Phonozoic Text Archive, Document 068

"The Phonograph and Its Future," Chicago Tribune, May 31, 1878.

The phonograph which is now on exhibition in nearly all the large cities of the country, and will make its debut in San Francisco this week, has thus far attracted less attention in Chicago than in any other place.  Chicago people are sometimes slow to move; when they do move they go en masse.  Thus far it has drawn upon scholars, students, and scientists.  To them it is a matter for investigation.  If for no other reason, it should appeal to the general public as a curiosity or a sensation.

The phonograph is a queer animal.  Your voice comes back to you very much as if it were visible and you were looking at it through the large lenses of a lorgnette.  As a musician, it will not past strict critical muster.  In reproducing the scale it sharps each note ascending, and by the time it has reached the last note of the octave, where of course the vibrations are much more rapid, it has violated all the musical canons.  In descending, its tendency is to flat, but also, but some curious law of compensation, by the time it gets back to the first note it is all right again.  A duet, say of tenor and baritone, returns a curious jumble of shrill soprano and alto; what it would accomplish with a quartette we cannot imagine, but it is very evident that, as it now stands, it would be an unsafe basis for the construction of counterpoint.  The phonograph prefers a perfectly clear, pure tone, like a whistle or the sound of a cornet, which it will reproduce with admirable fidelity.  Probably a violin tone, if it could be forced into the funnel so as to strike the diaphragm, would be absolutely reproduced both in quantity and quality of tone.  Its reproduction of a pure tone is best shown in the case of a whistle.  Suppose that the ordinary tones of speech, singing, laughing, and coughing have been indented upon the foil, then whistle over the same surface and reverse the phonograph.  The speech, singing, laughing, and coughing will be reproduced in a confused din, while the whistle will be heard through it all, perfectly clear and distinct.  The phonograph has some odd preferences.  It likes what is bizarre and out of the common.  It will give back imitations of animals, such as the cackling of hens, crowing of roosters, lowing of cows, barking of dogs, and mewing of cats, more faithfully than it will the ordinary utterances that make human speech.  It has not yet succeeded in reproducing the qualities perfectly that distinguish one voice from another, except that it indicates very clearly the distinctions of the male and female voice; but it must be remembered that the phonograph is yet an infant, and that the instruments now on exhibition are those which Mr. EDISON's fertile genius first suggested, and only illustrate the principle of vibration.  His improvements are already so far advanced that its power is greatly increased, and there can be no doubt that he will not only greatly intensify the tone, but will reproduce its different qualities, while the application of clock-work to the revolutions of the cylinders will secure a uniformity of speed that cannot be obtained by the hand, and will thus pitch the sounds upon the natural key and retain that pitch.  When that is done, music may be reproduced as correctly by the phonograph as the face is by the photograph.

To make the phonograph of practical value it is evidently necessary that some instrument shall be devised which can be used with it, to magnify sounds.  Mr. EDISON, in his latest instrument, has succeeded in greatly increasing the power, but, according to the current foreign scientific journals, Prof. D. E. HUGHES, of London, has succeeded in intensifying tone so that sounds which are inaudible to the naked ear become as palpable as objects appear to the naked eye when placed under the microscope, which are otherwise invisible.  The multiplying apparatus is described as follows:

Two pieces of charcoal, heated to a white heat, are plunged into mercury; they are then placed in a glass tube and pressed end to end, making a part of an electric circuit; if a telephone is introduced in the circuit, and a sound is sent through the two pieces of charcoal, it comes out the end of the circuit greatly increased in volume.   Heat, light, sound, and electricity are supposed by many physicists to be interconvertible.  The probabilities are that we have here a conversion of electricity into sound.

It is stated that by the use of this electrical process the lightest touches of a feather's edge of a camel's-hair brush on the sounding-board of the telephone produce "a crackling noise of which the intensity was almost painful to the ear," while the footsteps of a house fly walking across the sounding-board become distinctly audible!  With the application of this discovery to the phonograph, no one can forecast the possibilities of Mr. EDISON's invention.  The principle of the phonograph is so simple that it is remarkable no one had ever hit upon it before.   With the application of HUGHES' sound-multiplier, the prospect broadens so that almost any one can conceive some new thing the phonograph may accomplish.  It makes the possibilities which Mr. EDISON enunciated in his article in the North American Review seem modest as compared with the realities.  There is no reason why the phonograph should not sing, read, talk, and preach for us, do our letter-writing, and ultimately revolutionize telegraphy so that a merchant in Chicago may talk to a merchant in London as clearly and freely as he talks to a clerk in his office.   The possibilities of the phonograph, when combined with the microphone and telephone, are vastly greater than were those of WATTs' tea-kettle or MORSE's crude instrument with which he first sent words from Baltimore to Washington, for Mr. EDISON will not work alone in perfecting it.  A thousand busy brains will investigate and help him improve upon and practically apply the principle he has worked out. The little phonograph which is now working in Chicago may yet become an inestimable blessing to the human race, and in future years be looked back upon as one of the stepping-stones in the world's progress, just as we now look back upon the discovery of printing, gunpowder, the compass, steam, and telegraphy.  We advise every reader of THE TRIBUNE to see the instrument now in operation in the Methodist Church Block, not only as a curiosity, but as the germ of future possibilities no man can yet measure.