Phonozoic Text Archive, Document 077

"Edison's Phonograph, Its History and Development," by Edward H. Johnson, of New York City.  Scientific American Supplement No. 743, March 29, 1890, p. 11872-3.

(Read at the recent Kansas meeting of the National Electric Light Association.)

HAVING been associated with Mr. Edison in the laboratory and out of it almost constantly for the past twenty years, I am necessarily more or less familiar with everything he has done.  The phonograph, however, is an invention with which I am particularly familiar.  Therefore it would seem appropriate that I should comply with the request of your chairman and say a few words to you on that subject.  At first he only called upon me to explain the operation of the instrument, the principle upon which it acts, and to that I assented.  Then he broadened out his request, until finally he wishes me to go somewhat at length into the history of the instrument and the whole subject.  To do Mr. Edison justice, and to do myself justice, I could not well do that.  I have agreed, therefore, simply to relate the circumstances under which the phonograph had its origin, to explain the instrument to you, and then call upon the gentlemen who have the device in charge to operate it for your benefit.

When Professor Bell brought out the magneto telephone, with which you are not only familiar but which your children now know, Mr. Edison conceived the idea of amplifying the voice of the telephone, so to speak, by  producing a transmitting apparatus which would generate a much stronger current than Mr. Bell's instrument did, and thus by operating upon Mr. Bell's instrument as a receiver, produce a much more audible and distinct vocalization, and render the instrument of much wider commercial value.  It was in the course of these experiments, which ultimately led to the carbon telephone transmitter, now universally used throughout the world, and which you all recognize as the instrument to which you address yourselves when you are speaking in the telephone--it was in the course of his experiments with that instrument that he conceived the idea of the phonograph.  It did not dawn upon his mind, or, for that matter, upon the minds of any of us associated with him at the time, just what he had done--produced a talking machine.  He remarked to me one evening, when he was pressing his finger lightly against the diaphragm of a telephonic instrument, and feeling the vibrations, "Johnson, if I were to put a needle in the center of that diaphragm and make a point there--an indenting point like the point on the old time Morse telegraph register--then draw a slip of paper or other easily impressed substance underneath the needle, the vibrations on that diaphragm would be accurately recorded on the paper."  Being an old telegraph operator myself, I immediately saw the force of that apparently not very sage remark, and I said, "Certainly, but what of that?"  "Well," he said, "if we take that paper and start afresh with it, and draw it under the point of that needle or diaphragm, put a slight tension on it and pull the needle, it will follow the ins and outs of these indentations that naturally would be in the diaphragm precisely as it did move when it made the original indentations."  I said, "That is true, but what of it?"  "Well, only this--that would be a telephone repeater.  Of course, if I speak in the telephone and that produces a vibration on the receiving telephone's diaphragm, the receiving instrument is made to record these indentations on this piece of paper, and that paper is afterward drawn under the needle, the diaphragm revibrated, without the action of the human voice, I have only to make that second diaphragm another transmitter, and I will carry my message on again to another station.  Thus, instead of telephoning within the limit of the capacity of a single instrument, I will telephone to those limits, and then automatically repeat the speech over another circuit to the limits of the second circuit.  In other words, I will make a telephone repeater that will be the exact counterpart of the telegraphic repeater, so well known in general use.  I said, "It looks feasible; it looks practicable."  That was the end of it for the time being.  Neither of us--nor Mr. Batchellor or the other laboratory associates of Mr. Edison--thought any more about it for a long time.  I was in somewhat straitened circumstances at the time, as we all were, owing to the fact that we had spent some six years in developing a system of electric automatic telegraph, which we sold to our friend, Mr. Gould, who was several years paying for it and has not yet settled up entirely.  The situation was that we had to look around and see what we could do to earn our bread and butter.  Mr. Edison has since found a way of earning his.  I had to strike out in some new direction, and it occurred to me that it would be a very good idea to go around to the leading watering places, it being summer time, and exhibit Edison's telephonic apparatus, particularly the musical telephone, describe it to the public and to those who seemed to be very much interested in those acoustic experiments of Mr. Edison and Mr. Bell at that time, and make a little money in that way.  I did it by having my singers stationed in the Western Union telegraph building in New York, having my receiving apparatus in a house like this at Saratoga, Buffalo, or Rochester, four or five hundred miles from New York, and reproducing the voices of these singers to my audiences at those distant points.  It was very successful.  A great interest was being aroused in the subject just at that time.  In the course of one of my lectures, or improvised talks, it occurred to me that it would be a good idea to tell my audience about Edison's telephone repeater, at Buffalo, which I did.  My audience seemed to have a much clearer appreciation of the value of the invention than we had ourselves.  They gave me such a cheer as I have seldom heard.  I did not comprehend the importance of the device at the time: but the next morning the Buffalo papers announced in glaring headlines, "A Great Discovery: A Talking Machine by Professor Edison.  Mr. Edison's Wonderful Instrument will Produce Articulate Speech with all the Perfections of the Human Voice."  I realized for the first time that Edison had, as a matter of fact, invented a talking machine.  The immediate importance to me was that this created a sensation, and I had very large audiences in all my entertainments thereafter.  Realizing that, and having had sufficient experience by this time to profit by such things, I made a special point of this feature in my next entertainment, which was at Rochester, and I had a crowded house--one that did my heart good--and my pocket, too.  That satisfied me that I had better go home and assist in perfecting the instrument.  I knew from my own experience in the matter that it was a comparatively simple thing to do, so I cancelled thirteen engagements and went back home with these newspaper clippings.  I went straight down to the laboratory, which was then at Newark, and I said: "Mr. Edison, look here.  See the trouble you have got me into."  He read these things over and said: "That is so; they are right.  That is what it is--a talking machine."  I said: "Can you make it?"  He said, "Of course.  Have you got any money?"  I says, "Yes; I have a little," and I had--a little.  He says, "Go to New York and get me three feet of Stubs' steel an inch and a half in diameter, and get me a piece of brass pipe four inches in diameter and six or eight inches long, and we will make it."  I took the next train to New York and got the material, and took it back and went to work.  Within twenty-four hours we had a little revolving cylinder turned with a crank and a simple diaphragm needle, which I will explain presently, wrapped a sheet of tin foil around the cylinder, and gave it the original phonographic sentence, "Mary Had a Little Lamb."  Then we set it back to see what the instrument was going to do about it.  It came out to our perfect satisfaction.  Not as clear as it does to-day, but it was "Mary Had a Little Lamb," sure enough.  That was the original phonograph and the starting point of an invention which, notwithstanding all that Mr. Edison has done since, notwithstanding my high appreciation of what he has accomplished, notwithstanding the commercial value--the vastly greater relative commercial value--of his subsequent inventions, is to my mind the greatest thing he ever did, and which, as a matter of fact, is the invention which has carried Mr. Edison's fame and name outside of the comparatively limited technical circle in which he was then known throughout the civilized world.  (Great applause.)  To-day the simple announcement that somebody, it makes no difference who he may be, known or unknown, is going to make a few remarks about Edison--that simple announcement is quite sufficient to crowd the largest auditorium with the most intelligent members of any community in this country or abroad.  And I speak from experience when I make that statement.

