Phonozoic Text Archive, Document 014

"A Visit to the Inventor of the Phonograph," Scientific American Supplement, April 20, 1878, pp. 1904-5.

A reporter of the World recently called upon Professor Edison at his laboratory in Menlo Park, N. J.  After greetings had been exchanged the reporter asked, "How is the phonograph to-day, Mr. Edison?"  "Oh, about the same as usual," was the answer; "but come and ask it.  It has an answer for every man, and generally in his own words."

The reporter followed Mr. Edison to an upper room, where the phonograph was resting on a table, and as the cylinder slowly turned he shouted at it, pleasantly: "How are you?"  Then the cylinder was shifted backward and again turned, and the phonograph cried out in the same cheerful tone that the reporter had used: "How are you?"

Mr. Edison seated himself before his favorite invention, and talked, scolded, sung and whistled to it for a while, receiving answers according to his folly or his wisdom.   After a few moments the Professor threw himself back in his chair and gazed abstractedly before him.  Then he said, "It is funny, after all.  You have to pucker up your mouth to whistle, but the phonograph doesn't pucker one bit.   Martin," he continued, calling to one of his workmen, "come here and sing bass for me."

A double mouthpiece was placed over the diaphragm of the instrument, and while Professor Edison sang "John Brown's Body" in a loud voice at one side, Martin struggled at the other side with a bass so deep that the air vibrations were about only three a minute.

"You didn't sing loud enough," said the Professor, as he shifted the cylinder.

"Well, no," answered Martin; "I couldn't jest git the right chord.   But we got it 'hunky' the other day."

The crank was then turned, and the air of the song was sung by the phonograph, with an occasional far-off bass note struggling to be heard.  Mr. Edison thought he could improve upon this rendering, and he again sang the song as a solo to the same sheet of foil.  When the cylinder was revolved this time the air burst forth with vigor, once or twice failing to connect where a note had dragged in the second singing of the tune.

Mr. Edison now rested himself, and the reporter cast his eyes about the room, at the ceiling and on the floor.  Overhead was a net of telegraph wires resembling a huge spider's web, all terminating in a large battery placed in the center of the room.

"Do you use all those wires?" asked the reporter.

"Oh, yes," was the answer.

"Why do you have that pipe-organ that stands in the corner?"

"To record sound."

"What is that thing over there?"

"A part of my aerophone."

"What is that other thing that man is working on?"

"An instrument for reproducing handwriting.  I think it will be finished soon."

"What is this circular plate?"

"Oh, that's for taking messages." 

The reporter now took a turn around the room.  There were thousands of small and large bottles, containing chemicals, drugs and oils, ranged on shelves against three of the walls.  There were hydrofluosilic acid, chloroform, ether, chloral-hydrate, ammoniated tincture of gum guaiac, iodide of potassium, kerosene oil, sulphuric acid and other things of widely different uses.

"What is the idea of your keeping a wholesale drug-store here, Mr. Edison?" asked the reporter.

"Well," answered the Professor, "I keep all those things because I don't know how soon I may need them.  Whenever I see a new chemical or drug announced I buy it, no matter what it costs.  Now, here's something I prepared," and he handed the reporter a bottle containing a clear, straw-colored liquid.  "That's composed of morphine, chloral-hydrate, chloroform, nitrate of amyle, cassia and cloves.  Those things have no chemical action on each other, and they'll stop any kind of pain immediately."

During all this time the telegraphic receiver at the other end of the room had been clicking with messages that were passing over the wire.  Suddenly there was a slight change in the click, and Mr. Edison, although somewhat deaf, instantly detecting the variation, ran to the instrument and took by ear a message intended for him.

When he had read it he said: "By the way, Professor Bartlett, of the University of Pennsylvania, is going to deliver a lecture soon, and half of it is to be talked to the phonograph.  Then I'll attach the instrument to the telephone and send the lecture to Philadelphia.  I have just received a letter," he continued, saying that the phonograph has been exhibited before the French Academy, and that every one was delighted with it.  Mr. Hervey, the electrician, has sent me his congratulations."

"Aren't you a good deal of a wizard, Mr. Edison?" asked the reporter.

