The Phonograph and Its Future

Predictions and Possibilities identified by Thomas Edison in The North American Review May-June 1878


In April 1878 Edison took his Phonograph to Washington, D.C., demonstrated it to Congress, went on a late night visit to the White House for a demonstration for President Hayes and his wife, had his photograph taken at the Matthew Brady Studio and answered questions about the phonograph wherever he went.

Indeed, there were so many questions about how this talking machine worked and how it might be used in the future that Edison wrote an article for The North American Review to address a wider audience. As Edison noted in the second paragraph "the possibilities are so illimitable and the probabilities so numerous that he"..."is himself in a somewhat chaotic condition of mind as to where to draw the dividing line."

Edison used this article to write about the development process, explain some essential sound related principles, features and the mechanics of how it works, and enumerate "under the head of probabilities" that each will be "specially considered. Among the more important may be mentioned: Letter writing, and other forms of dictation, books, education, reader, music, family record; and such electrotype applications as books, musical-boxes, toys, clocks, advertising and signaling apparatus, speeches, etc., etc."

All of Edison's predictions became true.

The following are some examples of how the "Family Record" in the context of "great men" could leave a legacy of famous voices while in the a family voice album could potentially take its place in the parlor with the family photograph album.

"Family Record: -- For the purpose of preserving the sayings, the voices, and the last words of the dying member of the family -- as of great men--the phonograph will unquestionably outrank the photograph.

Examples of some of the earliest recordings of "great men" include the following:

Alfred Lord Tennyson: In 1890, "one of Edison's assistants "carried a phonograph all the way to the poet's home on the Isle of Wight to caputre him reading excerpts from The Princess (1847) and "The Charge of the Light Brigade" (1854). John Picker, author of Victorian Soundscapes (1), writes the following:

"Who would have imagined that the eighty-year-old Tennyson would warm to the new technology? But he did, and recordings preserve his thanking the assistant for showing him( in a mock American accent) "Edison's my-rack-uhlis invention." He arranged to keep the machine and went on to record about a dozen poems in full or part, periodically replaying them for himself and his guests during the last two years of his life."

The wax cylinder recording of Tennyson is available on-line, however, the following link goes to a somewhat eerie animation made by Jim Clark 'showing' and hearing Tennyson recite "The Charge of the Light Brigade." (2)



Robert Browning, April 1889

In April 1889, only a few months before he died, Robert Browning became the first major literary figure to commit his voice to wax.

Read "The Sound of a Voice That Is Still" by Dan Piepenbring for details about this event and a link to hear Browning's recorded voice. (3)

“LISTENING TO THE MASTER’S VOICE,” FROM BLACK AND WHITE, 1891 (Courtesy of The Paris Review) (3)