Phonozoic Text Archive, Document 065

"The Funny Phonograph.  Some New Facts About the Marvelous Machine.  The Wild Dream of a Writer of Fiction More than Realized.  A Hearing and Talking Instrument Combined," St. Louis Evening Post, May 30, 1878.

A full appreciation of the workings of the phonograph comes upon one with an effect of bewilderment; then it rouses a strange enthusiasm as much as if it said: "This is an age of great invention, but this thing caps them all."  The phonograph is a combination, so to speak, of electricity and photography.  It records words with the quickness of a flash of lightning; it reproduces them with the exactness that, in the case of a photograph, is accomplished by a flash of sun-light.  The genius of Morse and Daguerre are combined in Edison.

As for its appearance, any attempt at description would be vain and puerile.  The effects produced by it are so stupendous when compared with the machine itself that any description--even from the best writers--would be inadequate and unsatisfactory to the reader.  When he has imagined an iron cylinder, worked with a crank at one end, covered with tin foil, with a hole in the middle of the barrel, he has got in his possession about all the facts which would present themselves at first glance to an unscientific observer.  When the operator has placed a funnel over the aperture, the aforesaid unscientific observer is reminded in some way of a coffee-mill.  The motion of the crank suggests a hand organ.  As the cylinder revolves under the waters of the crank, the aforesaid unscientific observer is but in mind of another thought, and feels tempted to ask whether there are any chestnuts being roasted inside.  If its size was larger a lady of domestic habits might be pardoned if she thought it was a "new-fangled" clothes-wringer of some kind.


"Now, then," said the gentleman in charge of the phonograph, to the crowd of spectators, "we will have a mass-meeting."

The phonograph seems to place itself in an attitude of attention.  The gentleman whispered in the aperture which stands for an ear.  The phonograph seems to comprehend and to hold itself in readiness.

"Fellow-citizens," begins the operator in a high key as if addressing a crowd of 10,000 people form the Court-house steps, "we have met here this evening to discuss the political situation, and as the first speaker who will address you I have the honor of introducing Hon. Berry Mitchell, of Cahokia Creek, who will address you on the issues of the day.  Before the gentleman begins I propose three cheers for Mr. Mitchell, which I know you will give.  Now, again, hip, hip, hurrah.  Now once more to close up on."

Into the ear of the phonograph the gentleman pours all these excited utterances.   He then changes his talk.  Assuming another voice, supposably from some disgruntled member in the crowd, he calls out, as people always do at political meetings, "Put him out."  "Put him out."  "Let's hang him."   "Pull down his vest."  "Down with the fraud."

Then, resuming his character as chairman of the meeting, the gentleman goes on to say: "Let's have no disturbances, gentlemen.  In order to harmonize the feeling of all present, we will have a little music."


At this point, a cornet player steps forward, and, applying the instrument to the aperture in the phonograph, proceeds to blow a blast.  It is a strain from "Gerry Owen," but the phonograph receives it with its usual impassibility.

The gentleman now steps forward, and indulges in a loud and ironical laugh, supposed to come from some scornful member of the crowd, who repudiates the speakers and the music, and despises in advance the political sentiments that are about to be promulgated.   Now the phonograph is called up for an answer.  The smooth tin foil which envelopes the cylinder has been creased into narrow lines set close together, the cylinder slowly revolving under the voice of the speaker, while at the same time it has revolved on its axis slowly and gradually to the right.  It is turned now back, and the funnel placed at the mouth of the phonograph, which is also, so to speak, its ear.  Now it begins, the cylinder revolving in the opposite direction.  "Fellow citizens, we have met here this evening," the exact tone of the speaker being imitated perfectly, and then come the scornful remarks and the derisive laughter, the cheers, the hoots and yells, and all the usual accompaniments of a political meeting, including the music, which is reproduced perfectly.

The crowd laugh and demand a repetition of the amusing scene, and it is repeated without the variation of a vowel, and as many times as may be desired.


How did Edison get into the idea that a phonograph was a possibility?  That is a question which even Edison's best friends have puzzled themselves over.  Up to a year past his wonderful energy and inventive faculties were devoted exclusively to the study of lightning.  Suddenly and without warning he turned his mind in the direction of acoustics.  Simultaneously with Graham Bell, he invented a telephone.  But, while Graham Bell paused, and all the world wondered at a speaking machine, Tom Edison went further and invented a hearing machine.

What suggested the idea to Edison's mind?  It may have been that in working up the telephone a subtle point in acoustics suggested itself to his experienced inventive faculties, which nobody else thought of.  It may have been that the phonograph was the child of a wild and fantastic imagination, nursed aud [sic] cradled into a practical reality by the paternal spirit of the inventor.  Singularly enough the idea of a machine which would catch up and retain all the sounds of the universe seems to have been suggested to an obscure magazinist.  It took an Edison to more than realize the wild dream of a hearing machine, and to complement it by the other gift of repeating what it had heard.


About two years ago a book of sketches and fragments, written by Florence McLaudburgh, was published by Jansen, McClurg & Co., of Chicago, bearing the title "The Automaton Ear."  The story which gave the name to the book was singularly wild and fantastic.  A professor, in the course of some rambling studies one afternoon, lingering in the woods under a tall and spreading tree, came upon the following paragraph:

"As a particle of the atmosphere is never lost, so sound is never lost.  A strain of music or a simple tone will vibrate in the air forever and ever, decreasing according to a fixed ratio.  The diffusion of the agitation extends in all directions, like the waves in a pool, but the ear is unable to detect it beyond a certain point.  It is well known that some individuals can distinguish sounds which to others, under precisely similar circumstances, are wholly lost.  Thus the fault is not in the sound itself, but in our organ of hearing, and a tone once in existence is always in existence."

While he listened to the robins that were twittering over his head, it seemed to him "singular to know that all the sounds ever uttered, ever born, were floating in the air now--all music, every tune, every bird sang--and we, alas, could not hear them."   Suddenly a strange thought shot through his brain.  Why not hear?  Men had constructed instruments which could magnify to the eye, and why could not one be made which could magnify to the ear.  He purchases a common ear trumpet which he studies and improves upon, undaunted by repeated failures, until success crowns his efforts:

I raised the trumpet to my ear.

Hark!  The hum of mighty hosts!   It rose and fell fainter and more faint; then the murmur of water was heard and lost again, as it swelled and gathered and burst in a grand volume of sound like a hallelujah from myriad lips.  Out of the resounding echo, out of the dying cadences, a single female voice arose.  Clear, pure, rich, it soared above the tumult of the host that hushed itself, a living thing.  Higher, sweeter, it seemed to break the fetters of mortality and tremble in sublime admiration before the infinite.  My breath stilled with awe.  Was it a spirit voice--one of the glittering host in the jasper city, that had no need of the sun, neither of the moon to shine in it.  And the water, was it the river clear as a chrstal [sic] flowing from the great white throne?   But no.  The tone now floated out, soft, sad, human.  There was no sorrowful strain in that nightless land where the leaves of the trees were for the healing of the nations.  The beautiful voice was of the earth and sin-stricken.  From the sobbing that mingled with the faint supplying of water, it went up once more, ringing gladly, joyfully; it went up inspired with praise to the sky, and--hark!  the Hebrew tongue:

"The horse and his rider hath he thrown into the sea."

Then the voice of the multitude swelled again and a crash of music broke from innumerable timbrels.  I raised my head quickly--it was the song of Miriam after the passage of the Red Sea.