Tin Foil to MP3’s
August 15, 1877: Edison Records “Mary Had a Little Lamb”
In 1877 these were the first words uttered out by Thomas Edison in making the first audio recording. At a time when music lovers can carry thousands of digital songs on a player the size of a pack of gum, Edison’s tinfoil playback seems prehistoric. But that dinosaur opens a key window into the development of recorded sound. If it wasn’t for Thomas Edison’s work, we might not be at the high and easy levels of audio recording we are today.
In 1877, Edison was working on a machine that would transcribe telegraphic messages through indentations on paper tape, which could later be sent over the telegraph repeatedly. This development led Edison to speculate that a telephone message could also be recorded in a similar fashion.
He experimented with a diaphragm which had an embossing point and was held against rapidly-moving paraffin paper. The speaking vibrations made indentations in the paper. Edison later changed the paper to a metal cylinder with tin foil wrapped around it. The machine had two diaphragm-and-needle units, one for recording, and one for playback.
When one would speak into a mouthpiece, the sound vibrations would be indented onto the cylinder by the recording needle in a vertical (or hill and dale) groove pattern. Edison gave a sketch of the machine to his mechanic, John Kruesi, to build, which Kruesi supposedly did within 30 hours. Edison immediately tested the machine by speaking the nursery rhyme into the mouthpiece, “Mary had a little lamb.” To his amazement, the machine played his words back to him.
Edison took his new invention to the offices of Scientific American in New York City and showed it to staff there. As the December 22, 1877, issue reported, “Mr. Thomas A. Edison recently came into this office, placed a little machine on our desk, turned a crank, and the machine inquired as to our health, asked how we liked the phonograph, informed us that it was very well, and bid us a cordial good night.” Interest was great, and the invention was reported in several New York newspapers, and later in other American newspapers and magazines.
Ever practical and visionary, Edison offered the following possible future uses for the phonograph in North American Review in June 1878:
- Letter writing and all kinds of dictation without the aid of a stenographer.
- Phonographic books, which will speak to blind people without effort on their part.
- The teaching of elocution.
- Reproduction of music.
- The “Family Record”–a registry of sayings, reminiscences, etc., by members of a family in their own voices, and of the last words of dying persons.
- Music-boxes and toys.
- Clocks that should announce in articulate speech the time for going home, going to meals, etc.
- The preservation of languages by exact reproduction of the manner of pronouncing.
- Educational purposes; such as preserving the explanantions 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.
- 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 communication.
Thomas Edison Records – Mary Had a Little Lamb