The Graphophone

by Henry Edmunds

paper read 7th September, 1888, at Section G of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, Bath Meeting.

Nature first gave man the reproduction of his own voice in the echo, and we can imagine his surprise and bewilderment at hearing his words repeated, perchance several times, for who among us has not experienced similar surprises though in this matter-of-fact scientific age, when everything is analyzed and explained, much of the charm of mystery is lost. Although echo showed the simplest reproduction of sound, without the aid of vocal organs, or still more complex mechanical devices, such as the puzzled brain of man has devised from time to time, yet it has taken all these years of patient plodding, occasionally assisted by some brilliant accident, to evolve the ultimate but simple device which should repeat these echoes indefinitely, thus surpassing nature in giving back. whenever called upon, the words uttered, storing the same in that fragile but ancient storehouse, where bees have ever placed their honeyed sweets-in simple wax.

I will now ask you to follow. me through the interesting history of the art of recording and reproducing sound.

One of the Chinese legation in Washington, on seeing the Graphophone, said they bad a legend in China about some fair woman, whose voice was so beautiful, that her children wished to preserve it for future generations to hear; they persuaded her to speak into a bamboo cane, carefully sealing the same. The cane was safely kept for several generations, and then opened at the proper end, when each word came out in order with all the original sweetness, but, unfortunately, could never be repeated.

Leaving this lost, art of the Chinese, we come down to more modern times, and turning to Professor Tyndall find in his work " On Sound," page 50, in a footnote that "On July 27th, 1681, Mr. Hooke showed an experiment making musical and other sounds by the help of the teeth of brass wheels, which teeth were made of equal bigness for musical sounds but of unequal for vocal." (See " Birch's History of the Royal Society," page 96, published in the year 1757.)

In addition to this I would quote the following extract from the life of Dr. Hooke, which precedes his posthumous work, published in 1705, by Richard Waller, the Secretary of the Royal Society.

"In July the same year, he (Dr. Hooke) showed a way of making musical and other sounds by the striking of the teeth of several brass wheels, proportionally cut as to their numbers, and turned very fast round, in which it was observable that the equal proportionate strokes of the teeth made musical notes, but the unequal strokes of the teeth more resembled the sound of the voice in speaking."

It is remarkable that these notices were published in 1705 and 1757, while the experiments themselves were made in 1681, over 200 years ago, and yet the idea of simply mechanically reproducing the human voice, has lain dormant all these years.

In 1854, Charles Bourseuil, advanced the idea that two diaphragms, one operating an electric contact, and the other under the influence of an electro-magnet, might be employed for transmitting speech over telegraphic distances, "Speak against one diaphragm," he said, "and let each vibration break or make the electric contact, and the electric pulsations thereby produced will set the other diaphragm vibrating and the latter ought then to reproduce the transmitted sound."

In 1857, the phonautograph was patented in France, by Leon Scott. It had for its purpose the recording of sound vibrations upon a cylinder rotated by hand and moved forward by a screw. The cylinder was covered with paper, which was smoked over a flame, and a stylus attached to the centre of a diaphragm under the influence of words spoken into a large barrel-like mouthpiece, would trace sound vibrations upon the smoked surface. But no attempt was made at reproducing sounds.

In 1859, Philip Reis actually made an apparatus, such as was indicated by Bourseuil, which is now known as the Reis Telephone.

Faber also attempted to construct a talking machine, after the system of the human organs of speech, a mass of intricate mechanism, levers, bellows, and pulleys, which gave unearthly utterances of a few words and sentences.

But the Bell telephone came in 1876 -- it taught how simple a piece of apparatus could produce perfect results, and, that any diaphragm however thick, could be made to set up audible articulate vibrations.

On the 30th day of April, 1877, M. Charles Cros deposited with the Secretary of the Academy of Sciences in Paris a sealed envelope, containing a paper on a "PROCESS OF RECORDING AND OF REPRODUCING AUDIBLE PHENOMENA." which in translation, is as follows:

"In general, my process consists in obtaining the tracing of the to-and-fro movements of a vibrating membrane, and the utilization of this tracing for reproducing the same to-and-fro movement, with their relative inherent durations and intensities in the same membrane, or in another adapted for furnishing the sounds and noises which result from this series of movements.

