The Graphophone

by Charles Sumner Tainter

from the The Electrical World, July 14, 1888

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

In a paper on the phonograph read by Mr. E. T. Gilliland before the New York Electric Club on May 12, 1888, and published in The Electrical World of May 19th, there are certain statements to which I take exception, as they are not supported by the facts in the case.

Mr. Gilliland says: "That Mr. Edison invented, patented and described in print all the essentials of the present phonograph instrument ten years ago," and that "Every principle embraced in the present improved phonograph is shown and described in these patents."

The manifest object of these statements is, of course, to create the impression in the public mind that the present development of the art of recording and reproducing sounds is due entirely to the work of Mr. Edison ; that the "essentials" are covered by his patents vaguely alluded to as "The patents of 1878," and that any other apparatus having the same object, and employing those "essentials" are " infringing machines," and, therefore, to be avoided by the public.

It is very important to all who will have occasion to use machines of this nature, either for business or pleasure, to be fully informed as to the exact quanturn of truth embodied in these statements, for their own protection in the lawful ownership, as well as in the undisturbed use of such machines. It is, therefore, my wish to state a few facts, capable of easy verification by all whom they may concern, which will conclusively show that Mr. Gilliland's statements, above quoted, are simply without foundation. The main feature of the so-called improved phonograph, and the "essential" of greatest value about the machine is the making of records of sounds by cutting or engraving in wax, instead of forming them by indenting a metal foil, which is the plan invented and employed by Mr. Edison until he adopted the method of cutting or engraving used for several years past in the graphophone. An examination of Mr. Edison's patents of 1878, which, according to Mr. Gilliland's statements, cover the cutting or engraving of records in wax, reveals the following: In his United States patents the only allusion to wax occurs in patent No. 200,521 of February 19, 1878. The specification reads as follows: "The material employed for this purpose may be soft paper saturated or coated with paraffin or similar material, with a sheet of metal foil on the surface thereof to receive the impression from the indenting point."

In British patent No. 1,644, of 1878, the same suggestion is found. The provisional specification of this patent contains the following: "Sometimes tin foil is used upon a grooved surface; sometimes a thin sheet or leaf of metal is placed upon a piece of paper having a surface of paraffin or similar material." The main specification, filed October 22, 1878, contains the statements given below, which will be found on page 7 of that document. "The material upon which the record is made may be of metal foil, such as tin, iron, copper, lead, zinc, cadmium, or a foil made of composition of metals. Paper or other materials may he used, the same being coated with paraffin or other hydrocarbons, waxes , gums, or lacs, and the sheet so prepared may itself be indented, or the material, say paper, may be made to pass through a bath of hot paraffin and thence between scrapers. Thin metal foil is now placed on the material, and the sheet passed through rollers, which give it a beautiful smooth surface. The indentation can now be made in the foil, and the paraffin or similar material, and the indenting point, does not become clogged with the paraffin in consequence of the intervening foil."

The utmost that can be made out of the above is, that Mr. Edison at that time conceived that he might substitute paper soaked in wax for the metal foil to receive the record formed by indentation, but, as the paraffin clogged the point of the style, he found that he could only use it as a backing for the metal foil.

The term indenting, as used by Mr. Edison throughout his patent specifications, clearly means the action of embossing or shaping the material without the removal of any part of it, as in forming it record in tin foil by pressing it into shape with the vibrating style. This method of forming records of sound vibrations is very defective, and the prospect of obtaining anything but it rough approximation to a true record by means of it, is beyond hope. The cutting or engraving process, in which the material is removed in the form of a shaving, is free from the defects of the indenting method, and greatly superior records are the result, as has been demonstrated for several years past by the graphophone, and now by the so-called improved phonograph, in which Mr. Edison has adopted this "essential," and made it his principal feature.

The indenting method is faulty in this respect, viz., the formation of each indentation in a metal foil alters the shape of the one immediately preceding, as the material bends backward as well as forward for some distance around the point of the style. This defect is more noticeable in records of speech, as the distortion is greatest in the finer vibrations which lend quality to the sounds. The records of music being simpler and more regular, are less affected by the apparently unavoidable distortion due to the indenting method, and this accounts for the fact that such records are found to reproduce much more clearly and accurately than records of speech.

The quotation given above from British patent No. 1,644 includes everything relating to the use of wax I have been able to find in any patent or publication emanating from Mr. Edison, prior to the issue of the graphophone, patents of May 4, 1886, two of which, Nos. 341,214 and 341,288, are directly infringed by Mr. Edison, in his so-called improved phonograph, as reference to the specifications and claims of these patents will show.

I do not undertake to quote all the twenty or more claims in our patents infringed by Mr. Edison, but only select a few of them for reference, to show how the "improved phonograph" has been perfected.

In patent No. 341,214, filed June 27, 1885, and issued to Chichester A. Bell and myself, the following claims among others were allowed:

CLAIM 1. "The method of forming a record of sounds by impressing sonorous vibrations upon a style, and thereby cutting in a solid body the record corresponding in form to the sound waves, in contradistinction to the formation of sound records by indenting a foil with a vibratory style, or cutting a strip by vibrating it against a revolving disc cutter."

