The Graphophone

fromHarper's Weekly, July 1, 1886, pp. 458-460

see Tainter Papers - Magazine Illustrations for pictures of the Figures.

One of the most brilliant conceptions of Mr. THOMAS A. EDISON was that a record could be made of sounds, from which the sounds could be reproduced. After considerable experiment, Mr. Edison invented the instrument known the world over as the Phonograph. This little machine consists of a cylinder about three inches in diameter, covered with a shallow spiral groove, upon which is placed tin-foil. The cylinder is so arranged that it will travel horizontally back or forth by means of a screw, and is operated by a crank. The sounds are communicated to the tin-foil by a steel point attached to a diaphragm that is agitated by the sounds coming through a tube, to which is attached a mouth-piece. The concussion of the sound waves striking upon the diaphragm forces the metal point forward, which is already in contact with the tin-foil, and makes indentations as the cylinder revolves with the movement of the crank.

In order to reproduce the sounds the diaphragm is replaced to its point of starting, and the steel point goes over the record, following the path of the indentations made on the tin-foil upon the rotation of the cylinder. The point agitates the diaphragm, which in turn agitates the air in the tube, and the repetition of the sound is thereby produced.

Several hundred of the machines above described were put upon the market, and quite a number were sold, but the Phonograph failed to make a success, for the reason that the machine was not only a clumsy piece of mechanism, frequently getting out of adjustment, but more especially because of the fact that the surface upon which the record was made was pliable, and likely to be obliterated by a mere accidental pressure upon it.

Believing in the possibility of making a successful machine to record and reproduce sounds, Professor ALEXANDER GRAHAM BELL, Dr. CHICHESTER A. BELL, and Mr. SUMNER TAINTER associated themselves together, under the name of the Volta Laboratory Association, and established a laboratory in the city of Washington, one of the principal objects of which was to experiment upon methods of recording and reproducing sound. After several years of experiment, the inventors of the Graphophone now desire that the writer shall introduce to the world the results they have obtained.

The word "Graphophone" is a simple transposition of the word "Phonograph," and is intended to convey the same meaning

Mr. SUMNER TAINTER soon saw that tin-foil presented a surface unfit for the purpose it was called upon to fulfill, because of its pliability and destructibility. Many and elaborate experiments were made to discover a substance upon which a perfect and durable sound record could be made. Mr. TAINTER conceived the idea of using a surface upon which the sound record could be cut, instead of indenting a soft and pliable surface as is done in the EDISON machine. It was finally decided upon to use a paper surface coated with a preparation composed of wax and paraffin.

The Graphophone is made in two forms, one to make the records upon a cylindrical surface, the other upon a disk or flat surface, the same principles, however, governing each machine. The machines are provided with two diaphragms, one used in making the record, and the other in reproducing the sound. The cylindrical machine stands about five or six inches high by eight wide, and weighs about ten pounds. There is no skill required in the manipulation of the machine, the rotation of the cylinder being accomplished by a crank or automatic motion. Mr. TAINTER has exhibited a great amount of ingenuity and skill in devising the various parts of the machine, and suiting them to the purposes for which they were designed. The instrument is a marvel of perfection in accuracy of the movements of all its parts.

Upon a diaphragm three inches in diameter a steel point is attached, which cuts a minute hair line in the surface of the waxed cylinder upon the agitation of the diaphragm by a sound. The indentation is so slight as to be scarcely perceptible, and yet these records can be gone over time and again, and are just as perfect after a hundred repetitions as they were at first.

The diagram gives an idea of the way the steel point cuts into the surface of the wax, and also portrays all actual sound wave. This figure is magnified three times, and there are one hundred and forty lines to the inch upon the cylinder.

Upon a cylinder six inches in length by an inch and a quarter in diameter one is enabled to record at least five minutes' conversation. The cylinder-holder is constructed with a ball joint at one end, and call be easily tipped so as to allow the hollow cylinder to be rapidly slipped on or off.

The disk machine possibly has some advantages over the cylindrical machine because of the fact that the record is made upon a flat surface, and appears in the form of a spiral line. For the purpose of copying records, and possibly for preservation, the flat surface is probably superior, but as each machine has advantages peculiar to itself, it is a difficult matter to judge which will prove the superior for all purposes.

The first illustration shows the Graphophone in actual operation, with the operator in the act of speaking into the machine. The second shows listeners with the ear-pieces on in the act of listening to the reproduction. If the listener does not care to use ear pieces, or should there be four or five who wish to hear the reproduction, a trumpet attachment is placed upon the machine, which throws the sound out into the air.

