Phonozoic Text Archive, Document 042

"Edison's Improved Phonograph," Scientific American, November 19, 1887, p. 328. 
From the New York World.

We recently gave some account of this, but the following report of an interview with Edison by a World reporter contains additional particulars which are both curious and interesting.  In answer to about two hundred questions, more or less, Edison said:

"Perhaps I am wrong in telling you anything about my phonograph, because what I claim for it is so extraordinary that I get only ridicule in return.  I am so confident that when the apparatus appears it will dispel all doubts as to its practicability and working value that I can afford for the present to ignore all kinds of criticism and keep at my work regardless of the storm which I have been raising by telling a few people that there was such a thing as a perfected phonograph in existence.  I am sure that while scientific men may doubt that I have succeeded as well as I say I have, they will admit that there is nothing at all impossible in what I claim, and that the germ of the perfected phonograph, should such a thing appear, is very clear in my old toy of ten years ago, which was exhibited all over the country, and was then acknowledged to be one of the wonders of the century.  Just consider for a second what my old phonograph is, and think how little needed to be done to bring it to a working instrument.  With my roughly constructed instrument of 1877 I reproduced all sorts of sounds, getting back from the phonograph something like the original sound.  Of course, you had to yell into the thing, and the reproduction of conversation was often something of a caricature of the original.  Nevertheless, to obtain a result that could be understood was doing wonders, and most people who remember my exhibitions will admit that while I did not produce a commercial machine, I made a very interesting and creditable attempt, and my whistling and singing phonograph was a wonder.

"There were all sorts of objections in detail to my first instrument.  It weighed about one hundred pounds; it cost a mint of money to make; no one but an expert could get anything intelligible back from it.  The record made by the little steel point upon a sheet of tin foil lasted only a few times after it had been put through the phonograph.  I myself doubted whether I should ever see a perfect phonograph, ready to record any kind of ordinary speech and to give it out again intelligibly.  But I was perfectly sure that if we did not accomplish this, the next generation would.   And I dropped the phonograph and went to work on the electric light, certain that I ahd sown seed which would come to something.  For ten years the phonograph has come up in my brain automatically and almost periodically.  I would turn it over and over mentally when I had nothing else to think about.  When I couldn't sleep at night, when traveling, when worried about business affairs, I would think the phonograph over and jot down any new ideas for future experiments.  Eight months ago I began laboratory work upon it again, and a month ago I stopped because I could see no further improvement to be made.  It is a finished machine--simple, cheap, effective, not liable to get out of order, and it does everything that I ever hoped the perfected phonograph might do.

"My phonograph will occupy about as much space on the merchant's desk, or at the side of the desk, as a typewriter does.  It will work automatically by a small electric motor, which runs at a perfectly regular rate of speed, is noiseless, and starts or stops at the touch of a spring.  Suppose the merchant wishes to write a letter; he pulls the mouthpiece of the phonograph to him, starts the motor with a touch, and says what he has to say in an ordinary tone of voice.  When he is done, he pulls out a little sheet and rolls it up for the mail.  The recipient places this sheet in a similar phonograph, touches the motor spring, and the instrument will at once read out the letter in a tone more distinct, clearer, more characteristic of the voice of the writer than any telephone you or I have ever heard.  The phonograph voice is not a loud voice, perhaps not more than twice as loud as the sound you get from a good telephone, and an earphone will be necessary.  This, however, may not be an objection, inasmuch as people do not always want to have their letters heard all over the office.  In aiming for loudness in the phonograph, I went astray in my first experiment.  I should have tried for clearness.  The present apparatus will satisfy anyone who is half satisfied with the telephone.  Of course, there are no disturbances in the phonographic message such as those made by induction along a telephone wire; and as the apparatus will repeat the letter over and over again, it is possible to understand every syllable, even in a noisy office.  I was so overcome with the success of my first instrument, finished about six weeks ago, that I doubted whether I could make another equally good, and I went at work at once to do so.  My second instrument works as well as the first, and I have forty workmen employed in making the tools for the manufacture of the first lot of 500 phonographs.  They will cost $60 apiece.

