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Extraordinary Times

The Origin of the Sound Recording Industry
Cylinder Origins

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"I was always afraid of things that worked the first time."

-Thomas Alva Edison


Thomas Alva Edison proved that sound could be mechanically reproduced in 1877 with the invention of the Tinfoil Phonograph. He made this phenomenal discovery while working in his Menlo Park, New Jersey laboratory. It was the first successful recording, and playback, of sound.

He was not the first to attempt sound recording, however. 20 years earlier, a French Scientist by the name of Leon Scott developed a machine called the Phonautograph.

It traced the vibrations of sounds, spoken into a small horn, onto a rotating cylinder of soot-covered paper with a hogs-bristle stylus. The resulting pattern was, in essence, the first successful sound recording. But the sounds could not be played back.

Edison's Phonograph was a modern wonder, but it was not very practical, given the fragile tinfoil medium and the poor quality of the recordings. But it would change history, and spark fierce competition among his competitors.

As Edison turned his efforts toward the Incandescent Light, his greatest rival began to make plans of his own. Alexander Graham Bell commissioned his cousin, Chichester Bell and a talented engineer by the name of Charles Sumner Tainter to improve upon Edison's design.

Their research, conducted in the Volta Laboratory in Washington, D.C., resulted in the release of their own speaking machine, the Graphophone, in 1886.

The Graphophone's wax coated cylinder was far superior in sound quality to the earlier tinfoil recordings. The next year, the American Graphophone Company was formed in Philadelphia to market the machines.

Bell and Tainter's device would inspire Edison to continue improvements to his own Phonograph, and other inventors to try their hand at sound recording.

But despite the initial publicity gained by the inventions, the public saw the early "speaking machines" as little more than fascinating, but largely useless, novelties. Soon enough, however, all of that would change.

 
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