Now, a few words in explanation of this instrument, and then you shall hear it.  In the first place, there is a mistaken idea as to the character of the instrument.  It is popularly supposed to be an electrical instrument, because it is the invention of the greatest of all electrical inventors.  It is not an electrical instrument at all.  It is a mere bit of mechanism; it is a mechanical arrangement, pure and simple.  It is necessary to have a revolution of the cylinder, and to get that mechanical motion you must have some motive power.  As I explained, the original machine was turned by hand.  Others have been turned by water motors, gas motors, etc.  This instrument on the platform, I see by the electrical cords, is operated by an electric motor.  That is a matter which has no significance in relation to the machine; it is merely the motive power to turn the instrument, and is no part of it.  The instrument is simply mechanical.  Its principle is this: When i speak, I throw the air into vibration of a given form.  That strikes upon the ear and produces on the auditory nerves certain sounds, or rather they convey to the brain certain sensations that we term sounds.  These sounds are infinite in variety, but they have an intelligent meaning to the brain, that meaning being simply a matter of education.  It follows, therefore, that if I can produce these vibrations on the air, by other than my voice, but precisely and identically these vibrations, I will produce upon the ear, and consequently upon the brain, precisely the same sensations, and they cannot mean anything else in the one instance than in the other.

This invention is nothing more or less than an instrument which will accurately receive and record those vibrations, and retain their character, form, and number with absolute precision, and then mechanically do the work by operating something which will contribute again to the air all those peculiar waves of the vocal chords of precisely the character and form of the vibrations that it originally received.  If it can be done, you will of course perceive that the instrument, although a bit of mechanism, if it has the capacity to reproduce these vibrations, necessarily has the capacity to produce on the brain precisely the same sound that the vocal chords produced in the first instance.  Therefore what we want is an instrument that will do that.  Now let us see how we make an instrument of that kind.  You take anything, no matter what, a piece of paper like this (indicating), and utter a sound, the musical note "do" for instance, and in touching it with your finger on the opposite side, you feel the vibration.  Very well, we will call that the diaphragm--a paper diaphragm.  We will put that in a suitable frame, and hold it in such a position as we want to.  Then we will attach to the center of that diaphragm--because the center is the point of the greatest amplitude and the greatest vibration--a needle, not a sharp-pointed needle, but a needle whose point is comparatively sharp, one that will not scratch, but will simply produce the indentations upon that yielding substance.  Take and arrange that in such a way that the needle of the diaphragm rests against the surface of the revolving cylinder.  Now, we will put around the revolving cylinder that substance--paper is a little too hard for the needle to indent, of course; tinfoil is much better, and it was therefore used for a long while, so we will say tinfoil for the time being.  We will put around that cylinder a sheet of tinfoil, and we will adjust this instrument so that the needle will press slightly against that tinfoil.  Now, we will revolve the cylinder with a screw attachment at the end, so that the cylinder shall go past, transversely, in front of this needle, very gradually, so as to present a constantly new surface of tinfoil to the needle.  When you speak against the diaphragm and cause a vibration of the needle while the tinfoil is passing in front of it, you will necessarily produce on the tinfoil indentations of precisely the same number, and of a depth corresponding to the amplitude of vibration of the diaphragm, exactly the same as the diaphragm yields, and that will yield precisely the same as the air yields that has been put in motion by the voice.  Consequently, you have an absolute record on the tinfoil of the vibration of the air affected by the vocal chord, not only in number, but of the same character in all other particulars.

