Edison: His Life and Inventions HTML version

The Phonograph
AT the opening of the Electrical Show in New York City in October, 1908, to celebrate
the jubilee of the Atlantic Cable and the first quarter century of lighting with the Edison
service on Manhattan Island, the exercises were all conducted by means of the Edison
phonograph. This included the dedicatory speech of Governor Hughes, of New York; the
modest remarks of Mr. Edison, as president; the congratulations of the presidents of
several national electric bodies, and a number of vocal and instrumental selections of
operatic nature. All this was heard clearly by a very large audience, and was repeated on
other evenings. The same speeches were used again phonographically at the Electrical
Show in Chicago in 1909--and now the records are preserved for reproduction a hundred
or a thousand years hence. This tour de force, never attempted before, was merely an
exemplification of the value of the phonograph not only in establishing at first hand the
facts of history, but in preserving the human voice. What would we not give to listen to
the very accents and tones of the Sermon on the Mount, the orations of Demosthenes, the
first Pitt's appeal for American liberty, the Farewell of Washington, or the Address at
Gettysburg? Until Edison made his wonderful invention in 1877, the human race was
entirely without means for preserving or passing on to posterity its own linguistic
utterances or any other vocal sound. We have some idea how the ancients looked and felt
and wrote; the abundant evidence takes us back to the cave-dwellers. But all the old
languages are dead, and the literary form is their embalmment. We do not even know
definitely how Shakespeare's and Goldsmith's plays were pronounced on the stage in the
theatres of the time; while it is only a guess that perhaps Chaucer would sound much
more modern than he scans.
The analysis of sound, which owes so much to Helmholtz, was one step toward
recording; and the various means of illustrating the phenomena of sound to the eye and
ear, prior to the phonograph, were all ingenious. One can watch the dancing little flames
of Koenig, and see a voice expressed in tongues of fire; but the record can only be
photographic. In like manner, the simple phonautograph of Leon Scott, invented about
1858, records on a revolving cylinder of blackened paper the sound vibrations transmitted
through a membrane to which a tiny stylus is attached; so that a human mouth uses a pen
and inscribes its sign vocal. Yet after all we are just as far away as ever from enabling the
young actors at Harvard to give Aristophanes with all the true, subtle intonation and
inflection of the Athens of 400 B.C. The instrument is dumb. Ingenuity has been shown
also in the invention of "talking-machines," like Faber's, based on the reed organ pipe.
These autom- ata can be made by dexterous manipulation to jabber a little, like a doll
with its monotonous "ma-ma," or a cuckoo clock; but they lack even the sterile utility of
the imitative art of ventriloquism. The real great invention lies in creating devices that
shall be able to evoke from tinfoil, wax, or composition at any time to-day or in the future
the sound that once was as evanescent as the vibrations it made on the air.
Contrary to the general notion, very few of the great modern inventions have been the
result of a sudden inspiration by which, Minerva-like, they have sprung full-fledged from
their creators' brain; but, on the contrary, they have been evolved by slow and gradual
steps, so that frequently the final advance has been often almost imperceptible. The