” . . . For myself, I can only say that I am astonished and somewhat terrified at the results of this evening’s experiment — astonished at the wonderful power you have developed, and terrified at the thought that so much hideous and bad music may be put on record forever. But all the same, I think it is the most wonderful thing that I have ever experienced, and I congratulate you with all my heart on this wonderful discovery.”
— Arthur Sullivan, composer, as recorded at a dinner on October 5, 1888, in London, England. Listen to the recording here.
On a cold winter day in 1877, in a workshop at Menlo Park, New Jersey, a thirty-year-old inventor sat fretting about his machines. He was trying to perfect the telephone. While working on it, an idea struck: Was it possible to record the sound of a human voice? And, if so, could that recording be put on a device that would enable it to be played back repeatedly?
The inventor got to work. He sketched and sketched until, finally, one design seemed right. He walked up to his mechanic, John Kruesi, and asked him to build it.
Thirty hours later, Kruesi set the machine on the table in front of his boss. The two tinkered with it, trying different materials until – finally – they decided on a cylinder made of paper, wood, and tin foil. Kruesi listened and watched in awe.
“Mary had a little lamb,” Thomas Edison said.
“Mary had a little lamb,” the machine repeated back.
In that moment, Thomas Edison – and his mechanic, John Kruesi – became the first known people to successfully record the human voice.
Edison’s invention was the phonograph, which used a diaphragm with a sharp point to etch variable-depth indentations into a tinfoil-wrapped cylinder. The machine was hand-cranked, and used a lighter diaphragm/needle combination to play the etching back as recorded sound.
Within weeks, the nation – and soon the world – knew of Edison’s achievement (with Kruesi forgotten). In the December 22 issue of Scientific American, the writers recalled how, “Mr. Thomas A. Edison recently came into this office, placed a little machine on our desk, turned a crank, and the machine inquired as to our health, asked how we liked the phonograph, informed us that it was very well, and bid us a cordial good night.”
Edison filed a patent for his creation on Christmas Eve of 1877, which was later issued as USA #200,521. The next year, he established the Edison Speaking Phonograph Company to exhibit and sell the machine. While it was a success, it required a trained expert to operate and the cylinders lasted only a few playings.
Over the coming decades, Edison perfected his machine, filing numerous patents for designs that would use discs, double-sided discs, electromagnetic recordings, electroplating, and even amplification systems based on compressed air. He also perfected the operations, making the machine battery-operated and removing the need for an expert to crank it. His evolving cylinders were made of wax, with each iteration being a different color (white, then brown/tan, then blue). In 1888, he premiered his “Perfected Phonograph,” the first to be used for transcription and archival recordings. You can hear some of the recordings played on it, just as they sounded, via the National Park Service.
Yet Edison also faced legal battles and stiff competition, which meant that many of his patents were rejected for being filed too late. Just 11 years after his first phonograph, in 1888, Edison was outmaneuvered by inventor Emile Berliner, whose gramophone used a disc rather than cylinder. The disks were 7 inches in diameter and able to be mass-produced in vulcanized rubber, leading to the gramophone’s popularity over the phonograph. In 1890, both Edison and Berliner’s records were featured in the first record catalog, produced by The Columbia Phonograph Company.
In 1897, Edison had finished his legal battles and had full control of the phonograph. He manufactured the Edison Standard Phonograph, the first phonograph to carry the Edison trademark. It retailed for $20 in 1897 (the equivalent of $622 in 2020). According to the Library of Congress, Edison’s “Standard-sized cylinders, which tended to be 4.25″ long and 2.1875″ in diameter, were 50 cents each and typically played at 120 r.p.m. A variety of selections were featured on the cylinders, including marches, sentimental ballads, minstrel dialect songs, hymns, comic monologues and descriptive specialities, which offered sound reenactments of events.”
Five years later, in 1902, Edison introduced the “Gold Molded” cylinder, which also sold for 50 cents each. This cylinder was fully mass-produced using a single mold that could produce up to 150 copies in black wax a day. Ten years later, Edison’s final iteration of the cylinder hit the market: the celluloid blue Amberol cylinders, which could play recordings up to four minutes in length. But the Amberol cylinders were highly susceptible to moisture and low temperatures, requiring strict environmental control. By this time, Edison was the only cylinder-maker left on the market. Despite offering the best quality in sound on the market in the 1910s, Edison’s cylinders were no match for the popularity of flat disc recordings. Edison continued making wax cylinders until 1929.
Despite the short life of wax cylinders and the phonograph, Edison’s invention is credited with beginning the music craze in America. His patents and efforts led to jukeboxes (1890), commercial radio (begun in 1920 with KDKA Pittsburg), the first musical recordings (since as Tin Pan Alley songs, the United States Marine Band under John Philip Sousa, and the first recordings of folk music), and more widely-known music players and brands such as the Victrola (1906) and Magnavox (1911).
Through these inventions, the phonograph achieved Edison’s aims for his imagined machine, as he laid out in North American Review’s June 1878 issue:
- Dictation without the aid of a stenographer,
- Phonographic books that could speak to blind people,
- Teaching of elocution,
- Reproduction of music,
- Recording family members, especially in their own voices, of their sayings, reminiscences, etc., and even last words,
- Music boxes and talking toys,
- Clocks that speak the time,
- Preserving languages,
- Education – such as recordings by teachers that pupils could refer back to, and
- Telephone messages.
So next time you hear a voicemail, listen to Spotify, or blast a song on the car radio, take a moment to thank Thomas Edison.
The Kentucky Museum proudly owns an Edison Cylinder Phonograph and several cylinders with recorded sound. If you would like to help preserve these artifacts, please consider adopting the phonograph ($100) or a cylinder (15 available, $10 each) by making a gift to the Adopt an Artifact program.