It has been my privilege to follow pretty closely the evolution of the phonograph under Mr. Edison's hands, and also to study the graphophone of Mr. Bell. A brief account of one apparatus will answer for both, as they are identical in essentials. The new phonograph takes up, with its table, about the space occupied by a sewing-machine, and might at first be taken for one. Underneath the table is an electric battery or a treadle, according to the power used in moving the cylinder. The wax cylinders, or phonograms, as they are called, are two inches in diameter, and vary in length from one to ten inches, according to the amount of talking which is to be engraved upon them. The smallest size is about that of a napkin ring, and will be sufficient for an ordinary business letter of two or three hundred words. The wax surface is highly polished; when it has been through the apparatus, the marks or engraving upon it can be seen only with a glass.
When a message is to be recorded, one of these phonograms is slipped over the permanent steel cylinder, which is set in motion, and the diaphragm, carrying its stylus on the under side, is lowered toward the wax surface until a slight grating sound announces that it touches.
Then the talking may begin. It is not necessary to talk louder than in an ordinary conversation, but distinct articulation is required. For reproduction, the stylus is raised, and the "follower" or sounding-spring is brought into contact with the wax. The amount of talking upon a cylinder depends, of course, upon the speed of the talker; one page of this magazine might easily be recorded upon a cylinder ten inches long. The exact value of the reproduction, both in the phonograph and the graphophone, is still, according to my own experience in a score of tests, something of a lottery.
With a phone at my ear, I have heard Mr. Edison's phonograph read off a page of Nicholas Nickleby so clearly that not one word in twenty was lost; the phonograph's voice was as distinct and as loud as that of a telephone in good working order. At other times the results have been anything but satisfactory. When the apparatus is in the hands of experts, who can adjust a screw here and there, they are likely to be surprisingly good. As to trusting its manipulation to the office boy or the typewriter girl, that is out of the question for the present. It is far too delicate an instrument. When it comes to music, the present achievements are wonderful. The phonograph will reproduce any kind of music — singing, the piano, violin, cornet, oboe, etc. — with a beauty of tone and accuracy which will astonish the musician. It is possible, also, to magnify musical sounds without distorting them, as often happens where speech is concerned. Thus, I have repeatedly heard music given out by the phonograph so loudly as to be heard one hundred feet away from the instrument. Should the phonograph never reach greater perfection than its present stage, — something which, as I have already said, seems scarcely credible, — it will be of the greatest use to musicians.
If we admit that the inventors or manufacturers of the phonograph can turn out in quantities instruments as perfect as the best of the present experimental machines, and make them so automatic in action and so easily adjusted that every one who uses a sewing-machine, a typewriter, or a telephone can use the phonograph, we concede at once that a wonderful field is before them. The phonograph itself cannot cost more than fifty dollars, and the wax cylinders used upon them scarcely more than writing-paper. Once a cylinder has been "engraved," or has had a message recorded upon it, it can be passed through the phonograph any number of times, apparently without deterioration. Mr. Edison has some phonograms, containing pages of Nicholas Nickleby, which have been read out thousands of times by the phonograph, and no indications of wear are audible.
Finally, bear in mind that having once obtained a good phonogram, it can be multiplied ad infinitum at nominal cost, and what a wonderful prospect opens before us! The duplication of a phonogram is as simple as it is perfect. The wax phonogram is placed in a bath, and coated with nickel by electric deposition. When the nickel plate is sufficiently thick, it is stripped off, giving an exact mould, a die representing every minute indentation of the original wax. In order to make a second or a thousandth wax facsimile, wax sheets can be pressed against the nickel die. Edison estimates that novels of the length of Nicholas Nickleby could be sold in phonogram shape for a few cents. A good reader would first have to read the whole book to the phonograph, and the multiplication of the resulting phonograms would then be simply a matter of detail.
So also with music, — songs, piano pieces, symphonies, operas. There seems to be no reason why a play cannot be reproduced so as to give infinite pleasure. The length of the phonograph's message is limited only by the size of the phonograms. Edison estimates that Nicholas Nickleby can be transcribed upon six cylinders, six inches in diameter by twelve inches in length. But some one will soon discover a method of recording the phonographic message upon an endless roll, so that the man who cannot sleep at night will be able to have the machine read to him hour after hour without the trouble of changing cylinders.