Phonozoic Text Archive, Document 037

"The Phonograph," Scientific American, March 30, 1878, p. 193.

It is a peculiar feature of the Edison phonograph that no mere description can impart any really adequate idea of its performances.  Fully familiar as we are and have been with the machine since its inception, it is still impossible for us to listen to it without a feeling of astonishment and a well defined doubt that our senses are not deceiving us.  The extreme simplicity of the contrivance enhances this notion.   There is nothing in the half articulated monotones of the complicated Faber apparatus to excite surprise, because, although illogically, the hearer expects that such an assemblage of intricate mechanism will produce more startling results than it does; but here is really nothing but a revolving cylinder covered with a sheet of tinfoil, and a speaking tube; no levers, no springs, no keyboards, no artificial lips or larynx, no bellows.  If we lived in 1678 instead of 1878 the life of Mr. Edison would not be worth a moment's purchase: in fact, he would have been resolved into carbonic acid, hydrogen, and his other constituent gases long ago in the flames set apart for earthly communers with his satanic majesty.

If accurate and clearly articulated repetition of the sounds made in it is the ultima Thule of the phonograph's capabilities, then it has already attained that point.   Where it is open to improvement, and to this the attention of the inventor is now being devoted, is in augmenting the intensity of the sound.  In form it is substantially the same as when it was first described in these columns; that is, it consists, as plainly shown in our illustration, Fig. 1, of a brass spirally grooved cylinder, A, mounted on a long horizontal screw, the cylinder being rotated and at the same time moved laterally by turning a crank on the end of its axis.  The chief modification is the abolition of the receiving membrane, one diaphragm, B, serving the double purpose of vibrating in response to the voice, and so indenting by the diamond tipped point, D, attached to the spring, E, the tinfoil wrapped about the cylinder, and also revibrating in response to the movements mechanically imparted to it by the indentations already made passing under the point.  It is evident that this change must materially improve the reproductive power of the apparatus, because the size and nature of the membrane materially affects the vibrations it makes, and where two membranes are used a slight dissimilarity between them might result in considerable alteration in the sound emitted.  Now, however, the same diaphragm revibrates, and the sound is modified perhaps as little as can be expected, the modification fortunately being in intensity and not materially in quality.  The loss is manifestly due, first, to the inability of the rigid plate of metal, C, employed as a diaphragm to register the lateral vibrations which take place in direction parallel to its own plane; and second, in its vibrations being checked in amplitude by the friction met in overcoming the resistance of the foil, its own inertia, and in some degree probably the elasticity of the rubber pads in which it is held, as shown in the section, Fig. 2.  Still a rigid plate seems to be a necessity, for it is doubtful whether a thin membrane, such as gold beaters' skin, while responding more fully to the sound waves, would support the point in making its indentations; that is, it is likely that it would yield itself before the tinfoil could be impressed deeply enough.  This, therefore may be another subject for further investigation and possible improvement.

As it is, even now, the phonograph will meet the most sanguine anticipations of any one that hears it.  The first model that was brought to our notice certainly talked, that is, it produced sounds, the timbre of which was unquestionably that of the human voice; but, as we said at that time, it required some previous knowledge to distinguish what was said.  The speech was the lispings of infancy.  At present previous explanation is wholly needless.  The machine repeats the voice with perfect articulation and with every inflection, so that the tones may be recognized as those of the speaker who made them.

Through the courtesy of Mr. W. S. Applebaugh, who has charge of the apparatus now on exhibition in this city, we have been enabled to make as thorough an examination of all its peculiarities as we could desire.  At our request the exhibitor sang into the machine an entire verse, and it was repeated as often as the cylinder was readjusted.   Sounds of coughing, clearing the throat, knocks, noises of all kinds, were as accurately reproduced.  A curious effect is produced by whistling, the apparatus giving forth every note clearly and fully; but more remarkable still is it to hear two voices at once come from the machine.  The exhibitor first sang a verse which registered, and then running the cylinder back talked so that the indentations produced by the speech vibrations came over those made by the song.  The instrument repeated both utterances simultaneously, each, however, being clearly distinguishable.  Another odd performance is turning the cylinder the wrong way, and making the machine talk the language backward.

The only means now used for magnifying the sound as it is emitted is the funnel-shaped resonator, F, attached to the speaking orifice.  Mr. Edison, however, is busily experimenting upon some adaptation of compressed air, by which the sound waves, he thinks, may be intensified.  He says that he can in time make the machine talk so loudly that it can be used on vessels to warn off other ships during fogs, and his last astonishing proposal is that he shall construct a huge phonograph to go into the great bronze statue of Liberty which is to be erected in New York Harbor, so that the metal giant can make a speech audible over the entire bay.  In view of what Mr. Edison has already accomplished, his success in this respect would not surprise us.