Edison to Vinyl: A History of Recorded Sound, Part I

Hers is an ambitious project I am about to tackle while I get my video recording stuff into some sort of permanent set-up. I am going to look at the history of recording and reproducing sounds from Thomas Edison forward through the years, primarily in the USA as I don’t have access to some foreign patents. I will be looking mostly at patents, the breakthroughs and the failures. From the small changes to giant leaps forward, sometimes glossing over the surface, sometimes going a bit more in depth. Come join me and see if you learn anything.

Our saga begins on December 4th of 1877, when one of Thomas Edison’s aides recounted in his diary that construction had begun on the first phonograph. It was finished two days later. Some time between that date and December 22nd 1877 the famous Mary had a Little Lamb recording was made. Before the 22nd of December Edison visited the offices of Scientific American magazine to show off his new device. They published the below article on December 22nd.


Read this article here: The Talking Phonograph

He then applied for a patent on December 24th 1877.

On February 19th 1878 Thomas Alva Edison was issued patent #200521 for the Phonograph or Speaking Machine. Now, let me give you a layman’s description of how it worked.

A sheet of metal that will have the sound recording impressed onto it is placed around a cylinder that has a helical groove cut in it (at about 10 grooves per inch). This groove will make it easier to impress the recording onto the sheet. One would speak, I assume loudly, into the mouthpiece and cause a diaphragm with an attached indenting tip to vibrate and impress the metal sheet while the cylinder is rotated via a clock work mechanism below the machine. The sheet could be removed and saved for later or possibly sent by mail to somebody who also had a machine. To listen to the recording one only has to pull the speaking tube away from the cylinder which disengages the impressing tip. Then put the already recorded metal sheet on the cylinder, engage the listening tube which contains a lighter diaphragm and tip and crank away to listen to the recording. Seems like a very simple concept to modern eyes, back then it was a marvel.

Here is the patent drawing.


Here is a link to the patent in full: T.A. Edison, Phonograph or Speaking Machine


The original 1877 phonograph as shown to the staff of Scientific American in December of the year.

So, this is where it all started. We can thank this invention for giving us the hobby of record collecting. The joy of hunting down wax cylinders, shellac 78s, 45s, LPs and everything in between. Stay tuned for the next chapter where we will look at some of the improvements and possibly some failures in the late 1870s and early 1880s.

As a side note, before somebody decides to tell me, I am aware there were some recording devices previous to this phonograph. I am just not covering those.

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