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Harper's Weekly 03/30/1878


If it were not that the days of belief in witch-
craft are long since past, witch-hunters such as
those who figured so conspicuously in the early
history of our country would now find a rich har-
vest of victims in the Tribune Building. Here
are located the head-quarters of two marvels of
a marvellous age. The telephone, which created
such a sensation a short time ago by demonstra-
ting the possibility of transmitting vocal sounds
by telegraph, is now eclipsed by a new wonder
called the phonograph. This little instrument
records the utterance of the human voice, and
like a faithless confidante repeats every secret
confided to it whenever requested to do so. It
will talk, sing, whistle, cough, sneeze, or perform
any other acoustic feat. With charming impar-
tiality it will express itself in the divine strains
of a lyric goddess, or use the startling vernacular
of a street Arab.

A few days ago a reporter for Harper's visited
the phonograph for the purpose of ascertaining,
so far as an unscientific person might, the pe-
culiar characteristics of the marvellous little in-
strument. Prepared for an elaborate system of
weights, pulleys, levers, wheels, bands, such as
abounded in the case of Barnum's talking ma-
chine, whose utterances, by-the-way, were confined
to some half dozen inarticulate sounds that no
man living could understand, it was rather start-
ling to find in the famous phonograph a simple
apparatus, which, but for the absence of more
than one cylinder, might have been a modern
fluting machine. This single cylinder of hollow
brass is mounted upon a shaft, at one end of which
is a crank for turning it, and at the other a bal-
ance-wheel, the whole being supported by two
iron uprights. In front of the cylinder is a mov-
able bar or arm, which supports a mouth-piece of
gutta-percha, on the under side of which is a disk
of thin metal, such as is used for taking tin-types.
Against the centre of the lower side of this disk
a fine steel point is held by a spring attached to
the rim of the mouth-piece, as shown in our illus-
tration on page 256. An India-rubber cushion
between the point and the disk controls the vibra-
tion of the spring. The cylinder is covered with
a fine spiral groove running continuously from
end to end. In using the phonograph the first
operation is to wrap a sheet of tin-foil closely
around the cylinder. The mouth-piece is then
adjusted against the left-hand end of the cylin-
der so closely that the vibration of the voice on
the disk will cause the point to press the tin-foil
into the groove, making minute indentations re-
sembling, on a very small scale, the characters of
the Morse telegraph. The cylinder is moved from
right to left by the screw crank, so nicely adjust-
ed that the steel point is always against the cen-
tre of the spiral groove. While turning the crank
the operator talks into the mouth-piece in a voice
slightly elevated above the ordinary tone of con-
versation. Every vibration of his voice is faith.
fully recorded on the tin-foil by the steel point,
the cylinder making about one revolution to a

In order to reproduce the words—that is, to
make the machine talk—the cylinder is turned
back, so that the steel point may go over the in-
dentations made by speaking into the mouth-
piece. A funnel, like a speaking-trumpet, is at-
tached to the mouth-piece, to keep the sounds
from scattering. Now turning the crank again,
every word spoken into the mouth-piece is exact-
ly reproduced, with the utmost distinctness.

Thus the disk is either a tympanum or dia-
phragm, as the case may be, the first when it
listens, and the second when it talks. Herein
the phonograph seems actually to have got ahead
of that other marvellous construction, the human
body. In our anatomical economy the contriv-
ances by which we are enabled to hear and talk
are not only separate and distinct, but are also
much more complicated than the method by which
the phonograph accomplishes the same results.

While comparing this remarkable machine to
the race whose characteristic attribute it has
stolen (it is, we believe, habitually asserted by
people who have no means of knowing any thing
whatever about the matter that man is the only
animal that talks), it may not be unfitting to al-
lude to the admirable example it sets many gar-
rulous and wearisome individuals. The phono-
graph never speaks until it has first been spoken
to. Herein it also offers a worthy admonition to
many ambitious but inexperienced writers. It
has no original ideas to advance, or else is pos-
sessed of that spirit of modesty which precludes
the possibility of its annoying the public with un-
ripe fancies and crude speculations. The phono-
graph only consents to astonish the world at the
instance of some dominant and controlling mind.
When it is about to exhibit itself, an operator
must be on hand to put it through its paces.
On the occasion in question this gentleman was
Mr. William H. Applebaugh, General Superin-
tendent of the Telephone Company of New York.

Seating himself before the instrument, Mr.
Applebaugh confided to the disk names, num-
bers, scraps of poetry, comic songs, and various
other bits of information calculated to amuse
the phonograph, but not improve its mind. These
were faithfully recorded upon the foil, which was
made to revolve by turning the crank. Then the
disk was sent back to the original starting-point,
the crank again set in motion, and the metallic
point brought into contact with the foil. Present-
ly the phonograph began, in clear, distinct tones,
to count, to call names, to describe its own pe-
culiar talents, to give its own address, and finally
to sing:

“There was an old man whose name was Uncle Ned,
And he died long ago, long ago;
And there wasn't any wool on the top of his head,
On the place where the wool ought to grow.”

This dropping into poetry apparently gave a
sentimental turn to the thoughts of the phono-
graph, for presently, in spite of the fact that it
was discoursing to a mixed and probably unsym-
pathetic audience, it began to long for

“the touch of a vanished hand,
And the sound of a voice that is still.”

As yet the phonograph is in its infancy. Its
discovery was the result of an accident, and so
far but little idea can be formed of the develop-
ment of which it is susceptible. The gentleman
who has the honor of being its inventor is Pro-
fessor Thomas A. Edison, the famous electrician,
who, in experimenting with the telephone, hap-
pened to notice the manner in which the disks of
that instrument vibrated in accordance with the
breath used in speaking. Believing these vibra-
tions could be recorded so as to be reproduced,
he set to work to manufacture a machine for the
purpose, and the result is the phonograph. In a
short time we shall, no doubt, have the curious
little contrivance worked up to its highest per-
fection. And then, possibly, there will follow a
revolution in all departments of public singing
and speaking. There is no reason why we should
not have all the great men of the age, as well as
all the brilliant singers and actresses, taken pos-
session of and driven off the course by the pho-
nograph. Let them sing or speak once in any
place, their words and tones will be captured by
the phonograph. The tin-foil, whereon all they
have said is duly recorded, will be electrotyped,
and copies sold at so much a piece. We shall
all waste a portion of our substance on these lit-
tle instruments; and then we have only to turn
a crank, or set a kind of clock-work in motion, in
order at any time to hear the great ones of the
earth discourse in our own parlors.

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