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.
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. ”
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.