"We are, therefore, concerned with the transformation of an extremely delicate tracing, such as that obtained with a delicate stylus rubbing upon a surface blackened by a flame, to transform, I say, these tracings in relief or intaglio, in resisting material capable of guiding a moving body, which transmits these movements to the sonorous membrane.

"A light stylus is connected with the centre of a vibrating membrane; it terminates in a point (metallic wire, the barb of a feather, etc.), which bears upon a surface blackened by a flame. This surface is a part of a disc to which is given a double movement of rotation and rectilinear progression.

" If the membrane is at rest, the point will trace a simple spiral; if the membrane vibrates, the traced spiral will be undulating, and these undulations represent exactly all the to-and-fro movements of the membrane, with their times and intensities."

Up to this point the apparatus as described would represent a modified Scott phonautograph in which the cylinder is replaced by a flat disc. M. Cros then continues:

"By means of the photographic process which, in fact, is well known, this traced, transparent, undulatory spiral is converted into a line of similar dimensions, in intaglio or in relief, in resisting material like tempered steel, for instance,

"This done, this resisting surface is, by means of a motor apparatus, made to turn and to progress rectilinearly with a velocity like that which was used in the registration.

"If the reproduced tracing is in intaglio, a metallic point (and if it is in relief, a notched finger), held by a spring, bears upon the tracing at one end, and is connected at the other end with the centre of the membrane adapted for sound reproduction. Under these conditions, this membrane is not any more acted upon by the vibrating air, but by the tracing, controlling the pointed stylus by pulsations exactly like those to which the membrane was subjected in recording, both as to duration and intensity."

This paper was only read in open session at the Academy on December 3, 1877, nevertheless to Charles Cros belongs the honor of having first suggested the idea of, and feasible plan for, mechanically reproducing speech once uttered. But meanwhile Mr. T. A. Edison appeared with the Phonograph.

I believe I had the honour of being one of the first Englishmen to see this instrument, as in 1877 I was in the United States, observing the scientific progress of the period, visiting, different institutions, and meeting various professors and inventors amongst others, I saw Mr. Edison in November of that year.

From what I learnt by published reports, Mr. Edison, some time in the latter part of September in that year, was at work on an automatic telephone, by which he intended to impress a telephone message upon a strip of tin-foil, and let the indentations thereby produced act upon a variable resistance, such as a lampblack button, and thereby transmit the message over the wire. While one day at work on this, so the report runs, he accidentally passed the previously indented slip under the recording stylus which, as in the Scott phonautograph, was connected to the centre of a diaphragm, and there occurred the first actual reproduction by mechanical means of words registered before.

The Phonograph became then, at once, an accomplished fact, for to such an experienced inventor it took but a short time to cover the cylinder of a Scott phonautograph with tin-foil, and to indent the same at right angles to the surface of the cylinder.

I was much interested in it, and, returning to England in December, 1877 sent in a full report to the London Times, which appeared in their issue of the 17th February, 1878. Shortly afterwards, the first Phonograph made in this country by Mr. Stroh, under my instructions was exhibited by Mr. W. H. Preece, the President of this Section, at his interesting lecture at the Royal Institution. This, was the first public exhibition of the "Edison Phonograph," or sound-recording machine in this country.

Everybody remembers the sensation which the invention produced, and the prognostications which were advanced for it by the scientific press showed that the principle of the apparatus was considered to contain the germ of an ultimate achievement of the most accurate results ; but that it left something to be desired may be judged from the following lines sent me by Mr. Perry F. Nursey after hearing the instrument on February 27th, 1878:


How, Adam, Noah, Melchisedic,
And all their friends would laugh,
Could they but visit earth again
And hear the Phonograph.

Sure Memnon, son of morning's voice,
Could not be more melodious,
Nor could old Stentor's roaring lungs
E'er utter sounds more odious.

The former's smooth as brooklet flows,
The latter's harsh as medicine,
But smooth or rough, like honour goes
To Thomas Alva Edison.

