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1878 __ The Phonograph
Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931)
Comment : It is now eighteen months since sir William Thomson, in his presidential address to Section A of the British Association at Glasgow, made the startling announcement that, at the centennial exhibition, he had with his own ears heard articulate speech transmitted with unmistakable distinctness through a telegraph wire from a distant station; and in illustration of this announcement he held in his hand the instrument by which that marvellous feat had been performed. That instrument was the first articulating telephone of Professor Graham Bell. [...] In the midst of the excitement caused in this country by the telephone of Professor Bell, there came from the other side of the Atlantic the news that Mr. Thomas Alva Edison, the eminent scientific adviser of the Western Union Telegraph Company (to whom the world is indebted for the automatic telegraph, which is capable of transmitting a thousand words a minute, and for the invention of the quadruplex system of telegraphy), that Mr. Edison had succeeded in applying to the telephone an apparatus by which the vibrations of its diaphragm could be recorded in a material and permanent form which would be capable of reproducing precisely similar vibrations at any future time and at any distant place, so that the words spoken into the instrument would be automatically recorded and stored to be given out again when required, in the actual voice and tones of the original speaker. This statement was in one particular not strictly correct; Mr. Edison’s apparatus, to which he has given the name of the phonograph, is not an application to the telephone, although it may be said to have been suggested by the action of that instrument. The two instruments differ very materially in principle and altogether in purpose. The telephone is essentially a telegraphic instrument by which articulate and other sounds are both transmitted to a distance and reproduced by the agency of electricity. The phonograph is a purely mechanical instrument (electricity playing no part in its operation) for first embossing upon a metallic surface a phonetic record or model of sounds imparted to it and afterwards interpreting that record by using it as a templet for reproducing these sounds again, also by mechanical means. Both instruments are, however, conspicuous for the extreme simplicity with which their different objects are brought about. We need hardly remind our readers that all sounds, whether notes of music, articulate speech, or irregular noises, are produced by the motion of particles of air constituting sonorous vibrations, and that these sound waves, as they are called, are propagated by the motion of the sounding body imparting its own vibrations to the air by which they are transmitted to the tympanum of the ear, the sympathetic vibrations of which acting through the auditory nerves convey to the brain the impression which is known as hearing. It matters not how two or more sounds are produced in the first instance, if their waves are identical in size and shape, the ear will detect no difference between them; but the delicacy of the organs of hearing is so great that the very smallest alteration in either the size or forms of the waves is instantly detected and a different sound is heard. [...] In the thread telephone, which is sold in the streets for a penny, and in the shops for half a crown, the motion is communicated between membrane and membrane by a thread or wire stretched between the two. In the telephone of Professor Bell it is transmitted by an undulatory current of electricity acting on a magnet; and in the phonograph of Mr. Edison it is caused, as we have said before, to emboss upon a sheet of metal a model or templet which may be removed and carried away, and, by mechanical means, be employed to impart to a second membrane precisely similar motions to those by which it itself was produced. Mr. Edison’s instrument consists of a brass cylinder, which, by a winch handle, can be rotated on a horizontal axis, upon which is fixed a heavy flywheel for the purpose of controlling, to some extent, its speed of rotation. One end of this horizontal axis is screwed, and turns in a screwed bearing, so that the cylinder is not only rotated on its axis, but has imparted to it a lateral movement from end to end when the winch is rotated. Around the circumference of the cylinder is turned a spiral groove, the pitch of which is the same as that of the screw on the horizontal shaft, so that if a fixed pointer were to be set in the groove at any portion of its length it would remain in it as the cylinder was rotated until it worked out at either end. [...] So far the apparatus is complete as an instrument for recording sounds, and as such is not superior to many of its predecessors, such