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THE EDISON PHONOGRAPH

 THE PHONOGRAPH

IN 1877 THOMAS ALVA EDISON " THE WIZARD OF MENLO PARK " WAS THE FIRST PERSON TO ACTUALLY RECORD SOUND.  FOR THE VERY FIRST TIME IN THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD SOUND WAS NO LONGER A TRANSIENT.  UNTIL THE INVENTION OF THE PHONOGRAPH SOUND WAS LOST AS SOON AS IT WAS HEARD.  IN FACT UNTIL THE INVENTION OF THE PHONOGRAPH THE ONLY WAY TO HEAR A REPEATED SOUND WAS AN ECHO.  EXACTLY WHAT WAS THE PROCESS BEHIND THIS GREAT INVENTION THAT ALLOWED US TO CAPTURE A MOMENT FROZEN IN TIME AS A RECORDED SOUND?

THERE IS AN OLD ADAGE, " IF A TREE FALLS IN THE FOREST AND IF THERE IS NO ONE THERE TO HEAR IT, DOES IT MAKE A SOUND " ?
  THE ANSWER OF COURSE IS NO IT DOES NOT.  SOUND IS MERELY AIR IN MOTION, THE MOVING, VIBRATING AIR STRIKES THE TYMPANIC MEMBRANES ( EAR DRUMS ) OF OUR EARS AND WE PERCEIVE IT AS SOUND.  IT IS ACTUALLY NOTHING MORE THAN VARIANCES IN THE MODULATING AIR.  FOR EXAMPLE, THE REASON A DEAF PERSON CANNOT SPEAK IS NOT THAT THEY HAVE BAD VOCAL CORDS,  IT IS THEY HAVE BAD EARS.  NOT HAVING HEARD SPEECH THEY CANNOT IMITATE IT.  A DEAF PERSON WILL FEEL THE TREE FALLING IN THE FOREST AS THE MOVING, VIBRATING AIR STRIKES THEIR BODIES BUT THEY WILL NOT HEAR IT.  AS SOUND IS SIMPLY A PHENOMENON OF VIBRATING AIR WHICH WE PERCEIVE AS SOUND.

EDISON'S ORIGINAL MEDIUM FOR RECORDING WAS TINFOIL.  THIS WAS WRAPPED AROUND A GROOVED MANDREL AND ROTATED BY HAND.  THE MANDREL WAS ATTACHED TO A THREADED ROD WHICH WAS ATTACHED TO THE HANDLE.  AS THE CYLINDER WAS ROTATED BY HAND THE GROOVES IN THE THREADED ROD PULLED THE MANDREL PAST THE FIXED STYLUS ON THE RECORDER AND RATHER THAN REMOVING OR CUTTING THE MATERIAL, THE STYLUS SIMPLY INDENTED THE SURFACE MUCH AS EMBOSSING OR STAMPING A DESIGN INTO A SHEET OF ALUMINUM FOIL.  EDISON HIMSELF SAID HE WAS " ASTOUNDED AND A LITTLE FRIGHTENED " BY THE SUCCESS OF THE TIN FOIL PHONOGRAPH AND WAS SOMEWHAT NONPLUSSED THAT IT WORKED ON THE VERY FIRST TRY.

IT IS SURPRISING THAT EDISON INVENTED THIS PROCESS, PATENTED THE PROCESS THEN SIMPLY LET IT LANGUISH FOR YEARS BEFORE FINALLY BEING ROUSED FROM HIS STUPOR BY THE INVENTION OF THE WAX RECORDING METHOD.  EDISON'S PATENT COVERED INDENTION OF THE SURFACE MATERIAL, IN THIS CASE TINFOIL, BUT IT MENTIONED NOTHING ABOUT THE REMOVAL OF MATERIAL FROM THE RECORDING SURFACE.  IT WAS ACTUALLY THE WORK OF SUCH MEN AS ALEXANDER GRAHAM BELL AND EMILE BERLINER THAT RESULTED IN THE PERFECTION OF THE WAX RECORDING METHOD WHICH ULTIMATELY RESULTED IN THE " PERFECTED PHONOGRAPH " AS EDISON CALLED HIS WAX CYLINDER MACHINE.

THE TERM " PHONOGRAPH " MEANS SOUND WRITER AND IN ACTUALITY ONLY APPLIES TO A MACHINE THAT IS CAPABLE OF NOT ONLY PRODUCING SOUND, BUT BY MECHANICAL MEANS , RECORDING IT AS WELL.

THE PROCESS EDISON INVENTED IN KNOWN AS THE " HILL AND DALE METHOD ".  IN THE CASE OF THE EDISON PHONOGRAPH THE WIDTH OF THE GROOVE REMAINS CONSTANT IN WIDTH BUT VARIES IN DEPTH, SO IT IS IN FACT KNOWN AS A VERTICAL CUT RECORDING, MUCH AKIN TO A SEWING MACHINE IN OPERATION.

THE PROCESS WORKS AND WORKS WELL AND IS STRICTLY MECHANICAL WITH THE THE SOUND BEING RECORDED AND PLAYED BACK USING A MECHANICAL CONTRIVANCE, IN THIS CASE A THIN MICA OR GLASS DIAPHRAGM.  THE RECORDING STYLUS IS ACTUALLY GLUED DIRECTLY TO THE BOTTOM OF THE DIAPHRAGM ON THE EDISON RECORDER.  AS IT CONTACTS THE RECORDING MEDIUM, IN THIS CASE A WAX CYLINDER, THE VIBRATIONS OF THE DIAPHRAGM ARE TRANSMITTED TO THE STYLUS WHICH IN TURN BEGINS TO SCRIBE A SMALL GROOVE INTO THE WAX CYLINDER.  THIS GROOVE WILL VARY IN DEPTH AS THE SOUND WAVES CONTACT THE DIAPHRAGM WHICH IN TURN IS VIBRATING AS THE SOUND WAVES PHYSICALLY MOVE THE DIAPHRAGM.

THE RECORDING STYLUS IS ACTUALLY A THIN ROD MADE OF SAPPHIRE.  AS IT  BEGINS PLOWING INTO THE WAX A SMALL THIN CURL OF WAX IS PRODUCED.  THIS IS KNOWN AS SWARF AND IS THE WAX BEING REMOVED FROM THE CYLINDER ITSELF.

ONCE THE CYLINDER HAS BEEN RECORDED OR SCRIBED BY THE RECORDER, THE RECORDER IS REMOVED FROM THE MACHINE AND IS REPLACED WITH A REPRODUCER. THE REPRODUCER IS VERY MUCH LIKE THE RECORDER WITH THE EXCEPTION IT IS A PIVOTED LEVER ATTACHED TO THE DIAPHRAGM WITH A THIN WOVEN SILK CORD.  AS THE REPRODUCER RIDES THE GROOVES JUST CUT BY THE RECORDER IT VIBRATES WITH THE SAME FREQUENCY AS THE ORIGINAL SOUND WAVES.  THE RESULT IS RECORDED SOUND.

IT HAS ALWAYS BEEN NOTED WITH SOME QUESTION HOW THOMAS EDISON WAS ABLE TO ACCOMPLISH THIS FEAT OF WIZARDRY.  IT IS A LITTLE KNOWN FACT THAT EDISON HIMSELF WAS DEAF.  WHY THEN WAS HE THE ONLY PERSON TO ACCOMPLISH THIS PROCESS.  THE ANSWER OF COURSE HAS ALWAYS BEEN, NO ONE ELSE WAS THOMAS EDISON.

 

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