Edison’s Home Phonograph

Written by Kate Breitenstein:

While going through the Special Collections Storage at the Filson, I came across this odd looking box. It had the name “Edison” written on the outside. On the inside, there was a plate, saying that this was an Edison home phonograph. For clarity, a phonograph refers to a machine that plays sounds using wax cylinders. A gramophone (an alternative to the phonograph, that would later replace it), refers to a machine that plays sounds using vinyl records at various speeds.

An Edison Home Phonograph. It’s missing the horn, but should function otherwise.

The phonograph was first patented by Thomas Edison in the 1870s. Originally it was designed to play sound on cylinder covered in tin foil. It was designed with two needles; the first was used to “apply” the sound to the outside of the cylinder. The second was used to play back the sound. The problem with the foil is that it could only be engraved with sound once, but it could also only be played a few times before the foil tore.

Edison “Gold-Moulded” cylinder records. Each one is a song identified with a serial number stamped on top.

In 1908, after much trial and error, Edison finally developed the cylinders that we see here. They are made out of a much harder wax and can hold a maximum of 4 minutes of sound. These are molded cylinders, so they come with sound on them. Until Edison came up with a way to cast pre-molded cylinders, each cylinder (so, each song) had to be recorded individually. Imagine if Beyoncé had to record a song each time someone downloaded one, it would be such an inefficient use of time. Though the length of the play had improved, there were still several issues with the cylinder format. The second issue was that, no matter the version of the phonograph, they were not user friendly. The needles were fragile, it took several tools to change

Frances Densmore at the Smithsonian Institution in 1916 during a recording session with Blackfoot chief Mountain Chief for the Bureau of American Ethnology (February 9, 1916), the process is similar to that used by Alfred Kroeber in California (via Library of Congress/Wikimedia)

cylinders, and until 1915, the sound quality wasn’t good. For playing music, the phonograph was more of a novelty than a practical use object.

Though so far it sounds like the cylinder phonograph was more of a fluke than a useful object, there was one thing it was good at: recording sound. Stenographers used phonographs for dictation that could be used over and over again; they just sliced off the old wax. Phonographs were also used by anthropologists for recording languages. By the early 1900s, anthropology had started to become more of a science done out in the field, rather than from the armchair. A good way to study a culture is through its language; phonographs were good at recording sound. The new wax cylinders weren’t prone to melting, they could be efficiently made out in the field, brought back and played to be studied.

Several decades later, these wax cylinders have become quite brittle, and can’t be played. Several of the languages on the cylinders are dying. Anthropologists at UC Berkeley are combating the language loss by taking 3-D scans of hundreds of cylinders, and printing them. When a cylinder is made, the frequency at which the voice is spoken creates a unique engraving on the outside of the cylinder. When a wax cylinder is scanned, it can be printed in a softer plastic and played on a phonograph to be digitally recorded. This process ensures that the languages on the cylinders are not lost.

Kate was a Special Collections Intern from August 2017 to May of 2018. She has a Bachelors of Science  in Geosciences, with a major in Geoarchaeology and a minor in Visual Fine Arts from Murray State University. Kate will be interning at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Wyoming this summer. She plans to pursue a graduate degree in conservation.

Maureen Lane

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