as the very beautiful logograph of Mr. W. H. Barlow, F.R.S., the phonautograph of M. Leon-Scott, or the instruments of Professor Marey and the late Sir Charles Wheatstone, but the most wonderful feature of Mr. Edison’s phonograph is that it not only interprets its own record, but does so by reconverting it into sonorous vibrations, repeating the sounds, whether articulate or otherwise, in the actual voice in which they were communicated to the mouthpiece. [...] The effect upon the mind of hearing the human voice actually spoken by a machine must be experienced to be appreciated. There is something irresistibly comic in its absurd imitation, but at the same time it is impossible altogether to resist a feeling of wonderment, recalling to one’s mind perhaps the feelings of Pygmalion or the hero of Frankenstein. [...] The first words heard on Wednesday evening (by Mr. Stroh’s instrument, the second form of apparatus represented by Mr. Edison’s own instrument) were first spoken into the mouthpiece by Mr. Puscus in a tolerably loud voice. The mouthpiece was then withdrawn, the cylinder tuned back until the pin was at the beginning of the groove, a cone of paper or speaking trumpet was put on in front of the mouthpiece and the handle once more rotated, when the instrument shouted out in a perfectly clear voice, “The Phonograph presents its compliments to the audience”. This was heard in every portion of the hall in the Institution of Civil Engineers, and brought forth rounds of applause, to which were added roars of laughter when it again called out in a voice still clearer than before, “How do you do? How do you like the Phonograph?” and then began to laugh in veritable hearty human laughter, “Ha! ha! ha! ha! ha! hurray!”. [...] Mr. Pigeon’s instrument was next tried - Mr. Edison’s first form of phonograph was represented by a very successful instrument made by an amateur, Mr. Pigeon, from descriptions received from America -, and the sublime words of the national war song: “We don’t want to fight, but by Jingo if we do” followed by the recital of the equally ennobling creation of the poet, “Twinkle, twinkle, little star, How I wonder what you are,” were given by the instrument with an emphasis entirely its own, which caused great merriment. A song was next sung into the mouthpiece, and was reproduced amazingly out of tune in consequence of the impossibility of obtaining a perfectly uniform speed of rotation. When, however, Mr. Stroh’s instrument was brought into use the value to the phonograph of controlling the speed of the cylinder by mechanical means was at once apparent, for not only was the articulation of the spoken words more perfect, but songs sung into it by Mr. Spagnoletti, Mr. Edmunds, and Mr. Preece, were reproduced with very respectable correctness; and even the breakdown of one of the singers on a high note, accompanied by a little impatient remark, was faithfully recorded, and given out again with exasperating fidelity. At the Physical Society on Saturday last the instrument was again described by Mr. Preece, followed by a similar series of experiments, with the addition of causing the instrument to perform the wonderful feat of reproducing a duet sung into it through a double mouthpiece by Mr. Spagnoletti and Mr. Sedley Taylor. The result would certainly not make the musical reputation of either gentleman, did it stand upon no intrinsic merits of its own, but it was a remarkable experiment as showing the marvellous powers of which the phonograph of the future may be capable. Another experiment was the turning of the cylinder in the reverse direction after it had received communication in the ordinary way. The communication submitted to this experiment was the song “We don’t want to fight”, &c., and the result of the vibrations constituting this composition when rendered backwards was very curious, and gave rise to the remark that it would be specially appropriate as the song of the peace party. Of the many possible applications of the phonograph it would be too early now to speak; the instrument is yet in its infancy, but there can be no doubt it will ultimately create a revolution in many aspects of social life. It will be possible, for instance, to dispense with written letters to friends on the other side of the world, giving them in exchange the communication in our own spoken voice. It will only be necessary to speak into an instrument in this country, to remove the metallic record from the cylinder, to pack it carefully in a box, writing upon it the speed of rotation at which it was produced, and to send it by post to the distant station, there, by being rotated on a similar instrument, to deliver its message in the voice and tones of the original speaker. Mr. Edison has lately constructed a clock which, instead of striking the hours, tells its hearers with a human voice what o’clock it is, interspersed with