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The Phonograph

Page history last edited by Kristy Campbell 11 years, 5 months ago

The Phonograph over time... 






1847 - 1931


"Of all my inventions, I liked the phonograph best...."  




In 1877, while Thomas Alva Edison was working on two of his inventions, the telegraph and telephone, he accidentally discovered the ability to reproduce sound.  This discovery led to the invention of the phonograph.  The original phonograph was considered an “early sound-reproducing machine that used cylinders to record as well as reproduce sound.”[3] The phonograph is defined as "an instrument for reproducing sounds by means of the vibration of a stylus or needle following a spiral groove on a revolving disc or cylinder".[4]  The phonograph was a pivotal discovery and invention in the field of communication.  While the original intent for the phonograph was to be used in the business industry it evolved over the past decades into the world of entertainment.  Little did Edison know that the phonograph would evolve into something so entertaining.





The earliest evidence on record of the invention of the phonograph “was on paper by French Scientist Charles Cros, written on April 18, 1877.”[1]  However, the true inventor of the phonograph is recognized as Thomas Edison.  While Edison was working on two of his other inventions, the telegraph and telephone, he found that telegraphic messages could be indented on paper tape then repeatedly sent over the telegraph.  It was just a matter of time when he realized that telephone messages could be recorded and relayed in the same manner. 


Edison’s first attempt at the phonograph was an experiment with a diaphragm with an embossing point that was held against a rapid moving paraffin paper; causing indentations on the paper.  Later, he replaced the paper to a cylinder made of metal covered with tin foil.  This new device had two diaphragms and two needles, one for recording and want for playing back.  When speaking into the diaphragm, the sound vibrations would cause the needle to form indented grooves on the cylinder.   A sketch of the machine was then given to Edison’s mechanic, John Kruesi who built the first phonograph.  Edison enthusiastically tested the machine by “speaking the nursery rhyme into the mouthpiece, “Mary had a little lamb””.[1]  He was amazed that the machine repeated his words back as they had been recorded.


http://youtu.be/2IF0mgyfm54        <--Original recording of Thomas Edison reciting "Mary had a little lamb"


Over the next several decades, improvements and new discoveries were found that not only improved the quality of sound that could be recorded but the manner in which it was recorded. It was no longer seen as a "voice recorder", it opened the door to talking dolls, coin-slot machines that eventually became known as the jukebox.  By the nineteenth century there were many rivals designing and improving the phonograph such as "Emile Berliner, whom created a flat, hard shellac disc with better sound quality and could be stored more easily than the wax cylinder"; eventually replacing Edison's phonograph.[1]   





Critics of the Phonograph


Music and how it is recieved has changed over the past 100 years.  Many suggest that the invention of the phonograph eliminated the intimate relationship between music, the artist and its listeners.  John Philip Sousa was one of the biggest critics of recorded music.  Sousa predicted that recordings would be the end to music.  "The phonograph, he warned, would erode the finer instincts of the ear, end amateur playing and singing, and put professional musicians out of work".[3] "Something is irretrievably lost when we are no longer in the presence of bodies making music".[3]  As recording of music increased, the question of authenticity became greater.  Robert Philip, another critic of recording music, states that "technology fundamentally altered the tradition that it was intended to preserve".[3]  Ross suggests that recordings captured by the phonograph "can preserve those forever disappearing moments of sound but never the spark of humanity that generates them".[3]  Glen Gould also predicted that live performance would be eliminated by the continued advancement in recording technology.[3]  Ross alludes that recording music led to the Beatles breaking up after leaving the live performances and strictly doing studio recordings and that Gould died in a "strange pyshic shape" for similar reasons.  Ross concludes with "this may tell us all we need to know about the seduction and sorrows of the art of recording".[3]





Phonograph in Today's World


The phonograph, now more commonly referred to as the record player has a limited buyer.  Most consumers have moved with technology and prefer the compact disc (CD).  Many believe the CD has a better quality of sound, it is smaller, more versatile and can be easily moved.  The record player is often used in high-end auditoriums or clubs with a disc jockey (DJ) who uses the player for mixing and scratching beats.  While the phonograph was relevant in its time, the advancements since then have exceeded the abilities of the simple phonograph.


Implications on Media Ecology 


The phonograph was a pivotal discovery and invention in the field of communication.  The introduction of the phonograph allowed for family history to be passed down to future generations, preserve important information, record the last words of a dying family member and music to be recorded and replayed.  Although these are just a few of the uses for the phonograph it opened the door to a future in communication that Thomas Edison would have never thought possible.  With every advancement and improvement, the ability to record, transmit, repeat, replay multitudes of art, speech and communication is an incredible success.  So much has changed since the invention of the phonograph.   There are millions of recordings of history on disc. music has evolved into the internet, thousands of songs can be downloaded and played on MP3 players, CD's can be played in your car; it is virtually everywhere.  Ross recognizes that music is not something we do our selves or watch people doing in front of us; "it has become an art without a face."[3]  As James Burke discusses and demonstrates in the video clip below, what Edison discovered through the phonograph led to providing sound in motion pictures.   As Burke shows, the phonograph was just the beginning. The ability to communicate through recording has changed history and will continue to evolve into the future.  This is just another genre for those interested in studying Media Ecology to examine and interpret.






[1] Encyclopedia of Communication and Information STEPHEN D. PERRY . Ed. Jorge Reina Schement . Vol. 1. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2002.

[2] Dictionary of American History Ron Briley . Ed. Stanley I. Kutler . Vol. 1. 3rd ed. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 2003.

[3] Ross, Alex. "How technology has transformed the sound of music." The Record Effect. N.p.: n.p., n.d. 1-17. Web. 11 Dec. 2012. <http://iwcmediaecology.pbworks.com/w/file/fetch/61464677/Ross_The%20Record%20Effect.pdf>.

[4]"Phonograph." Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Online ed. n.d. N. pag. Web. 10 Dec. 2012. <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/phonograph>.


Comments (2)

Jeff Martinek said

at 4:48 pm on Nov 27, 2012

Kristy Campbell said

at 3:11 am on Dec 11, 2012

I can't figure out why my pics are centered in my edit mode but not in the view mode...also, I am not able to embed the CNN clip on Edison's original recording.

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