten potato.

The instrument is so simple in its construction, and its workings so easily understood, that one wonders why it was never before discovered.  There is no electricity about it.  It can be carried around under a man's arm, and its machinery is not a fiftieth part as intricate as that of a sewing machine.  It records all sounds and noises.   The Professor blew in it at intervals, and the matrix recorded the sound and returned it.  He whistled an air from the "Grande Duchesse," and back it came clear as a fife, and in perfect time.  He rang a small bell in the funnel.   The vibrations were recorded, and on resetting the cylinder, the tintinnabulatory sounds poured out soft and mellow.  Mr. Edison coughed, sneezed, and laughed at the mouthpiece, and the matrixes returned the noises true as a die.  But, most remarkable, the instrument sent back the voices of two men at the same time.  To illustrate:  The Professor, in a deep voice, recited in the mouthpiece the first verse of "Bingen on the Rhine."  A matrix was obtained, the machine reset, the funnel placed in position,, and the crank turned.  The words came out as though some tragedian was endeavoring to affect an audience to tears:

  A soldier of the legion lay dying in Algiers,
  There was lack of woman's nursing, there was lack of woman's tears,
  But a comrade stood beside him while his life blood ebbed away,
  And bent with pitying glances to hear what he might say.
  The dying soldier faltered, and he took that comrade's hand,
  And he said, "I never more shall see my own, my native land;
  Take a message and a token to some distant friends of mine,
  For I was born at Bingen--at Bingen on the Rhine."

While these affecting words were pouring out, the Professor shouted into the funnel several petulant exclamations.  At the close of the verse the cylinder and its matrix were reset, and the recitation again came out of the funnel, interruptions and all, as follows:

  A soldier of the legion lay dying in Algiers,
  --- --- "Oh shut up!" --- --- --- "Oh, bag your head!"
  There was lack of woman's nursing, there was lack of
  --- --- --- --- --- "Oh, give us a rest!" --- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- ---
   woman's tears
   --- --- "Dry up!"
  But a comrade stood beside him while his life blood ebbed
  --- --- --- "Oh, what are you giving us!" --- --- --- "Oh, cheese
   away.
   it!"
  The dying soldier faltered, and he took that comrade's
  --- --- --- --- --- "Police!  Police!" --- --- --- --- --- --- --- "Po-
   hand,
   lice!"
  And he said, "I never more shall see my own, my native
  --- --- --- "Oh, put him out!" --- --- --- --- --- "Oh, cork your-
   land."
   self!"

It is impossible to describe the ludicrousness of the effect.  The Professor himself laughed like a boy.  One of his assistants told a story concerning a trap laid for a well-known divine, who was skeptical regarding the capabilities of the instrument, and evidently had a suspicion that the Professor was a ventriloquist.  He wanted to talk into the mouthpiece himself, and see if his own words would be recorded and repeated.  A matrix was put on the cylinder that had been used once before.  The Doctor repeated a Scripture quotation, and, to his great astonishment, it came out as follows:

He that cometh from above is above all ("Who are you?"); he that is of the earth ("Oh, you can't preach!") is earthly and speaketh of the ("I think you're a fraud!") earth; he that cometh from heaven is above all.  And what he has seen and heard ("Louder, old pudding head!") that he testifieth; and no man receiveth his testimony ("Oh, go and see Beecher!").

The possibilities and capabilities of this remarkable instrument are wonderful.   Dolls and toy dogs can be made to recite nursery ballads, and wax figures of notables can use the voice and language of their originals.  A prominent showman has already taken steps toward the formation of a museum of wax figures similar to Madame Tussaud's in London.  All the figures are to speak.  Matrixes of the voice and words of a gentleman whose imitations of Edwin Forrest are astonishing are to be secured and placed in the breast of a wax statue of the great tragedian.  The voice and outward appearance of Mr. Forrest are to be perfectly copied.

"Why," says Mr. Edison, "Adelina Patti can sing her sweetest arias, and by this instrument we can catch and reproduce them exactly as sung.  The matrixes can be copied the same as stereoscopic views, and millions sold to those owning the machines.   A man can sit down in his parlor at night, start his phonograph, and enjoy Patti's singing all the evening if he chooses.  The same with Levy's cornet playing.  A matrix of his solos can be produced, and a million copies taken, and Levy's solos and Patti's arias can be given ten thousand years from now as perfectly and accurately as when these great artists were alive.  If the last benediction of Pope Pius had been taken by the phonograph, the matrix could have been duplicated, and every true Roman Catholic on the face of the earth might have heard the benediction in the Pope's own voice and accentuation.  There was a fortune in it.  The matrixes could have been sold at five dollars apiece.

"Poor churches in the country," continued the Professor, "might have these machines rigged up over their pulpits, and by using the proper matrixes, could have Dr. Chapin, Dr. Bellows, Beecher, or any other great theological light expound to them in their own voices every Sunday.  Thus the poor churches would save their money, and get rid of their poor preachers.  Nor is this all.  A man in Europe has invented a machine by which he takes an instantaneous photograph.  Let us suppose that he photographs Dr. Chapin every second, and we take down his sermon on the matrix of the phonograph.  The pictures and gestures of the orator, as well as his voice, could be exactly reproduced, and the eyes and ears of the audience charmed by the voice and manner of the speaker.