CLAIM 3. "The vibrator cutting-style of a sound recorder."

CLAIM 4. "The cutting style, in combination with a support permitting the same to be vibrated, and means for impressing sonorous vibrations thereon."

CLAIM 7. "A sound record consisting of a tablet or other solid body having its surface cut or engraved with narrow lines of irregular or varied form corresponding to sound waves."

CLAIM 9. "The method of forming a sound or speech record, which consists in engraving or cutting the same in wax or a wax-like composition."

CLAIM 12. "The sound or speech record cut or engraved in a wax-like composition, such as the compound of beeswax and paraffin."

CLAIM 24. "The combination, with a sound record formed in wax or a wax-like material, of a reproducer having a rubbing style for receiving sonorous vibrations from said record."

In patent No. 341,288 filed December 4, 1885, and issued to me May 4, 1886, the following claims will be found:

CLAIM 1. "A recording tablet for a phonograph, consisting of a hollow cylinder provided with a wax or wax-like coating for receiving the sound record."

CLAIM 4. "A tubular self -sustaining tablet for recording sounds or sonorous vibrations."

CLAIM 5. "In a phonograph and in combination with a sound recorder or reproducer and operating mechanism for causing the said recorder or reproducer to trace a spiral line on the tablet, an elongated cylindrical tablet holder supported and journaled so that the tubular tablet can be placed on the same."

CLAIM 6. "The combination, with a tubular tablet of a tablet-holder for supporting and rotating the same."

CLAIM 37. "A recording-tablet consisting of a hollow cylinder provided with it wax or wax-like coating and having a sound record cut in said coating."

Mr. Gilliland also states that "it has been asserted by some, and believed by a great many that the work of improving the phonograph was undertaken and accomplished not by Mr. Edison, but by other persons not connected with him. "In view of what is given above, and the fact that machines under the name of graphophones using wax compositions for recording and reproducing speech and other sounds, have been in use for several years past, that a considerable number are in daily practical operation in business offices and other places at the present time, and that they are being eagerly taken as fast as they can be supplied, it is evident that the assertion quoted above from Mr. Gilliland, to which he takes exception,---that the work of improving the phonograph was undertaken and accomplished by other persons not connected with Mr. Edison,--is fully substantiated.

Mr. Gilliland also states that "on account of the rapid growth and extraordinary demand of the electric light business, etc.," "the work of perfecting and preparing the phonograph for manufacture has necessarily been slow. This work, however, was not laid aside, but has been steadily kept up till the present date."

In the summer of 1885, while in New York City on business, I exhibited to several members of the Edison Speaking Phonograph Company, a machine on which records of sounds were engraved and reproduced from cylinders of wax, in substantially the same manner as that used in the so-called improved phonograph of Mr. Edison. I was also shown at this time by a prominent member of the Phonograph Company a phonograph of large size, which, I understood, embodied Mr. Edison's latest ideas up to that time. It is very well described in Mr. Edison's own words in a characteristic interview published in the New York World of November 6, and copied in The Electrical World of November 12, 1887.

Mr. Edison's description is this: "It weighed about one hundred pounds; it cost a mint of money to make; no one but an expert could get anything intelligible back from it; the record made by the little steel point upon a sheet of tinfoil lasted only a few times after it had been put through the phonograph. I myself doubted whether I should ever see a perfect phonograph ready to record an kind of ordinary speech, and to give it out again intelligently. But I was perfectly sure that if we did not accomplish this the next generation would. And I dropped the phonograph and went to work upon the electric light, certain that I had sown seed which would come to something." This, together with another statement of Mr. Edison, contained in the same interview from which the above is quoted, that he only resumed work on the phonograph eight months before, and also with the fact that members of the Phonograph Company informed me in 1885 that they were trying to induce him to work on it, seems hardly consistent with Mr. Gilliland's assertion that "this work was not laid aside but has been steadily kept up till the present time."

In view of the above it is hardly necessary to adduce other facts to contradict Mr. Gilliland's statements. It is well known, however, that the Edison Speaking Phonograph Company was formed upon the expectations created by this apparatus, with ample capital to work and introduce it commercially, which company is in existence today, and has been supplying the very limited demand that has existed in the intervening years for the Edison phonograph. This tells the whole story of the primitive apparatus of the former year was never materially improved.

The graphophone shown to Mr. Edison's associates in 1885 made a perfect record by engraving or cutting the same on the surface of a cylinder composed of a mixture of beeswax and paraffin, from which the reproduction was distinct and intelligible, and could be repeated indefinitely, in a word, it accomplished everything claimed for the so-called improved phonograph of Mr. Edison. This instrument formed the subject-matter of Patent 341,288, issued to me May 4, 1886, and was illustrated and described in an article in Harper's Weeklyy of July 17, 1886, from which article Figures 1, 2 and 3 are taken.

The following description of the graphophone as it was at that time is copied from the article in Harper's Weekly above referred to:

"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."