Now, if you will reverse this action, this cylinder, send it back again, turn it backward, if you please, then drag the needle back again, on to these indentations precisely where they began, and do nothing but simply rotate that cylinder so as to cause the needle to traverse the ground over again, thus going in and out of all the little indentations, you get precisely the same effect upon the diaphragm as you had originally; because, it now being moved by the rough path, so to speak, which it previously created, it must necessarily follow the same ups and downs.  So that you get the diaphragm in motion again as it was before, with the net result that the diaphragm contributes to the air precisely the same movement that the air had sent out from the diaphragm.  Consequently you get perfectly articulated speech.  That is all there is to the instrument.

This instrument lay dormant for twelve years.  Mr. Edison went from his telephone experiments immediately into electric light experiments, and consequently gave no attention to the phonograph, always saying to those of us who would urge him to take the matter up: "When I get through with this, I will take the phonograph up; that shall be the next thing."  But the electric light came along, and before he got through with the carbon transmitter he took that up, and the phonograph was ignored.  Then he promised to take it up when the electric light matter was settled.  Before he had satisfied himself with his work in that direction, others took up the phonograph and worked on it to considerable purpose, namely, Messrs. Taintor [sic] and Bell.  They endeavored to make a phonograph, which was then merely a scientific novelty.  In other words, to do for Edison's phonograph what Edison did for Bell's telephone, make it a commercial as well as a scientific success.  They succeeded in what has proved to be the correct principle; namely, that instead of making indentations in this plastic substance, wax, which is now the thing used, they made a little cutting knife, and actually cut the material out with each vibration.

The result of that was an instrument which, while it did not speak and was not intended to speak in the original voice, as the old tinfoil phonograph did, yet spoke with such distinctiveness that if you placed the tubes to your ear, while the voice was low, it was wonderfully clear and the utterance was easily comprehended.  They brought out on the basis of that improvement what is now universally known as the graphophone, which is simply the phonograph turned the other way around.  They did not claim to have anticipated Mr. Edison in this great discovery.  They simply claimed to have perfected Mr. Edison's instrument and thus brought it into the realm of commercial utility; but they did not make the progress that they expected, and Mr. Edison then took the subject up again, and the result of his efforts in that direction was the perfected phonograph.  Consequently we now have the graphophone and the phonograph.

A very shrewd gentleman in New York, recognizing the great possibilities of this thing, went to work to acquire the ownership of both.  Consequently the North American Phonograph Company to-day is the owner of all the rights of the graphophone and the phonograph, and now being but one common instrument, the aim in this instrument is to give you all that is known of the last and best development of this wonderful apparatus, which is to record what we say, keep it for any length of time, and then reproduce it for any purpose we may wish with as perfect a retention of the character and quality of the original voice as the telephone of to-day in its best form.  We will now endeavor to hear the instrument (applause): and I want to say that this instrument, although it is fitted up here with a rather elaborate contrivance so that you may hear it, is designed expressly not to do that which we are going to call upon it now to do, namely, to talk loud.  It is designed to address itself to the individual ear.  That is because the instrument is intended for commercial use.  I do not want the message or letter which I have dictated in my study at home and sent to the office to have transcribed by the typewriter to be heard by everybody in the room; consequently the instrument is designed to speak in a low, clear tone to the ear.  We can make them speak as loud as we please, but at some loss of clearness of articulation.  Inasmuch as it is impossible for everybody to assemble around the instrument, we will endeavor to make the instrument speak loud enough for you all to hear.

The phonograph was then brought into action, and after reproducing several cornet solos by Levy, reproduced the following message from Mr. Edison:


Edwin R. Weeks, Esq., Kansas City, Mo.

MY DEAR MR. WEEKS: When I had the pleasure of meeting you at my laboratory in December last, you suggested that I should send to the Kansas City convention, which commences next week, a phonograph discussion upon the subject of my five-wire system of distribution, which you were good enough to assure me would prove of interest to the delegates, and ever since that time I have been trying to find an opportunity to prepare the data.

My failure to do so has been through no fault of yours, as your letters have constantly kept the matter before me, nor has it been through want of inclination on my part that I am obliged to substitute this explanation.

Certain urgent matters of business which I was unable to anticipate have occupied my attention to such an extent that I have even had to neglect the important work of my experiments.  

While I could not have contributed to the success of the convention, which is already assured through its location in your enterprising city, I regret that I am unable to send something which would at least by more interesting than this apology.

Yours very truly, THOMAS A. EDISON