Edison to Vinyl: A History of Recorded Sound, Part III: 1886

As stated in the previous entry from late 1883 to early 1886 saw little to nothing in the way of improvements or innovation in the area of the phonograph and its like. In 1886 things change and development takes on a much brisker pace.

On February 2nd 1886 a patent was granted to James Houlehan for the telephony (335,522 telephony). While not actually an improvement on the phonograph, it is interesting that someone thought to use a phonograph to record not only the outgoing but also the incoming sides of a phone conversation.


On February 16th 1886 Chichester A. Bell (cousin of Alexander Graham Bell) was granted a patent for a similar device (336,203 Method of and apparatus for transmitting, reproducing and recording speech). The interesting thing about this device is that the method of recording the sound to medium would be by a fluid jet, preferably water. As an aside, Alexander Graham Bell won the Volta prize in 1880 for the telephone which enabled him to set up Volta Laboratories for electrical and acoustical research where he worked with, and the previously mentioned invention was made by Chichester A. Bell.

This laboratory would continue to work on recording sound and would obtain four patents on May 5th 1886. All for methods of recording and/or reproducing sound. The first patent (341,212 Reproducing sound from phonograph records) was granted to Alexander Graham Bell, Chichester A. Bell and Charles Sumner Tainter. It speaks of using a fluid, gas or liquid, to transmit the sound vibrations from the record to the diaphragm thereby reducing or eliminating ware on the record. Interestingly, here they use a disc shaped record of wax on metal with the sound waves recorded in a spiral pattern. I always though that Emile Berliner was the first to patent the disk record, but that was not to happen for another year.


The next patent granted (341,214 Recording and reproducing speech and other sounds) granted to Chichester A. Bell and Charles Sumner Tainter describes the recording and sound reproduction method for the wax disk that had been described in the previous patent. This patent describes the cutting process which would produce a longer lasting record. Interestingly the record would be held vertically on this device, it also reproduced sound by direct mechanical contact and not by fluid jet as in the previous patent. This patent also describes a method of recording on non-magnetic tape of paper and wax.


The third patent granted that day (341,287 Recording and reproducing sounds) was to Charles Sumner Tainter. It describes a method of recording and reproducing sound magnetically. As we now know this would eventually be discarded and efforts would concentrate fully on the wax recording medium. The method described is interesting though.

The final patent of that day, and the one I believe re-invigorated Thomas Edison, was granted to Charles Sumner Tainter (341,288 Apparatus for recording and reproducing sound). This device is similar to the original Edison phonograph of 1878 but recorded to a wax covered paper cylinder, the sound being cut into the wax. This device was shown publicly as the graphophone.


I think it was this very device that led to the commercial viability of the phonograph as Bell and Tainter sent communications to Thomas Edison about a possible collaboration on the machine. Of course Edison rejected this and now wanted to improve his previous design to compete with Bell and Tainter.

The Graphophone Company of Alexandria, or Volta Graphophone Company (I have seen both names used) was created on January 1886 and formally incorporated on February 3rd 1886, many associates and competitors would come the following few years.

In the next entry we will look at the developments of 1887

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