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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 article with accompanying illustrations 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.

The article describing the 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 stenographers.”  Nevertheless, 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.  An article 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.  An article 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.

Harper's Weekly References
1) March 30, 1878, p. 249, col. 4 & p. 250, col. 1
illustrated article, “The Phonograph"

2) March 30, 1878, p. 256
illustration for illustrated article, "The Phonograph"

3) July 17, 1886, pp. 458-459
illustrated article, “The Graphophone”

4) June 9, 1888, p. 415
illustrated article, “The Phonograph”

5) June 9, 1888, p. 416
illustration for illustrated article, "The Phonograph"

6) July 1, 1905, pp. 944-945
illustrated article, “Electricity at Home and in Business”

7) November 18, 1911, p. 35, col. 2-3
illustrated ad, Edison Factories

Sources Consulted

“Early Office Museum Dictating Machines,” Office

“Early Sound-Recording Industry.”  History Wired, Smithsonian Institution.

Morton, David.  “Gender and Recording—Case Study of Dictation Equipment.”  The History of Sound Recording Technology, Research Computing Initiative, Rutgers University.

Morton, David.  “History of Office Dictation and Business Recording.”  The History of Sound Recording Technology, Research Computing Initiative, Rutgers University.

Rehr, Darryl, “It’s the Machine Dictators Love.” Yesterday’s Office—Antique Office Equipment Collecting.

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