AES News

Early Talking Machines After Edison

Early Talking Machines After Edison

Early Talking Machines After Edison

article on tinfoil phonograph,
from Scientific American, Dec. 22, 1877
Thomas Edison did not hide his invention. He sought out the press and invited guests to his Menlo Park lab. The first published article on the phonograph appeared in Scientific American Dec. 22, 1877, after Edison visited the New York offices of the journal Dec. 7 and demonstrated his machine in person. Edison later wrote: "I started immediately making several larger and better machines, which I exhibited at Menlo Park. The Pennsylvania Railroad ran special trains. Washington people telegraphed me to come on. I took a phonograph to Washington and exhibited it in the room of James G. Blaine's niece (Gail Hamilton); and members of Congress and notable people of that city came all day long until late in the evening. I made one break. I recited `Mary,' etc., and another ditty: 'There was a little girl, who had a little curl; Right in the middle of her forehead; And when she was good she was very, very good; But when she was bad she was horrid.' It will be remembered that Senator Roscoe Conkling, then very prominent, had a curl of hair on his forehead; and all the caricaturists developed it abnormally. He was very sensitive about the subject. When he came in he was introduced; but being rather deaf, I didn't catch his name, but sat down and started the curl ditty. Everybody tittered, and I was told that Mr. Conkling was displeased. About 11 o'clock at night word was received from President Hayes that he would be very much pleased if I would come up to the White House. I was taken there, and found Mr. Hayes and several others waiting. Among them I remember Carl Schurz, who was playing the piano when I entered the room. The exhibition continued till about 12.30 A.M., when Mrs. Hayes and several other ladies, who had been induced to get up and dress, appeared. I left at 3.30 A.M. For a long time some people thought there was trickery. One morning at Menlo Park a gentleman came to the laboratory and asked to see the phonograph. It was Bishop Vincent, who helped Lewis Miller found the Chautauqua I exhibited it, and then he asked if he could speak a few words. I put on a fresh foil and told him to go ahead. He commenced to recite Biblical names with immense rapidity. On reproducing it he said: `I am satisfied, now. There isn't a man in the United States who could recite those names with the same rapidity'. " (quoted in Dyer, Chapter X).

article on Edison phonograph,
from English Mechanic, Jan. 6, 1878
The publication of Edison's invention of the phonograph caused other scientists and craftsmen to experiment with improving the "talking machine" as it came to be known during these early years. One of the first was Frank Lambert who was associated with the Ansonia Clock Company in Connecticut. Edison had signed a contract with Ansonia Jan. 7, 1878, to develop a talking clock using the phonograph, and visited the Ansonia factory with Charles Batchelor Jan. 30, and described one of Ansonia's successful talking clocks in a Feb. 11 letter to Alfred Mayer. Frank Lambert apparently was one of the builders of the talking clock, working with his friend Henry Davies of Ansonia. On the lead cylinder that survives today, and reproduced on the website at "An 1878 Recording," Lambert can be heard calling out the hours: "One O'Clock, Two O'Clock, Three O'Clock..." His talking clock phonograph is currently at the National Watch and Clock Museum in Columbia PA, and is listed in Guinness Book of World Records and in The Encyclopedia of Recorded Sound in The United States as the world's oldest playable recording.

In Britain, the electrical engineer William H. Preece demonstrated a phonograph at the Royal Institution in February 1878. Henry Edmunds in his Section G paper wrote " I believe I had the honour of being one of the first Englishmen to see this instrument, as in 1877 I was in the United States, observing the scientific progress of the period, visiting, different institutions, and meeting various professors and inventors amongst others, I saw Mr. Edison in November of that year. I was much interested in it, and, returning to England in December, 1877 sent in a full report to the London Times, which appeared in their issue of the 17th February [sic], 1878. Shortly afterwards, the first Phonograph made in this country by Mr. Stroh, under my instructions was exhibited by Mr. W. H. Preece, the President of this Section, at his interesting lecture at the Royal Institution. This, was the first public exhibition of the 'Edison Phonograph,' or sound-recording machine in this country." The phonograph was described in the English Mechanic Jan. 6, 1878, and in the London Times Jan. 17 and in the Manchester Guardian Jan. 18, 1878. Augustus Stroh built four talking machines in early 1878 designed to reproduce the structure of human speech as theorized by Hermann Helmholtz in 1862. Stroh's first machine was similar to the phonautograph of Leon Scott, tracing voice sound waves on paper. His second machine put the sound waves for one human harmonic sound, or "partial" of a vowel sound, on the edge of a brass disc. The third machine played combinations of these discs to produce a vowel sound. The fourth machine, called the "automatic phonograph" played discs with complete words.

