The first idea of a genuine talking-machine appears to belong to Thomas A. Edison, who, in 1875, took out patents upon a device intended to reproduce complex sounds, such as those of the human voice. Of the thousands of persons who in that year visited the small room in the Tribune building, in New York, where the first phonograph was for months on exhibition, very few were found to hope much for the invention. It was apparently a toy of no practical value; its talking was more or less of a caricature upon the human voice, and only when one knew what had been said to the phonograph could its version be understood.
Edison's early phonograph nevertheless contained every essential feature of the new instruments which he and other inventors are about to introduce. It was founded upon the discovery that if a delicate diaphragm or sounding-board is provided with a sharp point of steel, its vibrations under the sound of the human voice will cause the sharp point or stylus to make a series of impressions or indentations upon a sheet of wax or other material passed beneath it. Such indentations, though microscopic, are sufficiently defined to cause similar vibrations in the diaphragm, if the stylus is again passed over the furrow of indentations, and this reproduction is loud enough to be heard.
Thus the phonograph in its rudest form consists of a little sounding-board, carrying on its under side a needle-point, and a sheet of wax so held as just to touch the needle. The sound waves of the voice cause the sounding-board with its needle-point to vibrate with a rapidity varying with the pitch of the note. If the wax sheet is moved slowly along while talk is going on, the result is a line of minute indentations. So far there is nothing surprising about the apparatus. But at the end of a line across the wax sheet raise the diaphragm, and put it back to the beginning of the line, causing the point to travel again over the same line of indentations. Listen carefully, and a repetition of the original sounds spoken or sung into the apparatus will be heard, strong or weak, distinct or indistinct, according to the perfection of the instrument. Tin-foil sheets were first used to receive the impression; they were placed on a cylinder, which was turned slowly by hand, in front of the vibrating diaphragm. While the cylinder carrying the foil had a rotary motion, it also moved from right to left, so that the line of dots or indentations made by the stylus formed a spiral running around the cylinder.
The defects of the early phonograph were so great that Edison found it impossible to interest capitalists in perfecting it. It reproduced singing and whistling with wonderful accuracy, but as a talker it was merely a curiosity. As such it was exhibited throughout the country, and the few hundreds then made soon found their way into college laboratories and museums. Edison went to work at his electric light. At the same time there were not wanting eminent men in Europe who predicted great things for the phonograph of the future.
What it accomplished was so wonderful that inventors would certainly be tempted to work over it. The perfect and practical phonograph might be due to a dozen men, each of whom should contribute something. One day it would be found a useful and most wonderful, help to man. Edison himself has always stoutly maintained this view. More than a score of times, during the last ten years, he has said to me, "I wish I had leisure to work at my phonograph. When I get rich I will astonish the world with it." He tells me that whenever disheartened for the moment over difficulties connected with his electric-light system, his mind would revert to the phonograph. For years he kept a special note-book in his pocket in which to jot down ideas concerning the invention, suggestions as to future experiments, etc. Two years ago he found himself in a position to take it up again.
In the mean time several other inventors and workers had done something to simplify the problem. Mr. Graham Bell, of telephone fame, has made phonographs of far greater delicacy than any of the original instruments, while in England some noted experimenters have succeeded in doing wonders in the way of delicate apparatus. Mr. Edison took up the work where these had left off. In place of a sheet of tin-foil a sheet of prepared wax was adopted. The steel needle-point was retained for indenting the sheet, but for reproducing the sound it was found that an elastic splinter of bamboo, as fine as a hair, answered the purpose better, and made so little impression upon the wax as not to wear off its record. In place of a hand-crank to turn the cylinder an electric motor was introduced. Finally all parts of the machine were made with a delicacy and care not thought of ten years ago. In the old phonograph the attempt was to make a loud noise, and this was accomplished at the expense of distinctness of articulation. If the voice of the perfected phonograph is as loud as that of a telephone, the result will be satisfactory, provided it is perfectly distinct.
Edison has devoted nearly two years to the task of making the phonograph of commercial use. He believes that be has succeeded. Whether or not the instrument shall enter into every-day life, as the telephone has done, is a question for the future. Certainly it is now a far greater wonder than it was in 1875, and it has reached a point where it cannot again be dropped by the scientific world. Whether Mr. Edison, or Mr. Bell, or some one else puts the final touches which will take the apparatus out of the laboratory and make it practical for common use does not much matter. Some one will certainly do it. Those persons who smile incredulously when it is said that the perfected phonograph will do away with letter-writing, will read to us, will sing and play for us, will give us books, music, plays, speeches, at almost no cost, and become a constant source of instruction and amusement, must have forgotten the ridicule they heaped upon the rumor that an American inventor proposed to talk from New York to Chicago. The achievements of the phonograph will at best be less wonderful than those of the telephone.