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.