150 Years Of The Atlantic September 2006

Technology & Innovation

This is the eighth in a series of archival excerpts in honor of the magazine's 150th anniversary. This installment is introduced by James Fallows, a national correspondent of The Atlantic.
The New Talking Machines
February 1889
By Philip G. Hubert Jr.

In 1889, Philip G. Hubert Jr., a noted architect and writer (his 1893 book Men of Achievement: Inventors remains in print today), commended Thomas Edison for his progress in developing the phonograph and predicted great things for its future, including books on “phonograms” and music reviews accompanied by sound clips.

Edison has devoted nearly two years to the task of making the phonograph of commercial use. He believes that he has succeeded. Whether or not the instrument shall enter into every-day life, as the telephone has done, is a question for the future … 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 …

As compared with the field of the telephone, that of the phonograph is limitless. The telephone must always remain somewhat of an expensive luxury, owing to the cost of maintaining wires, connecting stations, etc. The whole expense of the phonograph will be the first cost … Imagine what the phonograph will do for the man on the borders of civilization! It will supply him with books in a far more welcome shape than print, for they will read themselves; the mail will bring him the latest play of London, or opera of Vienna. If he cares for political speeches, he can have the Congressional Record in the shape of phonograms. It is even possible to imagine that many books and stories may not see the light of print at all; they will go into the hands of their readers, or hearers rather, as phonograms …

I really see no reason why the newspaper of the future should not come to the subscriber in the shape of a phonogram … Think what a musical critic might be able to do for his public! He might give them whole arias from an opera or movements from a symphony, by way of proof or illustration.

Volume 63, No. 376, pp. 256–261

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