“Halloa! Halloa! Mr. Phonograph are you there?”
Chicago, May 1878
The call rang out in a Chicago Methodist Church as if they were contacting the dead in a séance, coaxing ghosts to speak. With all eyes fixed on it, the machine distinctly repeated the call.
“What knowledge does Mr. Phonograph have of the English alphabet?”
The alphabet was duly recited and then repeated flawlessly by the machine. The audience applauded wildly.
Could it speak the coarse street slang of the day?
“Oh you, I say you dry up. Pull down your vest. Dry up! Go west, young man! Wipe off your chin!” Stated once, then repeated verbatim with hardly a blush.
The talking machine sang “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and recited “Mary had a little lamb.”
The evening thrills concluded with a cornet solo in four octaves, each replayed with “wondrous fidelity” by the talking machine.
The next day, the Chicago Tribune asked:
Has not Mr. Edison by means of ventriloquism been testing the credulity, or rather faith, of those that have seen such wonders of Science that they are ready to believe the impossible if learned investigators and scientists should declare its truth?
The talking machine was an overnight sensation and its 31-year-old inventor, Thomas Edison, celebrated as the greatest ever. Edison called his machine the phonograph—combining the Greek words for sound or voice with writing. The New York Times called it “bottled sound,” predicting that the elegant host of the future would draw from a well-stocked oratorical cellar to choose the meal’s orators:
As a pleasant and palatable table orator, he will select dry “Mark Twain” or “Beecher” although the latter has too much body.
Bottled sound became the phonograph craze. Introduced in December 1877, by the spring of 1878, people were flocking in wonder to demonstrations of the Edison talking machine in churches, libraries, and halls of science from Boston to Chicago to San Francisco. Many of the demonstrations were organized by Edison’s associates who would blithely suggest that “Mr. Edison’s work would now speak for itself.”
President Rutherford B. Hayes asked to see the talking machine. Magazines had a field day discussing Edison. Popular Science Monthly squeezed in an article on Edison’s talking machine alongside such tempting nuggets as “The Eucalyptus of the Future” and “The Wicked Weasel.”
Edison was dubbed the “Wizard of Menlo Park,” the “genius who didn’t believe in genius.” It was duly reported that he wore a 7 7/8 inch tall hat, stood 5’9” tall and had a chest expansion of 5 inches. His favorite authors were Longfellow and Poe.
The Edison talking machine had a twenty-day run at Horticultural Hall in Boston, drawing 69,000 people at 25 cents per ticket or about $435,000 in 2018 dollars.
The Boston Globe called it “first class entertainment” presented in the “interest of the best class of people.” The presentations were indeed entertaining as written in the Boston Globe:
- “The drawling way in which the instrument repeated [stories] would have made a horse laugh.”
- “We heard Mary Had a Little Lamb backwards.”
- “The imagination grows weary in trying to grasp all the possibilities of this instrument.”
- The Globe dubbed Edison’s talking machine the “funny-graph.”
Even the New England Farmer, girded by the strictures of Yankee practicality, had to resort to exclamation points:
“What a wonderful result is that!”
However, the Farmer continued,
“As yet, the phonograph has not been put to any practical use.”
What practical use was the phonograph? By 1880, people were abandoning the phonograph craze like a hula hoop left in the junkyard. The phonograph could put sound into the bottle, but the sound had little substance or variety to it. The cork had popped, the thrill had vanished.
Edison proposed ten uses for the phonograph in 1877 including recording the last words of the dying, time announcements for clocks, books for the blind, talking dolls, business letters or even marriage proposals for the person too shy to speak. Edison thought that he had anticipated how his invention would fit into American society. Instead, Edison’s talking machine stood as a curio—a brief fad—limited by its scratchy sound and brief recording time on the cylinder wrapped in tin foil.
After a few years, Edison conceded privately that there was in his view no commercial value in the phonograph. He had violated the lesson he thought he learned with his first invention. In January 1869, he announced that he would no longer work as a telegraph operator. He hung out his shingle as a freelance inventor.
Six months after opening shop in Boston, he was awarded his first patent, June 1, 1869, for an electric vote recorder. He tried to sell it to Congress and to the Massachusetts General Assembly. The representatives of both august bodies laughed at him: who would want to speed up voting?
Edison then vowed to pursue only inventions with clear “commercial demand.” His inventions must be in line with society’s values and accepted technologies. As he proved many times in his life, he could clearly imagine the workings of any invention. He could imagine improvements on first examination. He then became obsessed with every detail as the development unfolded.
Knowing every toggle and turn in how something worked was not enough. He needed to understand who would use it and why. An invention, like the phonograph, may amaze people and make them laugh in wonder, but without a practical use that people want, it will not be successful.
Even though Edison launched an extensive publicity campaign through demonstrations in major cities across the country and actively courted the press, he couldn’t answer the consumer question: What do I do with it?
In the 1880s, Edison set aside the phonograph to focus on the electric lighting.
Edison’s next major invention—the incandescent light bulb—would be different. His first thoughts were “how would the light bulb be used?” The competition to develop electric lighting was intense. The state of the art before Edison was high voltage, low resistance arc lighting used outdoors in parks and streets. Arc lighting was wired in serial circuits meaning that if one light failed, the entire system went dark. And when the arc lights worked, the light was nearly blinding up close, too intense for indoor use.
Edison saw the opportunity to replace the existing indoor gas lights with soot-free, softer light, at lower voltages. He would follow the example of the network of gas pipes feeding streetlights and home. He became the first to use parallel electric circuits to allow continuous electrical flow. He made an assessment of the best use for cities, neighborhoods and homes, calculating technical needs like how much copper wire at what distance from the generator. Then, he began to determine how it would work.
While Edison was absorbed by the light bulb, others saw in the phonograph what Edison dropped: commercial potential through music. During the phonograph’s debut, he promised the New York Times that one day the phonograph would “enable persons to enjoy good music at home.” But, at the time, there was no supporting network—no pipeline to funnel music to the consumer.
In the early 1890s, entrepreneurs began recording popular singers and songs selling the cylinders in limited quantities. (There was no way to duplicate the recording, so cylinders were recorded one at a time, each a distinct live performance.)
Finally, by 1900, Edison realized that the music business—“the happiness industry”—was leaving him behind. Music was the ultimate purpose for the phonograph. By then, recordings were made onto discs. Edison worked to improve the discs and his own talking machine, effectively competing in an industry that he had earlier abandoned. Edison, though deaf, recaptured his love for “his baby,” which he had named the phonograph—sound writing.
In an 1878 centennial celebration speech at Phillips Andover Academy, the key speaker reminded the students: You must bear in mind the possibility of the phonograph at the next centennial celebration.
The students laughed at the absurdity of it. Who would use a “funny-graph” in 1978?