Boys' Life of Edison - W. H. Meadowcroft

Making a Machine Talk

If one had never heard a phonograph, it would seem as though it would be impossible to take some pieces of metal and make a machine that would repeat speaking, singing, or instrumental music just like life.

So, before the autumn of 1877 when Edison invented the phonograph, the world thought such a thing was entirely out of the question. Indeed, Edison's own men in his workshop, who had seen him do some wonderful things, thought the idea was absurd when he told them that he was making a machine to reproduce human speech.

One of his men went so far as to bet him a box of cigars that the thing would be an utter failure when finished, but, as every one knows, Edison won the bet, for the very first time the machine was tried it repeated clearly all the words that were spoken into it.

A story has often been told in the newspapers that the invention was made through Edison's finger being pricked by a point attached to a vibrating telephone diaphragm, but this is not true.

The invention was not made through any accident, but was the result of pure reasoning, and in this case, as in many others, fact is more wonderful than fiction. Mr. Edison's own account of the invention of the phonograph is intensely interesting.

"I was experimenting," he says, "on an automatic method of recording telegraph messages on a disk of paper laid on a revolving platen, exactly the same as the disk talking-machine of to-day. The platen had a spiral groove on its surface, like the disk. Over this was placed a circular disk of paper; an electro-magnet with the embossing point connected to an arm traveled over the disk, and any signals given through the magnets were embossed on the disk of paper. If this disk was removed from the machine and put on a similar machine provided with a contact point the embossed record would cause the signals to be repeated into another wire. The ordinary speed of telegraphic signals is thirty-five to forty words a minute; but with this machine several hundred words were possible.

"From my experiments on the telephone I knew of the power of a diaphragm to take up sound vibrations, as I had made a little toy which when you recited loudly in the funnel would work a pawl connected to the diaphragm; and this, engaging a ratchet-wheel, served to give continuous rotation to a pulley. This pulley was connected by a cord to a little paper toy representing a man sawing wood. Hence, if one shouted: 'Mary had a little lamb,' etc., the paper man would start sawing wood. I reached the conclusion that if I could record the movements of the diaphragm properly I could cause such records to reproduce the original movements imparted to the diaphragm by the voice, and thus succeed in recording and reproducing the human voice.

"Instead of using a disk I designed a little machine, using a cylinder provided with grooves around the surface. Over this was to be placed tin-foil, which easily received and recorded the movements of the diaphragm. A sketch was made, and the piecework price, eighteen dollars, was marked on the sketch. I was in the habit of marking the price I would pay on each sketch. If the workman lost, I would pay his regular wages; if he made more than the wages, he kept it. The workman who got the sketch was John Kruesi. I didn't have much faith that it would work, expecting that I might possibly hear a word or so that would give hope of a future for the idea. Kruesi, when he had nearly finished it, asked what it was for. I told him I was going to record talking, and then have the machine talk back. He thought it absurd. However, it was finished; the foil was put on; I then shouted 'Mary had a little lamb,' etc. I adjusted the reproducer, and the machine reproduced it perfectly. I was never so taken back in my life. Everybody was astonished. I was always afraid of things that worked the first time. Long experience proved that there were great drawbacks found generally before they could be made commercial; but here was something there was no doubt of."

No wonder that John Kruesi, as he heard the little machine repeat the words that had been spoken into it, ejaculated in an awe-stricken tone: "Mein Gott im Himmel!" No wonder the "boys" joined hands and danced around Edison, singing and shouting. No wonder that Edison and his associates sat up all night fixing and adjusting it so as to get better and better results—reciting and singing and trying one another's voices and listening with awe and delight as the crude little machine repeated the words spoken or sung into it.

The news quickly became public, and the newspapers of the world published columns about this wonderful invention. Mr. Edison was besieged with letters from every part of the globe. Every one wanted to hear this machine; and in order to satisfy a universal demand for phonographs to be used for exhibition purposes, he had a number of them made and turned them over to various individuals, who exhibited them to great crowds around the country. These were the machines in which the record was made on a sheet of tin-foil laid around the cylinder.

They created great excitement both in America and abroad. The announcement of a phonograph concert was sufficient to fill a hall with people who were curious to hear a machine talk and sing.

In the next year, 1878, Edison entered upon his experiments in electric lighting. His work in this field kept him intensely busy for nearly ten years, and the phonograph was laid aside so far as he was concerned.

He had not forgotten it, however, for he had fully realized its tremendous possibilities very quickly after its invention. This is shown by an article he wrote for the North American Review, which appeared in the summer of 1878. In that article he predicted the possible uses of the phonograph, many of which have since been fulfilled.

In 1887, having finished the greatest part of his work on the electric light, he turned to the phonograph once more. Realizing that the tin-foil machine was not an ideal type and could not come into common use, he determined to redesign it, and make it an instrument that could be handled by any one.

This meant the design and construction of an entirely different type of machine, and resulted in the kind of phonograph with which every one is familiar in these modern days. One of the chief differences was the use of a wax cylinder instead of tin-foil, and, instead of indenting with a pointed stylus, the record is cut into the wax with a tiny sapphire, the next hardest jewel to a diamond.

Into his improvements of the phonograph Mr. Edison has put an enormous amount of time and work. He has never lost interest, but has worked on it more or less through all the intervening years up to the present time. Even during the present year (1911) he has expended a prodigious amount of energy in improving the reproducer and other parts, spending night after night, and frequently all night, at the laboratory.

Inasmuch as great quantities of phonographs were sold, requiring millions of records, one of the difficulties to be overcome was to make large numbers of duplicates from an original record made by a singer, speaker, or band of musicians.

Edison with Phonograph


This difficulty will be perceived when it is stated that the record cut into the wax cylinder is hardly ever greater than one-thousandth of an inch deep, which is less than the thickness of a sheet of tissue paper, and in a single phonograph record there are many millions of sound-waves so recorded.

Through endless experiments of Edison and his working force, and with many ingenious inventions, however, these difficulties were overcome one by one. At the present time the machinery and processes for making, duplicate records has been so perfected that the Edison factory at Orange has made as many as one hundred and thirty thousand in a day.

It may be added that the phonograph was an invention so absolutely new that when Mr. Edison applied for his original patent, in 1877, the Patent Office could not find that any such attempt had ever before been made to record and reproduce speech or other sounds, and the patent was granted immediately. He has since taken out nearly one hundred patents on improvements.

The original patent has long since expired, and many kinds of talking-machines are now made by others also, but they all operate on the identical principle which Edison was the first to discover and put into actual practice.