Great things were expected of this instrument, and a large Company was formed in America called the "Edison Phonograph Company." It was proposed to record speech mechanically, in place of employing stenographers; to attach Phonographs to clocks which should call out the time of day or night, instead of striking bells; and, in fact, all kinds of proposals were made, as to various applications on the assumption that tin-foil could be indented by the human voice, and that such indentation would intelligibly reproduce articulate speech. But what was the actual result ? A few instruments were made for exhibition, but none were made use of for any practical purpose. The human voice might speak into the instrument, but only a caricature of it was reproduced, and the ultimate result may be best described in Mr. Edison's own words, in a characteristic interview

reported in the New York World, afterwards copied into the Electrical World of Nov. 12, 1887: "It weighed about 100 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 tin-foil 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 any kind of ordinary speech, and to give it out again intelligibly. But I was perfectly sure if we did not accomplish this the next generation would. And I dropped the Phonograph and went to work upon the Electric Light."

Such an instrument I have given me by Mr. Edison in 1879.

But, fortunately, the subject was not abandoned by others. In the spring of 1881 a special arrangement was made between Professor Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the Telephone, Dr. Chichester A. Bell, and Charles Sumner Tainter, resulting in the formation the "Volta" Laboratory Association, so called after the "Volta Prize" of 50,000 pounds awarded to Prof. Bell by the French Government for his invention of the Telephone, which sum he thus devoted to scientific research, and the study and elaboration of ideas, inventions, and discoveries, relating to the art of transmitting, recording, and reproducing sounds, and in Mr. Tainter's own words: " We began work in this direction by studying the causes of failure in the Phonograph. We saw that its construction was not in the first place adapted to produce in the metal foil an exact record of the sonorous vibrations; since, owing to the pliability of the material, the action of the stylus, while forming the record, has a tendency to alter and distort the portion immediately back of the point of action. Another cause of inaccuracy was due to the action of the reproducing diaphragm, which, while acted upon positively by the stylus in one direction, that is, when the latter was raised by an elevation in the record, had to re-act by its elasticity in the other. Furthermore, it was very evident that an instrument forming a record in a pliable strip could never be practically successful, since the record was essentially perishable. The utmost care was necessary in handling it to prevent injury, and every attempt at reproduction tended to smooth out and obliterate the sound record.

"It became evident, therefore, at the outset, that the methods of indenting a pliable strip, whether of tinfoil, or of paper saturated with wax or a similar composition , involved elements of failure that could not be eliminated; that it would be useless to attempt recording the Phonograph, and that all entirely different mode of recording in a substance not possessing the detrimental properties of the pliable strip or sheet. must be discovered. We immediately addressed ourselves to that discovery and its practical embodiment.

"From the experience had with it pliable strip, we soon determined that the record, to be permanent, must be produced in a plate of solid recording material.

"Among the new methods proposed by us for forming the undulatory record, that regarded with most favour was to engrave the record directly in the solid material by a cutting style adapted to grave or gouge out the material acted upon, thus forming a groove, the bottom of which presented irregularities constituting the sound record.

"One of the main difficulties with the original Phonograph was its indistinctness of articulation. While giving a loud sound, it was utterly impossible to reproduce intelligible speech, and for that reason in exhibiting the instruments, experiments were confined to recording familiar nursery rhymes and songs which the ear could recognize from the rhythm.

"We found, in the course of our experiments, that while records cut in wax were much more perfect than those indented in metal foil, greater distinctness could also he gained by reducing the size of the record and concentrating the sound by hearing tubes in the listener's ear.

Thus at double advantage was gained; for besides the vastly improved articulation, privacy in the use of the instruments was ensured. A number of instruments could utter their distinct messages in each listener's ear without mutual disturbance; and the overhearing of private communications was prevented."

The work at the laboratory as continued with great assiduity for four years when in May, 1885, the Association was dissolved by mutual consent. During the time a number of valuable inventions and discoveries had been worked out and perfected, and many patents (all in force) were taken out both in the United States and abroad in connection with this subject, the following claims, among others, being granted:

"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, etc.

"The vibratory cutting style of a sound recorder.

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

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

The instrument termed the Graphophone was the final result of these labours, and to these gentlemen belongs the honor of producing the first practical speaking machine brought before the public, and of demonstrating the difference between indentation, and continuous engraving, analogous to the difference between the imperfect Reis transmitter and the perfect-speaking of the Bell Telephone.