a few appropriate remarks. For instance, when the hour of one arrives, it calls out, “One o’clock, time for lunch!” to the astonishment of every one who has not heard it before. But of all the startling powers of the phonograph there is none perhaps so extraordinary as its capability of reproducing years after the voices of those who are no longer on this earth. If any person have ever spoken into a phonograph it will be possible by the process of electrotyping to make a permanent record of his words and voice, which may be heard by his friends, and repeated again and again for years and centuries to come. And thus a portion at least of the longing expressed in the song of the Poet Laureate may be realized: “O! for the sound of a vanished hand And the sound of a voice that is still.”. (ENGINEERING, MARCH 8, 1878)Of course the reproduced sounds are feebler than the original ones, but Mr. Edison has, we believe, managed to invent an instrument that will magnify the sounds, so that it is simply a question of apparatus how loud the reproduced sound can be. The utility of the phonograph can be better imagined than described. One eager philologist desires to obtain specimens of all the Indian dialects of North America, and we can well imagine the extraordinary interest with which we should invest the instrument if we had a number of indented pieces of foil stored up from Chaldean, or those far off centuries, when the original Aryan tribe luxuriated in tent life in the center of Asia. (THE ENGINEER, JUNE 21, 1878)Potential uses of the phonograph (by Edison) : 1) Letter wirting and dictation withotu the aid of a stenographer; 2) Phonographic books for the blind; 3) The teaching of elocution; 4) Reproduction of music; 5) The “family record” - a registry of sayings, reminiscences, etc. by members of a family in their own voices, and the last words of dying persons; 6) Music boxes and toys; 7) Clocks that should announce in an articulate voice the time for going home, going to meals, etc.; 8) The preservation of languages by exact reproduction of the manner of pronouncing; 9) Educational purposes such as preserving the explanations made by a teacher, so that the pupil can refer to them at any moment, and spelling or other lessons placed upon the phonograph for convenience in committing to memory; 10) Connection with the telephone, so as to make that instrument an auxiliary in the transmission of permanent and invaluable records, instead of being the recipient of momentary and fleeting communications. This list is usually cited by phonograph historians to suggest one of two things : that Edison was brilliant (or at least prophetic) because all of the uses on the list eventually came to pass; or, that nobody had any idea what to do with the technology when it was invented and, therefore, needed to be told. Neither reading is terribly compelling when set against the actual history of the machine.most of these uses came to pass, but the specific form that they ultimately took was determined by the changing world of their users. (Jonathan Sterne, pp. 202-203)
French comment : Dans un article paru dans la "North American Review" en juin 1878, Edison donne une liste des usages qu'il envisage pour le phonographe, appareil qu'il a inventé quelques mois auparavant : 1) L'écriture de lettres, et toutes sortes de dictées sans l'aide d'un sténographe ; 2) Des livres phonographiques, qui parleront aux personnes aveugles sans effort de leur part ; 3) L'enseignement de l'élocution ; 4) La musique - le phonographe sera sans doute largement voué à la musique ; 5) L'archive familiale : préservation des dires, voix, et dernières paroles des membres de la famille, ainsi que des grands hommes, sur le point de mourir ; 6) Boîtes à musique, jouets, etc. [...] ; 7) Des horloges qui annoncent en parlant l'heure du jour, vous appellent à table, et renvoient votre amant chez lui à dix heures ; 8) La préservation de la langue par la reproduction de nos Washington, de nos Lincoln, de nos Gladstone ; 9) Des fins éducatives, comme préserver les instructions d'un professeur afin que l'élève puisse s'y référer à tout moment de la journée [...] ; 10) Le perfectionnement ou le progrès de l'art du téléphone, faisant de cet instrument un auxiliaire dans la transmission de dossiers permanents. (Cité par Gelatt, "The fabulous phonograph : From Edison to stereo", p. 29, et par Celia Dearling, Dearling Robert et al., "The Guiness Book or Recorded Sound", Enfield : Guiness Book, 1984, p. 21). (In Sophie Maisonneuve, "L'Invention du Disque 1877-1949 : Genèse de l'usage des médias musicaux contemporains", Paris : EAC Éditions des Archives Contemporaines, 2009, pp. 20-21)
Source : Sterne, Jonathan (2003), “The Audible Past - Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction”, Durham & London : Duke University Press, pp. 202-203.
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