On this day in 1914, Thomas Edison was granted a patent for the “phonograph-record”— which actually was not the first phonograph record, as you might mistakenly assume. (Don’t feel badly—we initially made the same error.) Given the degree of Edison worship in American history books, you might also incorrectly think that Edison was the first person to record sound, but that innovation actually was first achieved by a French inventor, Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville in 1860. According to this 2008 New York Times article, De Martinville’s “phonoautograph” used a diaphragm to pick up the vibrations made by the human voice, and used them to move a fine stylus, which then scratched impressions onto sheets of paper blackened by smoke from an oil lamp. The Frenchman, however, never intended to play back the recording. Instead, he saw it as a way to transcribe spoken words, so they later could be deciphered like shorthand dictation.
Seventeen years later, Edison—who, apparently, was unaware of the French invention—independently got the idea of using such recorded impressions to reproduce the sound. While trying to perfect a machine that would transcribe telegraph messages by making indentations on a roll of paper, he noticed that as the paper passed through the machine and was scratched by its stylus, it made an odd noise that, when repeated rapidly, sounded somewhat like a human voice. He had his mechanic build a device similar to the French one, except that it recorded onto a cylinder wrapped with tinfoil. The first voice Edison successfully played back was his own, repeating the nursery rhyme, “Mary had a little lamb.”
Edison went on to obtain a patent in 1878 for his playback device, and began trying to make money by exhibiting it. Other inventors—including Chichester A. Bell, the cousin of Alexander Graham Bell—sought to improve upon Edison’s technology. Bell and his colleague Charles Tainter created the graphophone, which used a wax recording surface and a floating stylus, and got better sound reproduction. Edison switched to wax cylinders as well. Eventually, the wax was replaced with more durable celluloid.
Cylinders, though, weren’t all that great of a medium, in part because you couldn’t fit that much sound on them. In 1888, a German-American inventor named Emile Berliner had the brainstorm of recording sound on the surface of a flat disc, instead, and the phonograph record was born.
As was Edison’s inclination, however, he stubbornly resisted innovations that he didn’t come up with, even when they were superior to his own work. (His futile struggle to promote direct current over alternating current is a prime example.) Edison refused to give up on the cylinder until 1913, when he reluctantly began manufacturing disc records as well.
But Edison did try to come up with improvements to both his beloved cylinder and the disc record. His September 1914 patent was for a method of creating a record that played back with less distortion and didn’t wear out quickly. Edison’s innovation: putting a thin cushioning layer under the celluloid, to make it more flexible.
And with that, here are the science and technology stories of the day.