How Thomas Edison’s Phonograph Transformed the World

On 21 November, 1877, American inventor Thomas Alva Edison was officially credited with inventing the phonograph – a revolutionary device which could record and play back sounds. This invention was greeted with hysteria at the time, so utterly extraordinary was the idea that we could preserve the spoken word, and its legacy has transformed every aspect of our modern world.

A self-made man – inventor and innovator – the tough no-nonsense Edison was a symbol of the age of enterprise in America. He scorned the stuffy older ways of thinking, famously dismissing Latin, Greek and Philosophy as “ninny stuff,” and spent his life creating inventions designed to bring ease and comfort into people’s homes – for a handsome profit.

With 1093 invention patents to his name – almost twice as much as anyone else in American history – Edison (and his employees) did more than anyone else to create a range of products that are now central to modern life. Alongside the incandescent light bulb and the motion picture camera, the phonograph is considered to be his crowning achievement.

“Mary had a little lamb”

Edison first thought about the phonograph whilst working on two other world-changing 19th century inventions – the telephone and the telegraph. The technology used for the two, he decided, could also be altered to record sound – something which had hitherto never even been considered as a possibility.

In 1877, he began to create a machine designed for this purpose with two needles, one for recording the sound, and one for playing it back. The first needle would indent the sound vibrations onto a cylinder covered with tin foil, while the other one would copy the exact indentations to produce the same sound again.

When he spoke the oddly chosen words “Mary had a little lamb” into the machine, he was awed and astonished to hear them played back to him. Or, perhaps, he was the first of millions of people to dislike the sound of his own voice on recording.

A patent drawing for Edison’s phonograph on May 18, 1880.

Edison’s keen eye for business

Edison’s impeccable eye for what was likely to take off served him here again, as he began to contemplate the potential uses of the discovery. Among those which he considered were recording important conversations and speeches, talking books for the blind, music boxes and a way of leaving a message on the phone when the other person didn’t pick up.

All these ideas, which would have seemed like something out of a particularly far-fetched science fiction novel a year earlier, would come true, and more. The Edison Speaking Phonograph Company was quickly set up in 1878, and the money from astonished consumers quickly came flooding in.

The phonograph was quickly seen all over the world, and was held up as a dazzling example of American ingenuity. When the US joined World War One in 1917, the Edison Phonograph Company created a special cheaper model for the soldiers departing for Europe, allowing them to take music or recordings of loved ones with them to the trenches.

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With the ability to record sound, the music and film industries boomed and modern popular culture was born. However, another example of the phonograph’s long reach can be found, bizarrely, in Bram Stoker’s 1897 Gothic novel Dracula, in which large parts of the story of the vampire are found, supposedly, recorded in phonograph form rather than in dusty manuscripts or haunted castles.

From the instant Edison first thought of the idea, the world would never be the same again.

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