"Oh, no," he answered, with one of his pleasant laughs; "I don't believe much in that sort of thing.  I went to see Heller the other night.  His tricks are very good and very smart, but I figured out all of them excepting one.  The 'second-sight' is the thinnest of all.  But come down stairs, and I'll show you the new model of the phonograph."

The reporter followed Mr. Edison into the work room, where about a dozen lathes and machines were in full operation.  On one of the tables was the model.  The improvement in the phonograph consists in a circular plate being substituted for the cylinder, and clock-work for the crank.  "This clock-movement is a very important improvement," said Mr. Edison.  "It insures coplete regularity and accuracy, and can be thrown out of and into gear instantaneously.  We're going to start a publication office in New York when the phonograph is ready."

"What do you intend to publish?" asked the reporter.

"Music, novels, general literature and many other kinds of matter that are read by persons and reproduced by instruments or their vocal organs for the benefit of themselves and other persons.  Take music to begin with.  We will phonograph orchestral concerts by brass and string bands, instrumental and vocal solos and part songs.  The sheets bearing the sound impressions of this music will be removed from the phonograph and multiplied to any extent by electrotyping, and persons can make selections of any compositions they desire.  Then this music may be reproduced by any phonograph, with all the original sweetness and expression; and not only that, but the pitch can be raised or lowered by increasing or dminishing the speed of the phonograph."

"What will such a sheet of music cost?"

"About 25 cents."

"But how can you take an orchestra, when it is necessary, in talking to the phonograph, to apply your mouth close to the diaphragm?"

"The phonograph will be attached to a hole in one end of a barrel, and from the other end will project a funnel like those used in ventilating steamships.  This will receive the music from the entire orchestra, but of course not reproduce it with so great a volume.  Piano music will be phonographed by a hood being placed over the instrument, and the volume of the reproduction will be one-fourth that of the piano."

"What method will be pursued with literary matter?"

"We calculate that an ordinary 50-cent novel can be got on this," said Mr. Edison, tapping the circular plate, which was about six inches in diameter.   "Novels and valuable literature will be read to the phonograph by elocutionists and persons understanding the subjects presented, and the matter will be multiplied by electrotyping in the same manner as music.  You see, therefore, that you can have a phonograph in your parlor with an album of selected phonographic matter lying beside it.  You can take a sheet from the album, place it on the phonograph, start the clock-work and have a symphony performed.  Then by changing the sheet you can listen to a chapter or two from a favorite novel, and this may be followed by a song, a duet or a quartet.  At the close the young people may indulge in a waltz, in which all may join, for no one need be asked to play the dance-music.  You can easily see," continued the Professor, "what an advantage the phonograph will be to the blind; and, indeed, I have already received one hundred orders from such persons."

"In some respects the phonograph will be a blessing to persons who are constitutionally tired," suggested the reporter.

"Yes, and to industrious persons, also," answered Mr. Edison.  "You know a man can never judge of the value of his own words or exactly how to deliver them by hearing his own voice.  Now, if a lawyer speaks an address to the phonograph in the way he thinks it should be rendered, and then has the instrument repeat it, he can estimate very fairly what the effect would be on a Court and jury.  Again, there are many men who can talk better than they can write.  They can, therefore, talk to the phonograph without the hindrance necessarily caused by using a pen; they can stop when they please and wait for ideas, and then they can let some one else copy the production as the phonograph repeats it.  You see this opens up a vast field, and one suggestion follows another.  Now," continued Mr. Edison, with another laugh, "the lover, while waiting for his sweetheart to finish her toilet, can place on the phonograph a sheet of the pretty things she has said to him before, and so occupy himself for a time with her counterfeit presentment."

"What will be the cost of a phonograph?"

"About $100.  The instrument will be finished in all styles and handsomely decorated."

"But how about the aerophone?" asked the reporter.

"Oh, I haven't time to attend to that," replied Mr. Edison, "I'm so busy with the phonograph.  The aerophone is very simple.  It isn't like a calliope, which requires a keyboard and different notes.  It has only one note, and the vibrations of that are formed into words by the escape of the steam."