Mr. Tainter informs me that a Graphophone was privately shown to one of Mr. Edison's associates at Washington in July, 1885. As the result of this examination, with a view to making a commercial working arrangement it was taken to New York in August, and shown privately to some members of the Edison Phonograph Company, but nothing came of the negotiations.

This instrument was illustrated and described in an article in Harper's Weekly of July 17, 1886.

We will now review the English Patent Office records between 1877 and 1886, thus gauging somewhat the work of inventors in this field.

No. 2909 -- July 30th, 1877. T. A. Edison. In this specification, among other things, it was proposed to obtain a record of vocal and other sounds by causing the movements of a diaphragm to be registered on chemically prepared paper or soft metal, and to use this paper or metal, to reproduce the sounds by acting on a diaphragm. (The claims relating to this part of the invention were abandoned by a disclaimer, filed Aug. 17,1882.)

4847. Dec. 20th, 1877. Me. Evoy.This specification relates to the construction of telephones. and refers to a diagram showing the telephone combined with phonograph, but gives no particulars as to the construction of the latter. (Patent void.)

4934. Dec. 29th, 1877.C. W. Harrison.This invention relates to electric telephones, and the inventor states that a record of the sounds may be obtained by taking the current through the coils of an electro magnet carrying a point on its armature to indent a movable surface. (Patent void.)

1664 April 24th, 1878, T. A. Edison. (Patent void.) Here Mr. Edison proposes a backing of wax, or yielding material, instead of a grooved surface, in order to support the metal foil which received the indentation. The term indenting, as used by Mr. Edison throughout his patent specifications, clearly means the action of embossing the material without the removal of any part of it, as in forming a record in tinfoil by pressing upon it with a style. But that be did not believe in the practicability of his Phonograph is shown by the fact that this patent was allowed to lapse in April 24, 1885, in consequence of non-payment of 100 pound fee, just at the period of the completion of the experiments of the Volta Laboratory Association.

3129. July 18th, 1881. J. J. Walker.This provisional Specification states that a perforated band is caused to travel past an orifice through which a stream of air issues. The perforated band may be produced from a photograph taken upon a moving surface of an edge caused to vibrate by the voice or sound to be reproduced, or a strip produced by a phonograph may be employed. (No patent.)

291. January 20th, 1882. J. D. Morel. of France.This provisional Specification describes a phonograph in which a traveling band of paper, etc. is employed. The band may be of blotting paper drawn through a gelatinous bath. (No patent.)

7926. May 19th, 1884. A. F. St. George.A plumbago pencil attached to the diaphragm makes a line of varying distinctness on a traveling surface. To reproduce the sounds, the plumbago line is drawn between two terminals of an electric current, and produces undulations in the current corresponding to the variations in the line produced by the pencil. Patent void.

Then we come to the existing Volta Laboratory Patents of the 4th May, 1886, which, among other things, cover the method of cutting in a solid body, a record corresponding to the sound waves, in contradistinction to the formation of sound records by indenting a foil with it vibratory style. The vibratory cutting style of a sound recorder. The sound record consisting of a tablet or other solid body having its surface cut or engraved with narrow lines. And the method of engraving or cutting the same in wax, or a wax-like composition.

May 4th, 1886. No. 6027."Improvements in and Apparatus for Recording and Reproducing Speech and other Sounds."

May 4th, 1886. No. 6042."Improvements in and Apparatus for Reproducing Sound from Phonographic Records."

May 4th, 1886. No. 6047."Improvements in and Means and Apparatus for the Reproduction of Speech and other Sounds by Means of Records."

May 4th, 1886. No. 6062."Transmitting and Recording Sounds by means of Radiant Energy and means and Apparatus therefor."

