Harper's Weekly 07/17/1886
One of the most brilliant conceptions of Mr. Thomas A. Edison
was that a record could be made of sounds, from which the sounds
could be reproduced. After considerable experiment, Mr. Edison
invented the instrument known the world over as the Phonograph.
This little machine consists of a cylinder about three inches in di-
ameter, covered with a shallow spiral groove, upon which is placed
tin-foil. The cylinder is so arranged that it will travel horizontally
back or forth by means of a screw, and is operated by a crank.
The sounds are communicated to the tin-foil by a steel point attach-
ed to a diaphragm that is agitated by the sounds coming through
a tube, to which is attached a mouth-piece. The concussion of the
sound waves striking upon the diaphragm forces the metal point
forward, which is already in contact with the tin-foil, and makes
indentations as the cylinder revolves with the movement of the
In order to reproduce the sounds the diaphragm is replaced to its
point of starting, and the steel point goes over the record, follow-
ing the path of the indentations made on the tin-foil upon the
rotation of the cylinder. The point agitates the diaphragm, which
in turn agitates the air in the tube, and the repetition of the sound
is thereby produced.
Several hundred of the machines above described were put upon
the market, and quite a number were sold, but the Phonograph
failed to make a success, for the reason that the machine was not
only a clumsy piece of mechanism, frequently getting out of ad-
justment, but more especially because of the fact that the surface
upon which the record was made was pliable, and likely to be ob-
literated by a mere accidental pressure upon it.
Believing in the possibility of making a successful machine to
record and reproduce sounds, Professor Alexander Graham Bell,
Dr. Chichester A. Bell, and Mr. Sumner Tainter associated them-
selves together, under the name of the Volta Laboratory Associa-
tion, and established a laboratory in the city of Washington, one
of the principal objects of which was to experiment upon methods
of recording and reproducing sound. After several years of ex-
periment, the inventors of the Graphophone now desire that the
writer shall introduce to the world the results they have obtained.
The word “Graphophone” is a simple transposition of the word
“Phonograph,” and is intended to convey the same meaning.
Mr. Sumner Tainter soon saw that tin-foil presented a surface
unfit for the purpose it was called upon to fulfil, because of its pli-
ability and destructibility. Many and elaborate experiments were
made to discover a substance upon which a perfect and durable
sound record could be made. Mr. Tainter conceived the idea of
using a surface upon which the sound record could be cut, instead
of indenting a soft and pliable surface as is done in the Edison
machine. It was finally decided upon to use a paper surface coat-
ed with a preparation composed of wax and paraffine.
The Graphophone is made in two forms, one to make the re-
cords upon a cylindrical surface, the other upon a disk or flat
surface, the same principles, however, governing each machine.
The machines are provided with two diaphragms, one used in mak-
ing the record, and the other in reproducing the sound. The cylin-
drical machine stands about five or six inches high by eight wide,
and weighs about ten pounds. There is no skill required in the
manipulation of the machine, the rotation of the cylinder being
accomplished by a crank or automatic motion. Mr. Tainter has
exhibited a great amount of ingenuity and skill in devising the
various parts of the machine, and suiting them to the purposes
for which they were designed. The instrument is a marvel of per-
fection in accuracy of the movements of all its parts.
Upon a diaphragm three inches in diameter a steel point is at-
tached, which cuts a minute hair line in the surface of the waxed
cylinder upon the agitation of the diaphragm by a sound. The
indentation is so slight as to be scarcely perceptible, and yet these
records can be gone over time and again, and are just as per-
fect after a hundred repetitions as they were at first.
The diagram gives an idea of the way the steel point cuts
into the surface of the wax, and also portrays an actual sound
wave. This figure is magnified three times, and there are one hun-
dred and forty lines to the inch upon the cylinder.
Upon a cylinder six inches in length by an inch and a quarter
in diameter one is enabled to record at least five minutes' conver-
sation. The cylinder-holder is constructed with a ball joint at
one end, and can be easily tipped so as to allow the hollow cylin-
der to be rapidly slipped on or off.
The disk machine possibly has some advantages over the cylin-
drical machine because of the fact that the record is made upon a
flat surface, and appears in the form of a spiral line. For the
purpose of copying records, and possibly for preservation, the flat
surface is probably superior, but as each machine has advantages
peculiar to itself, it is a difficult matter to judge which will prove
the superior for all purposes.
The first illustration shows the Graphophone in actual operation,
with the operator in the act of speaking into the machine. The
second shows listeners with the ear-pieces on in the act of listen-
ing to the reproduction. If the listener does not care to use ear-
pieces, or should there be four or five who wish to hear the re-
production, a trumpet attachment is placed upon the machine,
which throws the sound out into the air.
