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Before The Grammys: How Thomas Edison Invented The Music Industry

Tomas Kellner
January 27, 2020
Thomas Edison lost much of his hearing when he was still a child. “I have not heard a bird sing since I was 12 years old,” he once remarked. But that did not stop him from inventing the phonograph in 1877, a device that for the first time recorded sounds and played them back. He was just 29 years old and the lightbulb  as well as GE, the company he co-founded, was still in his future.
The phonograph created a whole new way of experiencing the world through sound. In 1958, when the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences was thinking about naming their music industry awards, one suggestion was the Eddie to honor Edison’s contribution. The Academy eventually decided on Grammy, after the gramophone. The 60th Annual Grammy Awards took place on Sunday.

Sketch of Edison speaking into tinfoil phonograph Above: A drawing from 1878 of Edison speaking into the sound collector of his tinfoil phonogram, the first device that could record and also play back sounds. The frenchman Éduoard Léon-Scott made the phonoautogram, the first recording-only machine in 1857. Top image: Edison with his phonogram. Images credit: Museum of Innovation and Science Schenectady.

Edison came up with the device by drawing on his knowledge of the telegraph and the telephone. “I was experimenting on an automatic method of recording telegraph messages on a disk of paper laid on a revolving platen, exactly the same as the disk talking machine of today,” Edison told a biographer. “From my experiments on the telephone I knew the power of a diaphragm to take up sound vibrations. Instead of using a disk, I designed a little machine using a cylinder provided with grooves around the surface. Over this was placed tin foil, which easily received and recorded the movements of the diaphragm.” He recorded the movements of the diaphragm with a needle.

As was his habit with new inventions, Edison immediately estimated the price people would pay for the machine. He guessed $18 - the equivalent of $390 today. He then asked a worker named John Kruesi to make it from his sketch. “I did not have much faith that it would work, expecting I might possibly hear a word or so that would give hope for the future of the idea,“ Edison told a biographer. “Kruesi, when he had nearly finished it, asked what it was for. I told him I was going to record talking and then have the machine talk back. He thought it was absurd. After it was finished the foil was put on. I then shouted ‘Mary had a little lamb, etc.’ I adjusted the reproducer and the machine reproduced it perfectly. I was never so taken back in my life. ”Edison phonograph sketch November 29 1877

Phonograph sketch August 1877 Copies of the original sketches Edison made for his employee John Kruesi. Image credit: Museum of Innovation and Science Schenectady.

The device made Edison immediately famous and sealed his reputation as the "Inventor of the Age" and led to his nickname "The Wizard of Menlo Park." On April 18, 1878, he even traveled to the White House at the request of President Rutherford B. Hayes, who wanted to see the machine. Many of Edison’s recordings have survived and have been digitized as mp3 files. You can listen to them online.

Sigmund Bergmann, Charles Batchelor, Edison with Edison tinfoil phonograph 1878 Edison's close associates Sigmund Bergmann (left) and Charles Batchelor pose with Edison (seated) and his tinfoil phonograph 1878. Image credit: Museum Innovation and Science Schenectady

First phonograph, 1877 Edison’s first phonograph from 1877. Image credit: Museum of Innovation and Science Schenectady.

Groove-086 The mouthpiece used for recording voice. Image credit: Museum of Innovation and Science Schenectady

Woman speaking into phonograph, sketch A sketch of a woman speaking into a phonograph. Image credit: Museum of Innovation and Science Schenectady

Early phonograph drawing An early phonograph drawing. Image credit: Museum of Innovation and Science Schenectady

Edison listening to his wax cylinder phonograph 1888 Edison with his wax cylinder machine. Image credit: Museum of Innovation and Science Schenectady

Groove-075 Edison later switched to wax cylinders. Image credit: Museum of Innovation and Science Schenectady.

talking doll The invention also allowed Edison to crack the toy market and start selling talking dolls. Image credit: Robin and Joan Rolfs

Groove-085 Groove-076Groove-087Groove-077Groove-069Groove-079Groove-068Groove-067Groove-078Groove-074Groove-081Groove-090Edison recording sleeve, front