It was this fourth machine that Preece demonstrated at the February 27, 1879, meeting of the Society of Telegraph Engineers, for the paper delivered by Preece and Stroh titled "Studies in Acoustics: On the Synthetic Examination of Vowel Sounds." Of the experimental brass discs produced by Stroh, 98 survive today, some from 1879 with complete words such as "mama" and "papa" but most with sounds used to construct vowels.

1879 automatic phonograph, from Preece and Stroh, p. 367.

Other experimenters worked on talking machines. Max Kohl in 1878 built the largest exhibition tin-foil cylinder machine that exists today, a giant device four feet wide with a cylinder 6 inches in diameter and a mandrel 10 inches in daimeter, all weighing 75 pounds. Professor D. Vital in Paris made one of the smallest tin-foil machines in 1879, constructed almost entirely of wood and sitting on a 6 inch base. These Kohl and Vital machines can be seen in the Rondeau Collection Gallery. However, these early machines were not practical for commercial production. Edison turned his attention to the electric light, and he would not market an improved phongraph until 1888. By this time, Tainter and Bell developed the graphophone and Berliner developed the gramophone. The 1888 recordings by George Gouraud in London are the oldest surviving recorded music.


  • "An 1878 Recording" from
  • Cramer, Aaron with Allen Koenigsberg. "The World's Oldest Recording: Frank Lambert's Amazing Time Machine." Antique Phonograph Monthly, Vol. 10, No.3, 1992, online from Collector Cafe.
  • "Dialogue on 'The Oldest Playable Recording'," ARSC Journal, Spring 2002, pp. 77-84. Stephan Puille and Patrick Feaster in "Dialogue on 'The Oldest Playable Recording' (continued)", ARSC Journal, Autumn 2002, pp. 237-242, argue, that the phonograph ascribed to Lambert was manufactured much later and has nothing to do with the Ansonia talking clock experiments of 1878.
  • Dyer, Frank Lewis and Thomas C. Martin. Edison, His Life and Inventions. NY: Harper, 1910. Text online.
  • Fabrizio, Timothy C. and George F. Paul. "Augustus Stroh: Forgotten Scientist of Sound." ARSC Journal, Spring, 2001, pp. 1-10.
  • Winter, David. Frank Lambert's Talking Clock An 1878 experimental talking machine, 2003, includes sound wave analysis and photos of the Lambert machine.
  • History of Vinyl from BBC has woodcut picture of Preece demonstration of the tin foil machine in London 1879.
  • Jenkins, Reese V., et. al., eds. The Papers of Thomas A. Edison. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989-1998. Vol. 3. Menlo Park: the Early Years, April 1876-December 1877; Vol. 4. The Wizard of Menlo Park, 1878. The Thomas A. Edison Papers project at Rutgers includes a Chronology of Thomas Edison's Life.
  • Preece, William Henry and Augustus Stroh. "Studies in Acoustics. I. On the Synthetic Examination of Vowel Sounds." Proceedings of the Royal Society of London. Vol. 28. Feb. 27, 1879. 358-36
  • Rondeau, Rene. Tinfoil Phonographs. Corte Madera CA: Rene Rondeau, 2001.
- 1999-2004 by Steven E. Schoenherr. All rights reserved.

Return to Recording Technology History | this page revised 9/15/04
Facebook   Twitter   LinkedIn   Google+   YouTube   RSS News Feeds  
AES - Audio Engineering Society