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. and demonstrated it to the National Academy of Sciences at the Smithsonian, to Congress, to President Hayes and his wife per a late night invitation by the White House; he had his photograph taken at the Mathew Brady Studio, and answered innumerable questions about the phonograph wherever he went. The public was fascinated with a machine that "bottles up sound" for future use and imaginations were running wild.

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 of his article: "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 wrote about the development process, explained some essential sound related principles, features and the mechanics of how it works, and enumerated "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 probabilities became true.

This gallery looks at each of Edison's 1878 enumerated 'probabilities' and provides examples and additional information about the "realization" for each one.


Letter Writing. -- The apparatus now being perfected in mechanical details will be the standard phonograph, and may be used for all purposes, except such as require special form of matrix, such as toys, clocks, etc., for an indefinite repetition of the same thing. The main utility of the phonograph, however, being for the purpose of letter-writing and other forms of dictation, the design is made with a view to its utility for that purpose.


Dictation - All kinds and manner of dictation which will permit of the application of the mouth of the speaker to the mouth-piece of the phonograph may be as readily effected by the phonograph as in the case of letters. If the matter is for the printer, he would much prefer, in setting it up in type, to use his ears in lieu of his eyes. He has other use for them. It would be even worth while to compel witnesses in court to speak directly into the phonograph, in order to thus obtain an unimpeachable record of their testimony. The increased delicacy of the phonograph, which is in the near future, will enlarge this field rapidly. It may then include all the sayings of not only the witness, but the judge and the counsel. It will then also comprehend the utterances of public speakers.


Books. -- Books may be read by the charitably-inclined profes sional reader, or by such readers especially employed for that purpose, and the record of such book used in the asylums of the blind, hospitals, the sick-chamber, or even with great profit and amusement by the lady or gentleman whose eyes and hands may be otherwise employed; or, again, because of the greater enjoy ment to be had from a book when read by an elocutionist than when read by the average reader. The ordinary record-sheet, repeating this book from fifty to a hundred times as it will, would command a price that would pay the original reader well for the slightly-increased difficulty in reading it aloud in the phonograph.


Educational Purposes. -- As an elocutionary teacher, or as a primary teacher for children, it will certainly be invaluable. By it difficult passages may be correctly rendered for the pupil but once, after which he has only to apply to his phonograph for in instructions. The child may thus learn to spell, commit to memory, a lesson set for it, etc., etc.


Music.-- The phonograph will undoubtedly be liberally devoted to music. A song sung on the phonograph is reproduced with marvelous accuracy and power. Thus a friend may in a morning-call sing us a song which shall delight an evening company, etc. As a musical teacher it will be used to enable one to master a new air, the child to form its first songs, or to sing him to sleep.


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.



Phonographic Books. -- A book of 40,000 words upon a single metal plate ten inches square thus becomes a strong probability. The advantages of such books over those printed are too readily seen to need mention. Such books would be listened to where now none are read. They would preserve more than the mental emanations of the brain of the author; and, as a bequest to future generations, they would be unequaled. For the preservation of languages they would be invaluable.



Musical-Boxes. -- The only element not absolutely assured, in the result of experiments thus far made--which stands in the way of a perfect reproduction at will of Adelina Patti's voice in all its purity--is the single one of quality, and even that is not totally lacking, and will doubtless be wholly attained. If, however, it should not, the musical-box, or cabinet, of the present, will be superseded by that which will give the voice and the words of the human songstress.



Toys. -- A doll which may speak, sing, cry, or laugh, may be safely promised our children for the Christmas holidays ensuing. Every species of animal or mechanical toy--such as locomotives, etc.--may be supplied with their natural and characteristic sounds.


Clocks. -- The phonographic clock will tell you the hour of the day; call you to lunch; send your lover home at ten, etc.



Advertising, etc. -- This class of phonographic work is so akin to the foregoing, that it is only necessary to call attention to it.



Speech and other Utterances - It will henceforth be possible to preserve for future generations the voices as well as the words of our Washingtons, our Lincolns, our Gladstones, etc., and to have them give us their " greatest effort" in every town and hamlet in the country, upon our holidays.



Perfect the telephone and revolutionize present systems of telegraphy - Connecting up with the telephone as a permanent record of what was said....the speaker will be able to simultaneously transmit and record his message.


Other contemporary articles about the Phonograph's Future and Possible Uses


Oakland Daily Evening Tribune, May 1, 1878 - "Possible Uses of the Phonograph"

"If It Could Have Been. A Retrospective," by Col. Robert G. Ingersoll, in which he laments the absence of the Phonograph in the past. The Phonogram, January 1, 1891.

"A Night with Edison," November 1878, Scribner's - This article is a history and "more personal view" of Edison, the inventor, who is opening a new period in the world's development. It is not "necessary to amplify further upon the scientific aspects" of the phonograph, "or those ingenious speculations as to its future when it is perfected" because "every active imagination can supply itself." Instead, there is a "moral side of the invention, a stirring, optimistic inspiration" which will change everything.

"A Night with Edison," November 1878, Scribner's, p.88