Year of Innovation Series - Tinfoil Phonograph

Year of Innovation - Education of an Inventor


  1. Inventing Sound Recording
  2. Inventing the Wizard of Menlo Park
  3. The Response to the Phonograph
  4. Marketing the Phonograph

The phonograph was a marvel that amazed everyone! It was utterly simple and scientists as well as the public were fascinated. It is this invention that gave Edison his nickname "The Wizard of Menlo Park."

Inventing Sound Recording

On July 17, 1877, Edison was thinking about recording telephone messages.  Edison was thinking of the telephone as a "speaking telegraph." He therefore envisioned using a recorder similar to the embossing recorder-repeater he was developing for Western Union.  Still reflecting on this idea the following day, after a seriesof telephone experiments, he tried "a diaphragm having an embossing point & held against paraffin paper moving rapidly."  Finding that the sound "vibrations are indented nicely" he concluded "theres no doubt that I shall be able to store up & reproduce automatically at any future time the human voice perfectly."

Though Edison put aside this extraordinary idea in order to push ahead on his telephone, he returned to it time and again over the next six months.  In early August, at the end of a letter to Edison describing a telephone exhibit, Edward Johnson remarked that he had astounded his audience by describing what Edison "proposed to do in the way of recording speech."  A week later, Edison labeled the speech recorder he had drawn in his notebook, and which looked very much like an automatic telegraph recorder, the "Phonograph."  A few days later he discussed methods of recording on paper with "my apparatus for recording & reproducing the human voice."  He also described how it would work as a telephone recorder.  Edison drafted an informal press release to announce the new invention on September 7 even though he felt that the phonograph was not yet ready for the public and he decided not to publish it.

The telephone took all of Edison's time during the rest of September and October, so it wasnt until early November the started working with the phonograph again.  The phonograph he sketched on November 1 still looked very much like an automatic telegraph and still recorded on paper tape.  Edison was finally willing to publish the text of his September press release as a letter from Edward Johnson to the editor of Scientific American.  Nonetheless, Edison was clearly not satisfied with the paper-tape recorder and was beginning to develop a different design that drew on an alternative embossing recorder-repeater he had experimented with the previous summer.  On November 10, Edison sketched a drawing of a lathe-like device with a hand crank that turned a large, grooved cylinder mounted on a long shaft with a screw pitch of ten threads per inch.  Instead of paraffined paper, Edison sketched a piece of tin foil wrapped around the cylinder as a recording surface.  By the end of the month Edison was satisfied with this design and set machinist John Kruesi to work making the instrument.  The phonograph that Kruesi built during the first six days of December astounded Edison and his associates by working the first time they tried it!

The day after it was finished Edison, accompanied by Batchelor and Johnson, took the new cylinder phonograph to the New York offices of Scientific American.  There he amazed the staff by placing the little machine on the editor's desk and turning the handle to reproduce a recording he had already made.  According to the journal's editor, "the machine inquired as to our health, asked how we liked the phonograph, informed us that it was very well, and bid us a cordial good night.  These remarks were not only perfectly audible to ourselves, but to a dozen or more persons gathered around, and they were produced by the aid of no other mechanism than the simple little contrivance explained and illustrated below."

By the New Year, Edison had an improved phonograph and he exhibited the talking machine at Western Union headquarters, where it attracted the attention of the New York newspapers.

Inventing the Wizard of Menlo Park

These first public demonstrations produced a trickle of articles that soon turned into a steady stream and by the end of March had become a veritable flood.  Initially, the news reports contained little more than descriptions of the phonograph and how it worked or accounts of demonstrations of the new invention.  News editors soon became interested in the instrument's inventor as well, and began to publish more personal accounts.  They sent their reporters to the Menlo Park laboratory to interview Edison, printed anecdotes about him and the phonograph, and provided biographical sketches, including some by those who had known him during his days as a telegrapher.  Most of the interviews were conducted by New York reporters, although occasionally newspapers in other large cities sent reporters to visit him at the laboratory.  Papers in small cities and towns had to be content to reprint accounts from the large city papers, especially those in New York.

The intimate portrait of the inventor that these interviews provided was supplemented by drawings of Edison and his inventions that began to appear in illustrated papers and journals like the New York Daily Graphic, Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, and  Harper's Weekly.  In March and April the Graphic provided readers with many drawings of the inventor, his phonograph, and his laboratory, including an impressive set of full-page illustrations, one of them a portrait of Edison, that appeared on April 10 in an article that dubbed him "The Wizard of Menlo Park," which became his most famous nickname. 

By mid-April, articles about Edison and his phonograph were appearing so frequently that Edison’s friend George Bliss wrote him from Chicago:

"The Mania has broken out this way--  School girls write compositions on Edison.  The funny papers publish squibs on Edison.  The religious papers write editorials on Edison.  The daily papers write up his life. The Rev. Woodbury is writing a magazine article on Edison &c &c.  When shall we get a rest."
He concluded by asking "Why dont the Graphic fill up exclusively with Edison and [be] done with [it]?" Edison himself noted that he had begun to receive an enormous number of letters requesting advice on inventions, charity, autographs and photographs, or an agency for Edison's inventions.  On 16 April he told Uriah Painter, one of the organizers of the new Edison Speaking Phonograph Company, "This is the last of 52 letters I’ve written tonight besides having sent 23 to E. H. J[ohnson] to answer this morning 103 letters was the biggest mail in one day." Two days later Edison was in Washington to exhibit his phonograph to the National Academy of Sciences at the Smithsonian Institution.  The next morning he demonstrated the phonograph to Congress and late that night he brought it to the White House.

