Phonozoic Text Archive, Document 031

"The Man Who Invents.  Tom Edison's Talk with a 'Post' Reporter.  The Wonderful Phonograph and its Eternal Voice--Description of the Man of Genius. --What he has Accomplished -- The Key of Science Only Touched."  Washington Post, April 19, 1878, p. 1

Hearing that Mr. Thomas A. Edison, the world-famous discoverer of the phonograph, had arrived at the Smithsonian Institution yesterday, with a specimen of his instrument, THE POST reporter, then on duty there, hurried from the monologues of the savants to have an interview with the most wonderful inventor in the world.  Catching a glimpse of him, the reporter followed him to the outside, where the great discoverer was found looking intently around him, apparently interested in a study of the trees, the shrubbery and the blue sky.  Suddenly he darted off, as if determined to more closely examine a specimen of the white pine that springs from the curved point of one of the walks.   As he reappeared, coming slowly back, the reporter noticed he was rather under the medium size, about five feet seven or eight inches high, and moved with a kind of listless gait, as if tired or meditating.  His forehead is round, not very high, moderately full in the temporal regions, indicating a preponderance of ideality, yet not especially noticeable for expansion.  His hair is thick, soft, yet wiry, of a chestnut-brown hue, and the face is bare of beard.  His eyes are grayish-blue, clear and bright, and in conversation brighten wonderfully.  The nose is large, standing out boldly from the face, just as if it were looking into the future for its secrets-an inquisitive nose, but not an uncourteous one.  A large mouth whose smile is a pleasant one, a square rather prominent chin and a white skin, complete the facial description.  His manner is quiet, modest and retiring, exhibiting a lack of egotism or assurance at once refreshing and marvellous in a man who has reason to be so justly proud of his fame and his achievements.  Yet while he is talking you are conscious that there are tremendous potencies in the pleasant-voiced gentleman before you.  "Good morning, Mr. Edison," said the POST reporter; "handsome grounds these."

"Yes.  What an immense stretch of telegraph wire without a support," he said, pointing to the net work of wires that run high in the air from the Smithsonian, "I have been wondering where they reach, but when I went over to that tree just now I could see no more than I do here."  Naturally enough the inventor has no eyes for trees or flowers where telegraph or telephone wires are concerned.

"Let me, like all the rest of the world, congratulate you on your discovery of the phonograph, Mr. Edison."  The inventor, who is slightly deaf, blushed like a girl and silently bowed his acknowledgements.

"Were you a long time in perfecting the discovery?"

"Oh, no; I had thought of the idea vaguely many times, long before I undertook to work it out.  The idea is a fascinating one, and in a vague, indefinite way had probably occurred to many people perhaps for centuries.  But when I commenced to realize it, and make it practical it came out all right very easy.  It is a very simple idea when you come to look at it, and the wonder is it wasn't discovered before."

"It waited for Edison, and when he came it stepped into being, the slave of his genius."  The compliment was doubtless pleasing, but the innate modesty of the man caused him to shrink from hearing his own praises.

"What a pity you hadn't invented it before.  There is many a mother mourning her dead boy or girl who would give the world could she hear their living voices again, a miracle your phonograph makes possible."

"No, I don't think the world was ripe for it before.  Why, I wanted to get it patented in South America, and my agents spoke to consuls in Mexico, Peru and other places, but were advised not to go there.  The people were too bigoted, too ignorant generally to receive it, but would destroy the machine as an invention of the devil and mob the agents as his regular imps."

"Had you any thought of coming to Washington?"

"Not until yesterday, when I got a telegram requesting me.  They are a pleasant set of fellows, these scientific men; just chock full of fun as they can be.   They don't care for good clothes, though."

"They don't really seem to care for the tailors, that's true."

"O, they've got on their good clothes now.  But see them at work, as they come into my laboratory, they don't look as nice as they do to-day, but they have lots more fun in them.  I remember Sir William Thompson, when he came to see me, had on a suit of clothes, I tell you.  His trowsers were too short for him; his coat was old and greasy, the collar came up above his ears, and his hat looked as if he had boiled soup in it.  And that was his bang-up suit, too."

"When do you give an exhibition of your phonograph?"

"At 4 o'clock.  Have you ever seen it?  Well, come in and I'll show it to you."  And leading the way, he entered the room adjoining the secretary's office, uncovered the wonderful "Sound Writer," and began to explain it.

"Here the phonograph, you see, is a thin disc or diaphragm of iron, beneath which is this fine steel point, which moves up and down by the vibrations of the disc.   Beneath this is the revolving cylinder, on which is this spiral groove.  On the axis of the cylinder is a screw, the distance between the threads being the same as the distance between the grooves on the cylinder.  The cylinder is covered with a sheet of tin-foil--you will see it operate by and by--and when the cylinder is revolved the steel point presses the tin-foil into the spiral groove.  If now the diaphragm be made to vibrate by the voice the steel point makes a series of indentations in the tin-foil grooves, corresponding to the sounds uttered.  On going over again the same groove with the steel point, by setting the cylinder again at the starting point, that is, by going over the same ground, the indentations in the tin-foil cause the membrane again to vibrate precisely as at first, thus reproducing the sound originally made.  The same sound wave you first made is returned to you in whatever shape you made it.   Your words, for example, are preserved in the tin-foil, and will come back upon the application of the instrument years after you are dead in exactly the same voice you spoke them in."

"How many times?"

"As long as the tin-foil lasts.  This tongueless, toothless instrument, without larynx or pharynx, dumb, voiceless matter, nevertheless mimics your tones, speaks with your voice, utters your words, and centuries after you have crumbled into dust will repeat again and again, to a generation that could never know you, every idle thought, every fond fancy, every vain word that you choose to whisper against this thin iron diaphragm."

"How old are you, Mr. Edison?"


"Very young yet."

"I am good for fifty; and I hope to astonish the world yet with things more wonderful than this.  I think the world is on the eve of grand and immense discoveries, before whose transcendent glories the record of the past will fade into insignificance.  This is a very poor specimen of a phonograph, however.  You see how simple the mechanism of this idea, and how simple the idea itself; and yet, after all, it is curious."

And the reporter, turning away to record the utterances of the sages in the room adjoining, thought of that passage of Holy Writ which says, "every idle thought and every vain word which man thinks or utters are recorded in the Judgment Book."   Does the Recording Angel sit beside a Celestial Phonograph, against whose spiritual diaphragm some mysterious ether presses the record of a human life?