"Whole dramas and operas," continued Mr. Edison, his eyes sparkling with excitement, "can be produced in private parlors.  The instrument can be used in a thousand ways.  Say I hire a good elocutionist to read David Copperfield or any other work.  His words are taken down by machine, and thousands of matrixes of David Copperfield produced.  A man can place them in the machine, and lie in bed, while the novel is read to him by the instrument with the finest grade of feeling and accent.   He can make it read slow or fast, can stop it when he pleases, and go back and begin again at any chapter he may choose.  I could fix a machine in a wall, and by resonations any conversation in a room could be recorded.  Political secrets and the machinations of Wall street pools might be brought to light, and the account charged to the devil.  Kind parents could lie in bed and hear all the spooney courtship of their daughters and lovers.  A man who loved the music of the banjo or the fiddle could buy his matrix and listen to Horace Weston or Mollenhauer whenever he liked.  He could have the whole of Theodore Thomas's orchestra if he wanted it.

"To a certain degree," said Mr. Edison, "the speaking phonograph would do away with phonography.  A man could dictate to his machine whenever he pleased, turn the machine over to an amanuensis, and let him write it out.  A lawyer throught he machine might make an argument before a court, even if he had been in his grave a year.   An editor or reporter might dictate a column at midnight and send the machine up to the compositor, who could set the type at the dictation of the machine without a scrap of manuscript.  I tell you there is no limit to the possibilities of the instrument."

At this point in the conversation the Professor sat down at his table and hallooed "Mad dog!"  "Mad dog!"  "Mad dog!" into the phonograph a half dozen times, and then amused himself by turning the crank backward.   Then he made the instrument tell the old affecting story of Archibaldas Holden, and lay back and laughed heartily.  We asked how soon the phonograph would be thrown upon the market.

"We expect to offer them for sale within two months," said the Professor.   "The price of the finest machine will be about $100, but we shall sell inferior ones at a much lower price.  The matrixes will be for sale like sheets of music, and can be used upon all the machines."

One of the remarkable features of the invention is the fact that the diaphragm can be placed in steam whistles and made to talk like a calliope.  The captains of ships at sea miles away from each other  could converse without trouble and correct their chronometers.  The steam whistles would throw any voice into articulated speech.   With a metal diaphragm in the whistle of a locomotive the engineer could roar out the name of the next station in a voice so loud that it could be heard by every passenger on the train and by every man within a distance of two miles.  Placed in a steam fire engine, the chief engineer could talk to every foreman in the department without difficulty, no matter how great the uproar.  A machine might be put up in the Jersey City Railroad depot that would shout "This side for Newark, Elizabeth, Rahway and New Brunswick!  Train on the left for Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington!  Show your tickets!"

"Why," said the Professor, "I could put a metal diaphragm in the mouth of the Goddess of Liberty that the Frenchmen are going to put up on Bedloe's Island that would make her talk so loud that she could be heard by every soul on Manhattan Island.   I could drop one in a calliope and set it talking so that men could hear it miles away.  Within two years you will find the machine used for advertising purposes.   It will be sitting in the windows of stores on Broadway and other streets singing out, 'Babbitt's best soap,' 'New York Sun--price two cents,' 'Brandreth's Pills,' 'Longfellow's Poems,' 'Ten cents for a shave!' and so on.  There is no end to its uses.  It will sing songs and whistle.  A man has already made application to use the phonograph in cabs, so as to record the complaints of passengers.  The Ansonia Clock Company of Connecticut have one in their manufactory this minute, and it shouts 'Twelve o'clock!' and 'One o'clock!' so loud that it is heard two blocks off.   One might be used as an alarm clock.  If its owner wanted to get up at a certain time in the morning, he could set the alarm, and at the appointed hour the machine would scream, 'Halloo, there!  Five o'clock!  What's the matter with you?   Why don't you get up?'"

The Professor calls the machine applied to steam whistles the airophone.  He is now constructing one to put up in front of his manufactory, and intends to make it talk so that it can be heard two miles.  he says "Old Bill Allen of Ohio will be nowhere."

Several of his speaking phonographs have been sent to England, where they have created a profound sensation.  Mr. Edison says that he received a cable dispatch on Friday last, offering him ,3,000 and half the profits for the right to sell the instrument in that country.

"How did you discover the principle?" asked the writer.

"By the merest accident," said the Professor.  "I was singing to the mouthpiece of a telephone, when the vibrations of the voice sent the fine steel point into my finger.  That set me to thinking.  If I could record the actions of the point, and send the point over the same surface afterward, I saw no reason why the thing would not talk.  I tried the experiment first on a strip of telegraph paper, and found that the point made an alphabet.  I shouted the words 'Halloo! halloo!' into the mouthpiece, ran the paper back over the steel point, and heard a faint 'Halloo! halloo!' in return.  I determined to make a machine that would work accurately, and gave my assistants instructions, telling them what I had discovered.  They laughed at me.  I bet fifteen cigars with Adams here [Adams was lying on the table listening to the conversation.--Rep.] that the thing would work the first time without a break, and won them.  I bet two dollars with the man who made the machine, and won them also.   That's the whole story.  The discovery came through a pricking of the finger."

Here Mr. Edison, in a deep bass tone, shouted in the instrument:

  "Nineteen years in the Bastile!
  I scratched a name upon the wall,
   And that name was Robert Landry,
  Parlez vous Franšais?  Si habla Espa˝ol.
   Sprechen sie Deutsch?"

And the words were repeated, followed by the air of "Old Uncle Ned," which the Professor had sung....

Here the clock struck 3, and we started for the train.  The Professor returned to his machine like a delighted boy, and as we left the house we could hear him gravely asking:

"How far is it from New York to Albany, from Albany to Syracuse, from Syracuse to Buffalo, from Buffalo to Cleveland, from Cleveland to Columbus, from Columbus to Cincinnati, from Cincinnati to Louisville, from Louisville to Nashville, from Nashville to---" and so on ad infinitum till we were beyond hearing.


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