Thomas Edison’s Phonograph

I’m not sure about you, but the idea of reading something about something called a phonograph could be a little juicier. I proposed this to a friend of mine. He agreed that the foregoing words would have to work there magic if they weren’t going to land flat on the eyes of you poor readers. I’m mean, Thomas Edison’s Phonograph, not a riveting read.

I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work.

I’d decanted myself into the plush purple sofa. The old noggin still buzzing from the previous tour I just just landed from. I’d been contemplating this idea of a clothing brand for quite a while now. Audio Architect Apparel was definitely a thing, we just needed to expand on the idea.

You know you have those people in your life, the ones that are actually your sense of reason rather than the bumbling, mumbling mess you actually are. They are the kind of person that upon entering a room the old ticker starts skipping beats, much like a drummer with Tourette’s. Not having laid eyes on this marvel of humankind for quite a few weeks, I was pretty distracted and entirely unaware that there were words coming out of her mouth.

“The thing is Dave,” she repeated,  “you know an awful lot about this stuff and you need to think about where the journey starts. Tell the story.”

And where better to start a story than at the beginning, unless you’re Christopher Nolan then you might decide to start the story 10 minutes into the third act. Anyway, the point is about trying to workout where to start and start from there. So, this brings me tumbling through a hedge onto the subject of Thomas Alba Edison’s Phonograph!

Yes, you’re right! The story starts before that but at least it not 10 minutes into the third act. The reason I decided my first design was going to be Edison’s Phonograph is pure and simply because it changed audio technology for the next 140 years.

The Phonograph

Thomas Edison submitted his patent to the US patent office in 1877. His phonograph, not the first machine to record or indeed playback sound, but it was the first machine to do both together. Basically this is the 19th Century version of the DAW. That’s a digital audio work station for those that don’t know. I have a t-shirt called Fuck which is all about 1992 and the DAW, you’ll read more about this at some point soon I’m sure…

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Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.

Of those of you without the knowledge of a DAW, or Digital Audio Workstation, I’ll fill you in now. For those that know, you can skip this paragraph. A DAW is a piece of software on your computer that allows you to record sound, manipulate it, and then play it back. It’s basically a slightly more advance version of recording the radio onto a cassette tape.

Originally the phonograph used a wax cylinder to record it’s sound onto. A needle (the proper word is stylus), attached to an arm, which was in turn attached to a diaphragm, would carve a groove in the cylinder according to the sound that passed through the diaphragm. In other words, the diaphragm vibrates and the needle carves those vibrations into this wax cylinder. Later versions of the phonograph moved toward using a flat disc which are still produced today. They are called Vinyl. And Hip-Hop artists love them.

The disc the phonograph eventually used was the dominant media for recorded music through till at least the 1980’s. Vinyl, although declining in use over the latter part of the 20th century in favour of other formats, has seen a large recurrgence in recent years. The phonograph later developed into the gramophone.

Although vinyl was exceeding popular, Edison did prefer the cylinder because the grooves on a cylinder allow the needle to move at a constant speed and more ‘scientifically correct’.

The Talking Machine

Edison had the idea of a “talking machine” that could automate sounds of speech that would transmitted by telephone. Forward thinker! There’s an article in the Chicago Daily Tribune which recount’s the first demonstration of the phonograph.

In December, 1877, a young man came into the office of the SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, and placed before the editors a small, simple machine about which very few preliminary remarks were offered. The visitor without any ceremony whatever turned the crank, and to the astonishment of all present the machine said: "Good morning. How do you do? How do you like the phonograph?" The machine thus spoke for itself, and made known the fact that it was the phonograph... machine-history.com

Honourable Mentions

We should really mention a couple of other people in this brief summery as well. It was there work that also helped in the development of this technology.

  • Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville had created a device called the Phonautograph. This was designed as a visual representation of sound rather than a playable one. The actual sound from these recording wasn’t reproduced until 2008. It sounds like the cross between a 70’s Sci-Fi program and someone rolling around in a pile of crips packets.
  • Charles Cros had something called a Paleophone. This was to have been designed as a machine to record and playback sound. He hadn’t really got much past the initial design phase before Edison had is machine out.
  • Emile Berliner who initiated the transition from cylinders to flat discs.

Live Sound Engineer, Writer, Author and Creator of Audio Architect Apparel Dave Swallow

Born with all the correct fingers, toes, arms and legs into the cockle-picking town of Southend-on-Sea, Essex, UK, Dave Swallow spent his formative years surrounded by the many delights a British Seaside town has to offer. Or at least this seaside town; The world’s longest pleasure pier, for example, mud and the inability to sound a consonant, which is very much an Essex thing but it’s South Essex that really take it to another level. Leaving school, minus a tooth (cousinly inflicted), was a daunting prospect. Dave hated salt water, so cockle-picking was out, and he was about as gangster as Harry Potter… [click_here_to_read_more]