The New Talking Machines

A noted architect and writer commends Thomas Edison for his progress in developing the phonograph and predicts great things for its future.

"First Phonograph" (Library of Congress)

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.

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.

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. Even its motive power may be supplied by weights or other costless means. 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.

As a saving in the time given up to writing, the phonograph promises to far outstrip the typewriter. The business man can dictate to the phonograph as fast as be can talk, and the wax cylinder, enclosed in a suitable box, can be sent off by mail to read out its message perhaps thousands of miles away. Or else, as is now done in Mr. Edison’s laboratory in Orange, IN. J., the typewriter girl can print out upon paper what her employer has dictated to the phonograph. For the reporter, the editor, and the author who can dictate, a device has been adapted to the phonograph which causes it to stop its message at every tenth word, and to continue only when a spring is touched. Thus, the editor can dictate his article to the phonograph as he does now to his stenographer, and when the printer at the case gets the resulting phonogram the instrument will dictate to him in short sentences. If he cannot set up the sentence at one hearing, it will repeat its ten words. If he is satisfied, it reads out ten words more.

I really see no reason why the newspaper of the future should not come to the subscriber in the shape of a phonogram. It would have to begin, however, with a table of contents, in order that one might not have to listen to a two hours’ speech upon the tariff question in order to get at ten lines of a musical notice. But 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. The very tones of an actor’s or singer’s voice might be reproduced in the morning notice of last night’s important dramatic or musical event.

It has been remarked, by the way, that business letters and orders by phonograph would not be so binding as when put in black and white upon paper. A little wax cylinder covered with microscopic dots would not be considered as good evidence in court. But if the speaker’s voice, inflection, accent, were so reproduced that witnesses could swear to the personality, would it not suffice? How could there be any dispute over a man’s will, when the voice of the dead man was heard?

In music, as I have already said, the value of the phonograph even in its present condition is indisputable. Musicians are divided, and probably always will be, as to the manner in which certain famous symphonies ought to be conducted. The metronome marks used by Beethoven are but uncertain guides at best, while no written directions as to dynamic values, expression, etc., are worth much. The phonograph will at least make it possible for the musician of the future to know exactly bow our composers wished their music given, for it will repeat that music as played today, with every shade of expression, with all its infinite changes of time. Moreover, the phonograph will offer to the composer that long-sought instrument, an automatic recorder of improvisation upon the piano or other instrument. In the far-off future, when our descendants wish to compare our simple little Wagner operas with the complex productions of their own days, requiring, perhaps, a dozen orchestras, playing in half a dozen different keys at once, they will have an accurate phonographic record of our harmonic simplicity.

At present but few of the new phonographs have been finished, and those only for exhibition purposes. When they will be offered for sale seems to be doubtful; probably within a few months. Mr. Edison says that by the beginning of 1890 the phonograph will be far less of a curiosity than the telephone is now, and that he could begin selling the instruments at once if he were fully satisfied with them. There is always something which needs improving. Just at present there is needed a funnel for so magnifying the sound that if the instrument is placed in the centre of a table all the persons sitting around can hear its reading or its music. For the last year it has been the same story, — the phonographs would be ready for sale next month. It was so a year ago, and it may be so a year from now. But these many delays, which have made people rather skeptical as to the doings of the phonograph, do not make wonders already achieved less wonderful, or warrant any doubts as to the vast possibilities which the little device contains.