Either of these machines is in a condition at the present time
to do the amanuensis work usually done by stenographers. For
instance, any one may sit before the Graphophone and in ordi-
nary tones speak his daily correspondence into the machine. His
LISTENING TO THE REPRODUCTION.
letters can then be written by a copyist, who can write from the
dictation of the machine.
By a neat mechanical contrivance the operator is enabled to take
as many words at a time as he can conveniently remember, and
should he forget any part of the sentence, by a slight pressure of
the finger on a rod running along the base of the machine the re-
producer will repeat the sentence.
Should a correspondent also have a Graphophone, the writer
of the letter could in a few moments dictate what would make a
lengthy epistle, enclose it in a box about the size of the apothe-
cary's “pill box,” place a stamp thereon, and transmit through the
mails. The correspondent can in turn place the cylinder received
upon his Graphophone, and listen to the letter of his friend with his
voice preserved, thereby avoiding the vexation and loss of time con-
sequent upon an encounter with bad chirography.
One of the most novel and interesting features of this machine is
its ability to record the sounds of a number of voices speaking at
the same time; this is done on one instrument, by one diaphragm,
one metallic point, and upon a single line. How it is done finds
an explanation in the fact that the different tones of the voices
vibrate with unlike speed and force, and thus make different im-
pressions upon the diaphragm, and move the metallic point in a
different way, so as to make a record of the various sounds. The
diaphragm of this machine, like the drum of the ear, can receive
and record distinctly the various sounds of a quartette of singers.
The Graphophone is now prepared to represent all moods: it
will tell you a funny story, and laugh with you in natural tones; it
will repeat a tragedy that is blood-curdling in its nature; it will
tell you a love story with all the ardor of a wooer; it will sing you
an Irish song, or whistle a selection from the Mikado.
It is expected soon to be able to correctly reproduce the songs
of great singers, and the recitations, dialogues, etc., of distinguish-
ed actors, and by a process already successful to copy the records
of the songs or recitations and dispose of them at a trifle, thus
enabling a person to enjoy at home such delightful singing as Patti
would render, or such elocution as we would listen to from Edwin
A VOICE IN WATER.
A discovery of vast importance in relation to the recording and
reproduction of sounds has been made by Dr. Chichester A. Bell,
one of the members of the Laboratory Association. He has discov-
ered that a jet of water mimics and perfectly reproduces every
word or sound uttered. It has been known for some time past
that jets of water are sensitive to sound, but not that they were
sufficiently sensitive to reproduce sounds.
A jet of water is made to fall from a small reservoir, and upon
reaching an obstructing surface, if it is of a vibratory nature, will
cause the surface to take up vibrations similar to those received
by the diaphragm of a telephone upon being agitated by a sound.
The vibration of the water begins at the orifice, travels down the
jet, and is plainly visible to the naked eye at the lower end of
The recording of sounds by the water jet is accomplished in
the following manner: a jet about one-tenth of an inch in diameter
is allowed to fall directly upon the back of the cutting style; any
sound made within a certain distance will cause sympathetic vi-
brations on the part of the water, and force the style into the wax
surface and thus make a record.
The writer has listened to intelligible reproductions of songs,
etc., made three feet away from the jet, and the inventors antici-
pate being able to make an apparatus (utilizing the principle above
mentioned) which will record what the speaker may say from twen-
ty to thirty feet away, and even greater distances.
The jet is sensitive to all sounds, consequently the Graphophone
of the future will not only give a verbatim record of the proceedings
of any kind, but will accompany it with all the noises and unim-
portant sounds which may have occurred during the time the re-
cord was taken.
It is believed by the inventors that they will be able to make
an instrument which can be placed upon a table, and a party of ten
or a dozen may sit around discussing whatever they desire, the
Graphophone with the jet attachment to run noiselessly by auto-
matic motion and record all that is said, also the noises of shutting
doors and scraping of feet upon the floor, etc. Aside remarks
not intended to be heard by everybody will be caught by the
Graphophone, to the discomfiture of the person making them. All
details will be given in the reproduction, and there will be no pos-
sibility of changing or doubting the correctness of the record.
With this short and perhaps inadequate description the results
of several years of diligent study and experiment upon the subject
of the recording and reproduction of sounds are
given to the world.
There can be no doubt of the far-reaching use-
fulness and practical value of these inventions
and discoveries, and to Mr. Tainter, Dr. Bell,
and Professor Bell the honor is due of having
successfully solved a problem that will save the
world's time, enhance its joys, and facilitate its
Franck Z. Maguire.Washington, D. C.,June 23, 1886.