. . . [Figure 4 illustrates a machine for] recording a conversation between two persons, the speaking tube resting on the table being used by one, the operator of the machine for instance, and the other tube hanging from the support at the left hand end of the table is used by the second person. Both terminate in a single tube which is connected with the recorder of the machine. The reproducer and its hearing tube, and also a blank record cylinder, are shown resting upon the cover at the back.

Machines of the design shown in Figure 4 have been in operation in Washington for at least eighteen months, and they have also been exhibited successfully in other places in different parts of the country. About the first of May, 1887, one of these machines was taken to New York City by myself and a party of gentlemen, connected with the American Graphophone Company, for the express purpose of showing it to Mr. Edison and his associates of the Edison Speaking Phonograph Company. Upon our arrival in New York, however, we found Mr. Edison ill at his home in New Jersey, and so did not have the pleasure of showing him the graphophone; but several of his associates of the Phonograph Company inspected and tried the machine, and I think were pleased with its performance. As Mr. Edison resumed work on the phonograph about this time, and afterwards adopted the most important "essentials" of this machine, I conclude that he also was fairly well satisfied with its performance, as reported to him by his associates.

In the spring of 1887 I designed the form of graphophone shown in Figures 5 and 6, for the purpose of getting the apparatus into a cheaper and more convenient shape to manufacture, and also to increase its efficiency and case of manipulation. This machine is the one in practical use at the present time, and being, manufactured for sale by the American Graphophone Company, which Company controls the invention for the United States and Canada.

Figure 5 shows the machine in condition for making a record, and a person in the act of dictating to the instrument. Instead of a single speaking-tube and mouth-piece, as shown the cut, a double arrangement is used when it is desired to record a conversation between two persons as stated in connection with Figure 4. This is found very convenient for taking depositions and in similar work.

Figure 6 shows the machine arranged for reproducing the records and making a type-writer copy. By pressing one of the small keys shown on the right of the graphophone, the reproduction of what is recorded on the wax cylinder commences, and when as many words as is desired are reproduced, a slight pressure on the second key stops the cylinder while the motions of the foot and regulator continue, and the words reproduced are printed by the typewriter. The first key is then pressed and a few more words of the record reproduced, which are in turn printed by the type-writer, and so on throughout the record. The capacity of a wax cylinder six inches long and one and one-quarter inches in diameter when dictated to at the rate of one hundred and fifty words per minute is about seven hundred words, but if the cylinder is given the surface velocity used by Mr. Edison in the so-called improved phonograph, the capacity would be about seventeen hundred words. I have found it advantageous, however, to use a higher surface speed, as the reproduced sounds are thus made louder and clearer. The groove cut in the wax by the recording style is only three one-thousandths of an inch wide, and less than this in depth, and one hundred and sixty-one grooves to the inch are cut on the cylinder. The total length of the record on a six-inch cylinder will therefore be about two hundred and fifty feet. Cylinders two, four and six inches long are used. The operation of changing them does not occupy five seconds, and six-inch cylinders will be sold for about three cents each, and the shorter ones in proportion.

"The graphophone, as manufactured, can be converted from a single to a double machine by simply applying the extra parts for holding the second cylinder, the key connection, and an extra recorder. A few minutes only is required to make the change, and the machine then presents the appearance shown in Figure 7. Each cylinder has a separate recorder, the two recorders being connected to one speaking-tube, and two records are made at the same time with no more effort that is required to produce one. This will be found useful for correspondence, one record being sent to the correspondent and the other retained for the copy. There are other uses to which this feature can be applied with advantage, which will readily suggest themselves to the users of the machine.

Owing to the limited facilities at my command, the work of developing the graphophone and fitting it for practical every-day use has necessarily been slow. I have not enjoyed the benefits derived from wealth and a laboratory with a hundred or more assistants; nor have I been fortunate enough to have a number of factories at my disposal in which to manufacture machines.

The commercial graphophone was completed last summer and put into the hands of the manufacturers early last fall. To manufacture apparatus of this character properly, so that the principal parts will be interchangeable, and that records made on one machine may be reproduced on any other, requires the expenditure of a great deal of labor in the preparation of the special tools, gauges, etc., necessary to do the work, and much delay has been the result. The machines are adjusted and put out as rapidly as they are received from the manufacturers, and the success of those already in practical every-day use has demonstrated their entire practicability and value as a labor-saving invention. Graphophones are used in Washington in both houses of Congress for work in connection with reporting the proceedings, and also by members for the dictation of their correspondence, etc. Many of the leading stenographers and lawyers of Washington are also using the machines, and find them of great help in their work. Thousands of record cylinders have been issued to supply these machines, and I have devised and had constructed special machines and appliances to make them cheaply and accurately. A six-inch cylinder weighs less than half an ounce, and mailing boxes have been devised weighing (including a cylinder with seven hundred words recorded upon it) about one ounce. These boxes will be sold for a small amount, and can be used a number of times, and pass through the mails for two cents at letter postage. Arrangements are in progress for manufacturing graphophones and cylinders on a large scale, and in a short time they will be turned out in sufficient quantities to supply the very active demand. I may add that full particulars in regard to the machines and cylinders can be obtained .by addressing the American Graphophone Agency, 160 to 164 Broadway, New York City, where the instrument is on exhibition.

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

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