Revolutions in sound recording
Revolutions in sound recording

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Revolutions in sound recording

2.2 Bell and Tainter improve the phonograph

If Edison was not willing to continue development of the phonograph then others were. Alexander Graham Bell, who had risen to prominence through his invention of the telephone, took a great interest in recording sounds, even suggesting to Edison that they might collaborate. Edison refused, so Bell set about developing a recording machine with the assistance of his cousin Chichester Bell, a chemical engineer, and Charles Tainter, a scientist and instrument maker. By 1887 Bell and Tainter had succeeded in producing a recording machine that they called the graphophone (meaning ‘sound-pencil’). The graphophone was largely similar to the phonograph, but in place of tin-foil they used cylinders of hard wax coated onto cardboard sleeves as the recording medium. This was a great technical advance, for it not only gave much greater quality of reproduction but also allowed the recording to be replayed many times. Unfortunately, the low sound level when it was played back necessitated the use of ear tubes, as illustrated in Figure 4.

Figure 4: A graphophone being used for dictation by a nineteenth-century ‘audio typist’

Activity 8

Given the fact that wax was easier to cut than tin-foil, why do you think wax cylinders offered an improved sound quality?



The sound quality was improved because there was less stiffness (inertia) in the recording system. This gave greater sensitivity as well as an improved frequency response and a raised signal-to-noise ratio. These improvements were only marginal compared with today's technologies but nevertheless were a distinct advance.

With his work on the electric lamp successfully completed, Edison returned to what he always called his favourite invention, insisting that the phonograph had never been far from his thoughts. What actually came out of his laboratory, which he called his ‘Perfected Phonograph’, looked remarkably similar to the graphophone. However, Edison used a solid wax cylinder rather than a wax-coated cardboard sleeve. This worthwhile improvement allowed the surface of the cylinder to be shaved, so erasing the original recording to allow the cylinder to be used again. Bell and Tainter quickly adopted solid wax for their graphophone. The litigious business society sat back, rubbed their hands, and waited for a bitter fight between the two companies over the patent rights!

However, the expected lawsuits did not arise. Firstly, the wording of the two patents was different. Edison described his recording technique as ‘embossing or indenting’ the medium, whereas the Bell-Tainter patent portrayed their way of recording as ‘engraving’, implying a different approach. Secondly, a businessman named Jesse H. Lippincott, who was looking to invest cash in a new venture, offered to invest in both inventions, thus securing sole rights to sell recording machines through his North American Phonograph Company.

The whole enterprise nearly failed for, just like Edison and Bell, Lippincott saw the future of the recording machine for dictation in businesses such as government bureaux and offices. Actually shorthand typists did not appreciate this use of the machine, seeing it as a threat to their jobs. They even went as far as sabotaging the machines, making them useless for dictation. After two years of unsuccessful trading Lippincott, now in ill health and with poor finances, lost control of his company to Edison, who still saw only business potentials for his invention:

He could not or would not countenance the potentialities of the phonograph as a medium for entertainment.

Gelatt, R. (1977) The Fabulous Phonograph, London, Cassell & Company, p. 44

Fortunately for Edison the Columbia Phonograph Company, one of his subsidiaries, recorded popular songs of the day on cylinders. They could be played back using specially adapted ‘coin-in-the-slot’ phonographs, which were situated in public places such as drugstores and saloons. Popular songs could be heard ‘for a nickel a time’, as illustrated in Figure 5. Their popularity demonstrated a public demand for recorded music.

Figure 5: Entertainment in 1891, ‘for a nickel a time’

Edison was finally convinced of the phonograph's possibilities for musical reproduction, but as ever he wanted to do it his own way, and his first move was to liquidate his existing phonograph companies. This opened the way for a coalition between two rivals, Bell and Tainter's American Graphophone Company and the now independent Columbia Phonograph Co. Working together they were soon able to offer a clockwork-powered graphophone for $50 with a catalogue of over a thousand pre-recorded cylinders. By Christmas 1897 they were selling a $10 clockwork-powered graphophone that could, as the ads said, ‘reproduce music as loudly and brilliantly as the highest price machine’ (Gelatt, 1977, p. 70). One similar to the original graphophone is illustrated in Figure 6.

Figure 6: A clockwork cylinder player

To compete, Edison offered his clockwork-powered ‘Home Phonograph’ for $20 (see Figure 7) which, apart from minor modifications, sold for over 30 years.

The Royal Scottish Museum, Edinburgh ©
The Royal Scottish Museum, Edinburgh
Figure 7: The Edison Home Phonograph

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