Now, it is remarkable that between 1877, when Edison's Phonograph was described, and 1886, when the Volta Laboratory patents were published, only these five patents were applied for in this line of work, (although in telephone, and other kindred subjects, the patents might be numbered by hundreds); and all of these five patents were abandoned, including Mr. Edison's, before the Volta Laboratory Association took out theirs, which are now in force. But we find that since 1886, in addition to their own, more than seventeen new patents have been applied for by other inventors in connection with this subject; all tending to show that the researches of the Volta Laboratory Association had ended in a complete success for all practical purposes. That this was the fact is best proved by the adoption, by Mr. Edison, of their wax cylinder and graving out process, in contradistinction to the tinfoil slip and indenting style, which had been found useless in practice. Therefore, it is no wonder that Mr. Emile Berliner states, in his interesting paper read before the Franklin Institute at Philadelphia, on the Gramophone, May 16th 1888, that the new Edison Phonograph and the Tainter-Bell Graphophone appear to be practically the same apparatus, differing only in form and motive power. As mentioned above, the Graphophone was shown to Mr. Edison's associates in 1885, and the Volta patents were granted in 1886, but it was not until 1888 that Mr. Edison's Phonograph re-appeared, and all the praise accorded to Mr. Edison and his agents for the "improved Phonograph" is fairly due to Mr. Charles Sumner Tainter, and his associates in the Volta Laboratory Association....

The Graphophone as shown here is propelled mechanically. The whole has been designed to attain the best results with the fewest parts, in absence of skilled attention. There is no electricity. An ordinary treadle like a sewing machine rotates a speed governor. This leather belt communicates a constant speed to the rotating wax cylinder. A diaphragm of mica carrying a steel graver, called the recorder, is mounted in a metal holder, which by means of a revolving screw traverses the wax cylinder, cutting a fine thread 160 to the inch, a mouth-piece attached to a flexible tube carries the sound vibrations to the diaphragm which causes the graver or style to cut into the wax a series of depressions more or less frequent, and varying in depth according to the sounds producing the vibrations. These undulations, while so slight as to be scarcely perceptible, can, nevertheless, produce in the diaphragm of the reproducer similar vibrations to the original sounds and give back, not once, but indefinitely, the words or sounds which were first recorded. The instrument can be instantly stopped or started at any time, whether recording or reproducing, by simply pressing the button with the finger. No adjustments are required by the user, the recorder and reproducer being mounted flexibly and so adapting themselves to any eccentricities of the wax cylinder. This is especially useful in the reproduction of damaged cylinders. I had an instance recently where one came to me through the post having, been opened and crushed. Nevertheless the delicate reproducer, with its flexible mountings was able to follow the original record, and reproduce every word distinctly. Great economy has been found in the use of a cardboard cylinder coated with wax instead of solid wax cylinders. They are more easily handled, less liable to fracture, and much better for postage, besides being cheaper than note paper, when the saving of time in writing is considered.

The very simplicity of the instrument startles us -- but who shall say what its future may be -- and what revolutions it may effect. Its introduction into everyday life marks a new era. Truly the unlimited reproduction of the human voice in speech and song is a most wonderful achievement. When we consider its marvelous adaptability to modernlife there seems to be no limit to its powers. A child may work it and communicate to those who love it, its childish prattle or private use. The small cylinder refer in after life to how it spoke. Business men may carry on negotiations, recording each word spoken, preventing misunderstandings as to what was said. Attached to the telephone, even the reflecting words that be recorded for future reference. The stenographer may read his notes to it, leaving it to dictate to others to write them out. And Tennyson's wish for the 'voice that is still, has roared at last.'

I cannot conclude better than by quoting an impromptu, spoken into the Graphophone at Washington, in July this year by Colonel Joyce; a piece which repeated itself to me as follows :

I treasure the voices of poets and sages,
I keep them alive through the round rolling years
I speak to the world for ages and ages,
Recording the language of sniffee and of tears.
When friends have departed, and sweet life has ended,
Their voices shall sound through my swift rolling heart:
While all of their love-notes are treasured and blended,
As faithful and true as the nature of art.
The pulpit, the bar, the wants of the household,
Shall photograph thought in the sigh of my soul.
The man and the maid shall advance more than tenfold,
Who talk with my tongue and the years grandly roll.
The Godhead alone shall be found in my preaching
And marvelous secrets I yet shall disclose.
The schools of the world shall list to my teaching,
As pure and as bright as the blush of the rose.
I war with the world where ignorance slumbers,
And go hand in hand with the light of the sun.
I count every thought with quick magical numbers
And my work on the earth shall never be done.

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

1999 by Steven E. Schoenherr. All rights reserved.

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