Friday, February 11, 2011

Thomas Edison and his first Phonograph

It is to the phonograph, more perhaps than to any other of his inventions, that Thomas A. Edison owed his title of "Wizard." And small wonder—there is something positively uncanny in the ability to take a few pieces of metal and preserve sound so that it may be kept for centuries to come. Yet the inventor himself regards the phonograph as one of the simplest of his inventions. "Why," said he, "it all but discovered itself."

It was back in those busy Menlo Park days, of 1877, when he was busy with the telephone transmitter. While working with a disk of carbon, having a sharpened pin point on the back of it, Edison noticed that when he spoke against the disk, the sound vibrations made the point prick his finger. Instantly the inventor called to mind the phonautograph, a discovery made by Leon Scott, some twenty years before. This consisted of a piece of bladder stretched over a frame, with a hog's bristle fastened stoutly in the center. When words were spoken close against the frame, the membrane vibrated with the motion of the sound waves, causing the bristle to scratch a little wavy track or sound picture of the human voice on a revolving cylinder which had been well-coated with lamp black.

"Hmm!" mused Edison, as the pin point gave him another jog. He saw that he had gone a step farther than Scott. But he was too engrossed with the work in hand to consider anything else just then.

Thomas Edison and his first PhonographTitle: The Story of Thomas A. Edison. Famous Americans for young readers. Author: Inez Nellie Canfield McFee. Publisher: Barse & Hopkins, 1922, Original from: the New York Public Library. Digitized: Jun 19, 2007. Length: 182 pages. Subjects: Biography & Autobiography / General History / General.

This image (or other media file) is in the public domain because its copyright has expired. This applies to the United States, where Works published prior to 1978 were copyright protected for a maximum of 75 years. See Circular 1 "COPYRIGHT BASICS" PDF. Works published before 1923, in this case 1922, are now in the public domain.
Another day he was absorbed in a device for the automatic repetition of telegraph messages. Busy with feeding a strip of paper into the sending machine, which recorded the dots and dashes of the original message in a series of indentations, "The Wizard" saw that he was making pictures of the sounds communicated by the telegraph message on paper.

Pictures of sound! There it was again! And quickly the great inventor was on his feet. "Boys," he cried excitedly, "I can make a talking-machine!"

Eagerly reaching for pen and draughting paper, he began at once upon the specifications, while the boys, used as they were to their chief's doing great things, stared at one another with disbelief plain upon their faces. In ten minutes the model was complete, even to the piece-work price $8, in Edison's trim figures in one corner, and he summoned John Kruesi, the best workman then on his force.

"How soon can you get this out?" he asked.

Kruesi's keen eye took in the details with lightning quickness. "I do not know exactly, sir," he said, "but I will do my best."

Edison knew Kruesi's best. It was a force as keen-edged and as tireless and indefatigable as his own. Well he knew that neither time, food nor water would interfere with the progress of the model, and he turned again to his own work, dismissing the matter entirely. For he had no great faith in this first draught. He thought he might possibly "hear a word or so that would give hope of a future for the idea."

Thirty hours passed, and then Kruesi presented himself with the completed device. And a crude, clumsy enough affair it was—as little like the perfect machines of to-day as one could well imagine. The cylinder turned by hand and the indentations were to be made on tinfoil. For the first phonograph was planned to make its own sound pictures and then to reproduce the sound on the spot.

Edison looked at the machine a bit dubiously, and the boys gathered laughingly around. "I'll bet a box of cigars it don't work," observed Carman, the foreman of the machine shop, sotto voce.

But Edison, like most deaf people, often hears when he is least expected to. "Done," he returned, in the quick, sportsmanlike comradery which made him so beloved by his men, and then, leaning forward and slowly turning the handle, he spoke into the mouthpiece:

"Mary had a little lamb,

Its fleece was white as snow,
And everywhere that Mary went
The lamb was sure to go."

Then the cylinder was returned to the starting place, and to the astonishment of all there came sharp and distinct, in a curious metallic voice, the little time-worn verse, just as Edison had recited it.

Imagine the triumph of the moment! Few inventions have ever been conceived and executed so swiftly.

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