On November 21, 1877, the American inventor, Thomas Edison announces his invention of the phonograph, a way to record and play back sound.

Thomas Edison and his phonograph

Thomas Edison and his phonograph

Edison stumbled on one of his great inventions–the phonograph–while working on a way to record telephone communication at his laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey.

homas Edison's Invention Factory Menlo Park, NJ 1880 (Courtesy of Henry Ford Museum, Dearborn, Michigan)

homas Edison’s Invention Factory
Menlo Park, NJ 1880
(Courtesy of Henry Ford Museum,
Dearborn, Michigan)

His work led him to experiment with a stylus on a tinfoil cylinder, which, to his surprise, played back the short song he had recorded, “MARY HAD A LITTLE LAMB”. Public demonstrations of the phonograph made the Yankee inventor world famous, and he was dubbed the “Wizard of Menlo Park.”  This video is supposed to be one of the early tinfoil recordings.

Edison set aside this invention in 1878 to work on the incandescent light bulb, and other inventors moved forward to improve on the phonograph. In 1887, Edison resumed work on the device, using the wax-cylinder technique developed by Charles Tainter. Although initially used as a dictating machine, the phonograph proved to be a popular tool for entertainment, and in 1906 Edison unveiled a series of musical and theatrical selections to the public through his National Phonograph Company. Continuing to improve on models and cylinders over the years, the Edison Disc Phonograph debuted in 1912 with the aim of competing in the popular record market. Edison’s discs offered superior sound quality but were not compatible with other popular disc players.  Here is an early model and a disc playing.

During the 1920s, the early record business suffered with the growth of radio, and in 1929 recording production at Edison ceased forever. Edison, who acquired an astounding 1,093 patents in his 84 years, died in 1931.


2 responses

  1. lovelytl33 says:

    This was amazing! I can’t believe the sound quality from the disc! I have recently developed an interest in old music after listening to the only known recording of a castrati. This was really great. I kept trying to make the tinfoil recording sound like something I know, and I couldn’t. Is it a recording of something I could recognize?
    Oh, feel free to stop by at http://lovelytl33.blogspot.com/
    Thank you for this piece of history!