If I asked you to name a Thomas Edison invention, what would be the first thing to come to your mind? Most people would state the electric light bulb. Although the electric light bulb was a ground-breaking invention which revolutionised the world in which we live, there is arguably another Edison invention which is just as innovative; the phonograph.
What is a phonograph?
Invented by Edison in 1877, the phonograph is a device which records sound and replays it to the user. This invention may not seem so impressive now, however, at the time of its inception, the phonograph marked the very first time that sound was ever captured and repeated. When you think about it, the phonograph paved the way for every single auditory device that we take for granted in our modern lives. Listening to music, recording messages or replaying audiobooks, podcasts and albums. None of these incredible technological feats would be possible today if Edison hadn’t invented the phonograph.
After all, prior to 1877, the only way to hear a sound was the be present in the moment. Just think about that for a minute. How many ground-breaking speeches, films and songs would we never have experienced were it not for the phonograph? If you wanted to share an amazing new song with your friends then you would have to take them with you to a live concert featuring that specific performer or you would have to try and sing it yourself. Nowadays we take for granted the ability to hear an emotionally rousing song or thought-provoking speech from the creator themselves.
However, before the phonograph was invented these works were passed on through word of mouth and vital aspects or the emotional intent of the work were often lost in translation. With the invention of the phonograph in 1877, people could now bring these awe-inspiring song, stories and speeches into their homes. For the first time in human history, we could record and replay sound and spark connections with others irrespective of time or place. In this manner, the phonograph was not simply a recording and listening device; it was conduit for expressing joy and fostering a sense of community for hundreds, thousands and ultimately millions of people.
What led Edison to invent the phonograph?
It is important to remember that Edison was not the only inventor seeking to create what is now known as the phonograph. The industrial revolution had sparked a surge of new inventions across all walks of life and competition was rife. During this time, everyone dreamed to have a patent published. Whereas the dream of children today may be to become a footballer, musician or movie star, back in Edison’s era the title of ‘inventor’ was a highly sought after and coveted career.
Facing rival inventors such as Alexander Graeme Bell, Edison had to be extremely competitive and innovative in order to stand out from all the rest. To achieve this goal, Edison would hire many budding scientists to work at his Menlo Park laboratory. Moreover, Edison and his team would work longer hours and try every single method that they could think of in order to accelerate their progress. After all, as Edison himself is famously quoted as saying, “genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration”.
In order to be as competitive as possible, Edison devised a ‘sleep-hacking’ technique which was the catalyst behind many of his most famous inventions. Edison worked 18 hours a day and often sleep for only 4 hours a day; consisting primarily of several hour long naps. Edison wanted to maximise the amount of time he spent in what is now called a ‘hypnagogic state’ in order to maximise his creativity.
You may be wondering; what is a ‘hypnagogic state’? Well, simply put, this is the technical term for the transitional stated between wakefulness and sleep. A hypnagogic state is a period of lucid thought wherein we usually forget what occurred after we enter a period of deep sleep. During this hypnagogic state, we are capable of altered thinking processes. In fact, people who have experienced these lucid thoughts often describe seeing intricate patterns, images and shapes that have been dubbed ‘the Tetris effect’.
People who have faint memories of being in a hypnagogic state often state that they saw visions and hallucinations of these shapes, patterns and symbolic imagery as well as hearing peculiar noises and sometimes nonsensical speech. It is during this ‘twilight state’ that new ideas for ground-breaking inventions and solutions for troublesome prototypes would come to Edison.
Edison realised the immense potential of this hypnagogic state so he devised his own sleep-hacking system so that he would wake up as soon as these vivid, intense ideas came to him. To do so, Edison would take his hour long naps in a chair in his laboratory where he sat with a set of steel balls in each hand and a pair of metal saucers on the floor either side of him. Upon falling into a deeper sleep, Edison’s grip on these steel balls would relax and they would fall into the metal saucers; thus creating a noise that was loud enough to rouse Edison from his slumber. Upon waking, Edison would immediately write down his ideas with a pen and paper.
After much trial and error, Edison perfected his sleep hacking system so that he could immediately write down his ideas upon waking and test these illuminating theories. If he had continued to progress into a deep sleep as we all do each night then these visions, then Edison’s ideas and solutions would have been forgotten and lost to his subconscious. Although Edison would keep his sleep hacking system a secret for the majority of his life, in his later years he would confide to several close friends that it was instrumental to his success. In fact, Edison argued that many of his most innovative thoughts, such as the phonograph, could be attributed to this ritual of dosing in a state of sleep that is on the threshold of wakefulness.
Edison’s phonograph eureka moment
As mentioned above, the inspiration for the phonograph came when Edison was executing his sleep-hacking technique. During one of his naps, Edison woke in his ‘sleep-hacking’ chair and realised that the phonograph could be created using a similar technique that was already executed by a telegraph machine. After all, Edison had worked as a telegraph operator for several years during his youth and was well accustomed with modern telegraph systems.
Edison noted that when a message is sent via telegram, the telegraph machine uses a stylus which bobs up and down in order to make indentations on paper tape that could then be sent repeatedly over the telegraph. Consequently, Edison deduced that the inverse may also be true; that indentations representing sound could intentionally be made on a piece of material using a stylus. In fact, Edison also hypothesised that the same stylus could be used to play back sound from the same indentations it would sound like the sound that was used to record it.
Based upon this logic, Edison determined that an audible recording could be created using the same process of conventional telegraph systems. Subsequently, Edison quickly sketched a machine that could test his hypothesis and gave the design to one of his machinists, John Kruesi. From here, it reportedly took Kruesi 30 hours to build a prototype of the first ever phonograph in Edison’s Menlo Park laboratory in 1877.
How does a phonograph work?
Based upon the design of a conventional telegraph system, Edison’s prototype phonograph device worked by wrapping a piece of tinfoil around a metal cylinder. The machine surrounding this cylinder had two needles; one for recording sound and one for playing it back. The user would speak into a mouthpiece that was connected to the device and turn a handle which rotated the metal cylinder.
In this manner, the vibrations generated by the user’s voice would make the recording needle vibrate and create indentations on the tinfoil. Moreover, the needle on the other side of the phonograph would enable you to play back the indentations that had been recorded; thereby projecting sound out of the mouthpiece into which you had previously spoken.
Now that this prototype had been created, Edison tested the machine by setting it to record mode. The first words ever to be logged and repeated by the phonograph were a children’s nursery rhyme:
“Mary had a little lamb,
Its fleece was white as snow,
And everywhere that Mary went,
The lamb was sure to go”.
As Edison spoke into this revolutionary device, the metal stylus created indentations in the tinfoil on the cylinder. When Edison put the machine into playback mode, it worked the very first time; much to the amazement of everyone working in the Menlo Park laboratory! Edison’s voice was played back to those in the laboratory; a feat which had never before been accomplished in human history. After this momentous occasion, Edison would later state that;
“I was always afraid of things that worked the first time. Long experience proved that there were great drawbacks found generally before they could be got commercial; but here was something there was no doubt of”.
From this moment onward, life as we know it changed forever. The phonograph was a commercial boon. Both the phonograph itself and phonograph records became a highly sought after household item. After all, people could now buy music for the first time in their lives and play it over and over again in the comfort of their own homes. Just think how excited you were by the first album you ever bought. Now imagine how much more amazed you would have been if you had never heard any other recorded sound ever prior to that moment. That is how ground-breaking the phonograph was at the time of its invention. Naturally, Thomas Edison was hailed as a hero for bringing such an immensely revolutionary creation into people’s everyday lives.