The Response to the Phonograph

The simple mechanism and operation of the phonograph seemed astounding to the general public and scientific community alike.  This was also the reason that some in the scientific community were skeptical of the initial reports.  The New York Sun quoted one professor who called the "idea of a talking machine ridiculous" and advised Edison protect his "good reputation as an inventor among scientific men" by denying an account of the phonograph which had appeared in the Sun and which he believed could only have been "calculated to injure you."

But most of the scientific and technical community soon agreed with Alfred Mayer, professor of physics at the Stevens Institute, who wrote Edison after witnessing a demonstration of the phonograph in mid-January:"Ever since my return home your marvelous invention has so occupied my brain that I can hardly collect my thoughts to carry on my work.  The results are far reaching (in science), its capabilities are immense. I cannot express my admiration of your genius better than by frankly saying that I would rather be the discoverer of your talking machine than to have made the first best discovery of any one who has worked in Acoustics." When the phonograph was demonstrated at meeting of the Academy of Science in Paris the members showed a similar delight in the new instrument. The phonograph received a similar reception at the Royal Institution in London.

While the scientific community saw its potential as a scientific instrument, the general public was imagining all sorts of uses for the new machine. Edison envisioned a variety of possible uses in an article published in the June issue of North American Review. He described how the phonograph could be used for dictation and voice mail, preserving the voices of family members and famous people, for speaking books, teaching elocution and music, advertising, toys and clocks, and, of course, as a telephone recorder.

Newspapers and magazine writers and cartoonists envisioned a host of other possibilities, some more serious than others. Some of these were depicted in a full-page cartoons in the New York Daily Graphic and Frank Leslie’s Budget of Fund. The Graphic cartoon, titled "Awful Possibilities of the New Speaking Phonograph," included an image of the Statue of Liberty given voice by the phonograph, a suggestion Edison had made in a New York Sun interview.  A more prophetic article, accompanied by a full-page drawing, described the possibility of using a phonograph as a detective to record a philandering spouse. Another reporter speculated that Congressmen could bottle up their speeches so they would not have to appear for a debate.  The phonograph also inspired engineer Charles Siemens to speculate that the brain acted like a phonograph in responding to impressions received through the senses.

Marketing the Phonograph

Edison had grand expectations for his invention. As he told one reporter, "this is my baby and I expect it to grow up to be a big feller and support me in my old age." The public soon clamored for the instrument. In early February, just after the formation of the Edison Speaking Phonograph Company, its general manager reported that he was receiving "a large number of applications from professors of various colleges and other people who wish to buy them just as a novelty."  As a result, Edison decided to design a small exhibition cylinder phonograph expecting that "a good deal of money could be made in selling these small traps as a novelty."

Edison also improved the larger cylinder phonograph by making its cylinder longer, combining the recording and playback mechanisms into s single unit and using a cone-shaped funnel to concentrate the sound on playback.  He also added a heavy flywheel to allow steadier rotation of the handcrank.  Though these modifications improved the sound quality, the cylinder phonograph remained little more than an exhibition curiosity.

Small Phonograph Reproduction tinfoil phonograph
Small Phonograph
Standard cylinder phonograph

Edison and his phonograph company expected that a commercial machine would need to be a spring-powered disk phonograph that would serve as a "standard" machine for dictation and other business purposes.  He described this machine in some detail at the end of letter to Alfred Mayer in February and in two patent caveats, one in February and the other in May. Although Edison built working prototypes of the disk phonograph he failed to produce a commercial machine.

Edison turned instead to the challenge of developing an improved machine for the Edison Speaking Phonograph Company's new exhibition business.  The company’s managers had decided to establish exhibition agencies rather than sell phonographs outright in the belief that once they had Edison's promised standard, existing machines would be "a detriment to us rather than a benefit if in the hands of the public and we therefor prefer to call them in and smash them up."

In early May, they hired James Redpath, a former journalist who had established the Redpath Lyceum Bureau in Boston in 1868, to manage their exhibition business.  He was soon training eighty men who each paid $100 for the right to exhibit the phonograph.  Standard Phonograph These exhibitors were to charge twenty-five cents admission for each exhibition, with the company receiving twenty-five percent of the gross receipts.  Edison and his assistants received royalties on the sale of the machines and twenty percent of the net receipts, after the deduction of Redpath’s salary, from the exhibitions, which continued through October 1.  By the end of the year Edison had netted over $4,000 and $1,000 came from exhibition receipts! Edison exhibiting at Menlo Park

Edison and his associates in the phonograph company were unable to turn the tinfoil phonograph from a curiosity suitable for exhibitions and lectures into a consumer product, although for a while they did sell a small, inexpensive "parlor phonograph" for home use. The phonograph's real drawback was not the mechanical design on which they focused their efforts but the tinfoil recording surface.  Compared to later wax recording surfaces developed in the 1880s, tinfoil recordings had very poor fidelity and also deteriorated rapidly after a single playback.  To overcome this, Edison attempted to develop a method of producing copies, either by electro- or stereotyping, that could be played many times but never succeeded.  He also experimented with other metals and materials as recording surfaces, but he continued to favor tinfoil.  As a result, for the next decade the phonograph remained little more than a scientific curiosity.