RECORDING THE EARLY VOICES
"…whoever has spoken…into the mouthpiece of the phonograph, and whose words are recorded by it, has the assurance that his speech may be reproduced audibly in his own tones long after he himself has tuned to dust… Speech has become, as it were, immortal."
-Scientific American, Nov. 17, 1877
During the summer of 1877, Thomas Edison and his staff at the Menlo Park Laboratory were working on a machine to record and retransmit telegraph signals. Edison realized that, with some modifications and the aid of a primitive microphone/speaker, this device could also record and replay acoustic signals. This was an improvement on earlier sound recorders, like the phonautograph invented by Leon Scott, which used a stylus to trace the shape of sound waves on a soot-covered glass cylinder but were poorly suited to replaying recorded sound. The possibilities of sound recording quickly captured the public imagination, and it was this invention that first established Edison's reputation as the country's leading inventor. (Morton 2004, 2)
Edison's influence meant that sound recording moved from being a laboratory curiosity to a viable commercial opportunity. The first few decades of recording technology saw many different attempts to improve upon Edison's design, whether by changing the device itself or the media on which it recorded. Edison himself quickly replaced the wax-coated paper of his earliest models with a tinfoil-covered cylinder that rotated under the recording stylus. This method required that the microphone be very close to the source of sound, and was only able to record sound in two-minute increments – the length of a single roll. (Copeland 1991, 7; Steffen 2005, 27)
Despite the speculation evident in the above quote from Scientific American, Edison and his competitors originally thought that their recording devices would be most useful for business dictation, and tried to sell their products to corporations and businessmen. Other uses, such as public entertainment, were not anticipated by the major manufacturers and were only discovered by local sales companies. (Morton 2000, 17). Many of the technological improvements made to recording devices were aimed at capturing the dictation market. Edison replaced tinfoil cylinders with wax-coated cylinders in the late 1880s, while both Edison and a group headed by Alexander Graham Bell experimented with replacing the cylinder with a disc, a technique perfected by Emile Berliner in 1895. (Steffen 2005, 29) Such improvements allowed for more accurate recordings (with less background noise) and longer recording times.
Other experiments focused on devising a steady power source that could drive the recording medium (whether cylinder or disc) at a constant speed. Edison's earliest models used a spring, much like a clock, while the version built by Bell and his collaborators used a sewing-machine treadle. Later models took advantage of batteries and electric motors, which decreased the size of the recording and playback devices and contributed to their wide acceptance. (Morton 2004, 17-18)
Copeland, Peter, Sound Recordings, London: The British Library, 1991.
Morton, Jr., David L., Off the Record: The Technology and Culture of Sound Recording in America, New Brunswixk, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2000.
Morton, Jr., David L., Sound Recording: The Life Story of a Technology, Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006.
Steffen, David J., From Edison to Marconi: The First Thirty Years of Recorded Music, Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., Inc., 2005.