In 1855, Leon Scott invented the first device
that successfully recorded sound. Although his machine could
not play the sounds back, it was marketed beginning in 1859 for
use in scientifically analyzing sound, and was an important
building block for later developments. In 1877, Thomas
Edison drew up plans for a “tinfoil phonograph” from which a
prototype was built by his laboratory engineer, John Kruesi.
Unlike Scott’s machine, the phonograph not only recorded sounds,
but also played them back. It was first tested successfully
with a recording of Edison reciting the nursery rhyme “Mary had
a Little Lamb.” Scientific
American reported that “Speech has become ... immortal.”
In January 1878, the Edison Speaking
Phonograph Company was established, and Edison refined the product
over the next few months. He considered the invention
primarily to be an office machine.
When he enumerated the leading ten uses of the phonograph,
topping the list was “Letter writing and all kinds of dictation
without the aid of a stenographer.”
The phonograph initially aroused public interest, as
attested by an
in the March 30, 1878
issue of Harper’s Weekly.
The reporter judged that the telephone (invented in 1876)
had been “eclipsed by a new wonder called the phonograph.”
The writer then described the workings of its
brass cylinder, metal disc, tin foil, steel point, rubber
mouthpiece, funnel, and crank.
He humorously noted that the “phonograph never speaks
until it has first been spoken to.”
In the final paragraph, the reporter correctly assessed the
potential for discs recorded with songs and speeches to be sold to
the public and played on phonographs in their homes.
However, sales of the machine, whether for office or home
use, were few because its sensitive mechanisms often failed to
work properly and the fragile recording discs were easily damaged.
Public interest soon waned, and Edison focused his
attention on developing the electric light bulb.
But Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of
the telephone, did pursue the idea of a dictating machine.
By 1885, he, Chichester Bell (a cousin), and Charles Sumner
Tainter had improved the phonograph’s sound quality and extended
the length of time it could record. The invention, which
they called a graphophone, used a wax-covered paper cylinder and a
sewing machine treadle for power.
It was patented in 1886, and was featured in the July 17,
1886 issue of Harper’s Weekly.
machine’s development and how it worked was accompanied by
illustrations of recording the sound, cutting the groove in the
wax, and listening to the result played back.
“The instrument is a marvel of perfection in accuracy of
the movements of all its parts,” the reporter remarked.
The assumption that the machine was intended mainly for
office work was apparent in the writer’s contention that the
graphophone was “in a condition at the present time to do
the amanuensis work [i.e., dictation] usually done by
he also mentioned other benefits, such as recording personal
correspondence and the work of professional singers and actors.
In all, the invention would “save the world’s time,
enhance its joys, and facilitate its business.”
Bell’s success prodded Edison to improve
his phonograph so that it could compete with the graphophone as an
office dictation machine. Edison’s
new model included a wax-covered brass cylinder, a cutting tool
that shaved the wax for re-use, and a lever that allowed
interruptions in either recording or listening.
in the June 9, 1888 issue of Harper’s
Weekly declared that the improved phonograph was “now a
practical machine for recording dictation, and is unquestionably
one of the most astonishing and instructive instruments ever
produced.” (See the accompanying
illustration to the article). Along
with a detailed description of how both the machine and the human
voice worked were illustrations of the phonograph and its use in
recording and transcribing dictation.
Despite the renewed interest in the dictation
machines, high price tags and continuing operational problems
resulted in few purchases through the 1890s.
In 1893, Emile Berliner introduced the “gramophone,”
which replaced the phonograph’s cylinder with hard-rubber discs,
making manufacture more efficient and less expensive. But he
was not able to market his invention effectively until receiving
adequate financial backing in 1896.
By that time, it was the entertainment factor—musical
recordings—that was increasing public demand for such machines.
In the early-twentieth century, dictation machines
found a market in the business sector.
The Edison Business Phonograph was introduced in 1904 and
the Commercial Graphophone appeared two years later.
in the July 1, 1905 issue of Harper’s
Weekly provided a photograph and discussion of the
Telegraphone, which was a combination dictation machine and
telephone answering machine.
An illustrated advertisement
of the “Factories
of Thomas Edison, Inc.” in the November 18, 1911 issue of Harper’s
Weekly listed the Edison Business Phonograph second among
several products. First
came Edison Phonographs and Records, products intended for home
use which were by that time considered to be the regular line
needing no descriptive adjective like the business product did.
30, 1878, p. 249, col. 4 & p. 250, col. 1
illustrated article, “The Phonograph"
30, 1878, p. 256
illustration for illustrated article, "The Phonograph"
17, 1886, pp. 458-459
illustrated article, “The Graphophone”
9, 1888, p. 415
illustrated article, “The Phonograph”
9, 1888, p. 416
illustration for illustrated article, "The Phonograph"
1, 1905, pp. 944-945
illustrated article, “Electricity at Home and in Business”
18, 1911, p. 35, col. 2-3
illustrated ad, Edison Factories