Either of these machines is in a condition at the present time to do the amanuensis work usually done by stenographers. For instance, any one may sit before the Graphophone and in ordinary tones speak his daily correspondence into the machine. His letters can then be written by a copyist, who can write from the dictation of the machine.

By a neat mechanical contrivance the operator is enabled to take as many words at a time as he can conveniently remember, and should he forget any part of the sentence, by a slight pressure of the finger on a rod running along the base of the machine the reproducer will repeat the sentence.

Should a corespondent also have a Graphophone, the writer of the letter could in a few moments dictate what would make a lengthy epistle, enclose it in it box about the size of the apothecary's "pill box," place a stamp thereon, and transmit through the mails. The correspondent can in turn place the cylinder received upon his Graphophone, and listen to the letter of his friend with his voice preserved, thereby avoiding the vexation and loss of time consequent upon an encounter with bad chirography.

One of the most novel and interesting features of this machine is its ability to record the sounds of a number of voices speaking at the same time; this is done on one instrument, by one diaphragm, one metallic point, and upon a single line. How it is done finds an explanation in the fact that the different tones of the voices vibrate with unlike speed and force, and thus make different impressions upon the diaphragm, and move the metallic point in a different way, so as to make a record of the various sounds. The diaphragm of this machine, like the drum of the ear, can receive and record distinctly the various sounds of a quartet of singers.

The Graphophone is now prepared to represent all moods: it will tell you a funny story, and laugh with you in natural tones; it will repeat a tragedy that is blood-curdling in its nature; it will tell you a love story with all the ardor of a wooer; it will sing you an Irish song, or whistle a selection from the Mikado.

It is expected soon to be able to correctly reproduce the songs of great singers, and the recitations, dialogues, etc., of distinguished actors, and by a process already successful to copy the records of the songs or recitations and dispose of them at a trifle, thus enabling a person to enjoy at home such delightful singing as PATTI would render, or such elocution as we would listen to from EDWIN BOOTH.


A discovery of vast importance in relation to the recording and reproduction of sounds has been made by Dr. CHICHESTER A. BELL, one of the members of the Laboratory Association. He has discovered that a jet of water mimics and perfectly reproduces every word or sound uttered. It has been known for some time past that jets of water are sensitive to sound, but not that they were sufficiently sensitive to reproduce sounds.

A jet of water is made to fall from a small reservoir, and upon reaching an obstructing surface, if it is of a vibratory nature, will cause the surface to take up vibrations similar to those received by the diaphragm of a telephone upon being agitated by a sound. The vibration of the water begins at the orifice, travels down the jet, and is plainly visible to the naked eye at the lower end of the jet,

The recording of sounds by the water jet is accomplished in the following manner: a jet about one-tenth of an inch in diameter is allowed to fall directly upon the back of the cutting style; any sound made within a certain distance will cause sympathetic vibrations on the part of the water, and force the style into the wax surface and thus make a record.

The writer has listened to intelligible reproductions of songs, etc., made three feet away from the jet, and the inventors anticipate being able to make an apparatus (utilizing the principle above mentioned) which will record what the speaker may say from twenty to thirty feet away, and even greater distances.

The jet is sensitive to all sounds, consequently the Graphophone of the future will not only give a verbatim record of the proceedings of any kind, but will accompany it with all the noises and unimportant sounds which may have occurred during the time the record was taken.

It is believed by the inventors that they will be able to make an instrument which can be placed upon a table, and a party of ten or a dozen may sit around discussing whatever they desire, the Graphophone with the jet attachment to run noiselessly by automatic motion and record all that is said, also the noises of shutting doors and scraping of feet upon the floor, etc. Aside remarks not intended to be heard by everybody will be caught by the Graphophone, to the discomfiture of the person making them. All details will be given in the reproduction, and then will be no possibility of changing or doubting the correctness of the record.

With this short and perhaps inadequate description the results of the recording and reproduction of sounds are given to the world.

There can be no doubt of the far-reaching usefulness and practical value of these inventions and discoveries, and to Mr. TAINTER, Dr. BELL, and Professor BELL the honor is due of having successfully solved a problem that will save the world's time, enhance its joys, and facilitate its business.

Franck Z. Maguire

Washington, D. C., June 23, 1886.

Source: Tainter Papers, Smithsonian National Museum of American History, Washington, D. C.

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