"Now for some speculation as to what people may do with the phonograph.  I am confident that it will be found in the office of every busy man.  I am confident that the editor and the reporter of the future will never think of losing time by writing with a pen or dictating to a stenographer when the printer can set type better from the dictation of the phonograph than he can from copy.  I have already perfected an apparatus which allows the phonographic message to be given out in pieces of ten words each.  The printer touches a pedal with his foot, and the phonograph says ten words.   If he sets the ten correctly, he touches the pedal again and gets ten words more.   If he is in doubt he tries another pedal, which makes the phonograph repeat.   In the future some method may be found of combining the phonograph and the telephone--that is to say, the phonograph may be made so delicate as to take down the sound from a telephone and give it out again when wanted.  As yet I have not attempted any such thing.  The vibrations of the telephone diaphragm are too delicate for use in the phonograph.  In business I think that the phonograph will be used everywhere.  Outside of business it is hard to say exactly to what uses it may be put.  As it will record and repeat any kind of musical sound, and as the process of duplicating the phonogram, as I call my sheet of metal which has passed through the phonograph and become impressed with certain sounds, is very cheap, the phonogram copy of a lecture, a book, a play, or an opera need cost but a trifle.

"For music I know that you will simply laugh when I tell you what i have done with the two instruments that I have finished.  I have got the playing of an orchestra so perfectly that each instrument can be heard distinct from the rest.  You can even tell the difference between two pianos of different makes; you can tell the voice of one singer from another; you can get a reproduction of an operatic scene in which the orchestra, the choruses, and the soloists will be as distinct and as satisfactory as opera in this sort of miniature can ever be made.  Opera by telephone has been done in Paris and London more or less successfully, but the phonograph will eclipse the telephone for this purpose beyond all comparison, and phonographic opera will cost nothing, because the phonogram can be passed through the phonograph, if necessary, a thousand times in succession, and once the machine is bought there is no other cost beyond the trifle for phonograms.  For books the phonogram will come in the shape of a long roll wound upon a roller.  To make the first phonographic copy of a book some good reader must of course read it out to the instrument; once that is done, duplication to any number of thousand or million copies is a simple mechanical work, easy and cheap.  Now, just think for a moment what that means.

"Suppose you are sick, or blind, or poor, or cannot sleep.  You have a phonograph, and the whole world of literature and music is open to you.  The perfected phonograph is going to do more the poor man than the printing press.  No matter where he is, the poor man can hear all the great lecturers of the world, can have all the great books read to him by trained readers, can hear as much of a play or an opera as if he was in the next room to the theater, and all this at a cost scarcely worth mentioning.  I remember that when the telephone was first announced it was said that now people in the wilds of Africa or America might assist nightly at the performances of the Paris Opera House.  The wires from that favored spot might run to all parts of the world.  Well, we have not yet got to that, though it is a scientific possibility for the future to perfect in detail.  But the phonograph will make such a thing perfectly easy.  The phonographic record of a performance at the Paris Opera House can be duplicated by the thousand and mailed to all parts of the world.  I don't know but that the newspaper of the future will be in the shape of a phonogram, and the critic will give his readers specimens of the performance and let them hear just how the future Patti did her work, well or otherwise.  This sounds like the wildest absurdity, and yet, when you come to think of it, why not?  Have I told you enough to make you believe that I am joking?  Well, I am nothing of a joker, and this is all the most sober kind of statement.  Within two months from now the first phonographs will be in the market."

The reporter to whom Mr. Edison told all this in his usual and quiet manner asked several expert scientists what they thought of it.  Not one was found who was willing to say that there was anything impossible or even improbable in what Edison claims to have done.  The points of detail mentioned as difficulties about which Edison has said little or nothing were, first, the scarcity of good small electric motors, perfectly regular and perfectly noiseless; secondly, the difficulty of making a recording sheet for the phonograph which would not wear out when passed through the instrument a good many times.  This was one of the old troubles of the first phonograph.  Edison says that he has made a perfect motor and also a perfect material for his phonograms, but as yet he will not show either to outsiders.