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Charles Sumner Tainter and the Graphophone
Charles Sumner Tainter and the Graphophone
Summary:Charles Sumner Tainter was born April 25, 1854, in Watertown, MA, the son of the inventor of an automatic wood-boring tool. He attended public school but was mostly self-educated, reading technical books from the local library, and his father's subscription to Scientific American. In 1870 Charles Tainter began working for electrical instrument companies in Boston. In 1873 he took a job with Alvan Clark and Sons of Cambridgeport, MA, makers of telescopes and optical instruments. This firm had received the contract to craft the instruments for the U.S. expedition to observe the Transit of Venus Dec. 8, 1874. Tainter was appointed a member of the expedition and traveled to New Zealand to record the transit, and around the world to return to Washington DC. In 1878, Tainter began his own business in Cambridge, MA, making scientific instruments, including electrical devices for Alexander Graham Bell. In 1879, he decided to accept Bell's invitation to set up a laboratory in Washington DC to experiment with the transmission of sound. In 1880 Bell and Tainter developed the radiophone using light waves and selenium cells to transmit wireless sound. For this invention, he was awarded a gold medal at the 1881 Electrical Exhibition in Paris. In 1881 he became part of the Volta Laboratory Association with Alexander Graham Bell and Bell's cousin, Chichester A. Bell, a noted chemist from London. These three men from 1881 to 1885 used the Volta prize money granted to Bell for his telephone invention to develop an improved phonograph called the graphophone, and received several important patents in 1886 that would shape the future of the recording industry. Tainter married Lila R. Munro in June 1886 and lived in Washington DC while he worked on improving the graphophone so it could be sold as a dictation machine to businessmen. While building a graphophone factory in Bridgeport CT in 1888, Tainter became severely ill with pneumonia. He recovered well enough to travel to Europe in 1889 to help establish the International Graphophone Co. and received a decoration from the French government at the Paris Exposition. He returned to New York City and continued working on improving the graphophone until 1893. In that year, he again became ill while struggling to make 100 graphophones for an exhibition at the Chicago World's Fair. In the following years he traveled to the Mediterranean, Europe, Canada and Alaska seeking a healthful climate. After a fire destroyed his laboratory in 1897, he worked at home in Washington DC to complete one of his final patents, a method of duplicating phonograph records. He tried sanitariums in New York and Battle Creek MI and Walter's Park PA to improve his health but none were successful. In 1903 he and his wife moved to San Diego where he would live for the next 30 years. Tainter was awarded a gold medal for his graphophone at the 1915 Panama Pacific Exposition in San Diego. His first wife died in 1924 and he married Laura F. Onderdonk in 1928. He was 83 in 1937 and living at 2960 First Ave. when the Smithsonian box sealed in 1881 was opened in Washington DC. At this time, Dictaphone Company honored him for his invention of the graphophone that led to founding of the company. He died on April 20, 1940.
from Tainter Papers, NMAH
see Patent 235,496
Tainter began his Home Notes March 28, 1881, that would fill 13 volumes by 1886. Volumes 9, 10, 13 were burned in a fire Sept. 1897. In the fall of 1880 Tainter moved the lab to 1221 Connecticut Avenue. Work on the photophone continued during winter 1880 into 1881 and patents were granted Dec. 1880. In his manuscript on the "Talking Machine" written in 1930, Tainter quoted from an 1888 article by Henry Edmunds that Edison allowed his British patent 1664 of April 24, 1878, to expire because his phonograph did not work. According to Edmunds, the patent was for "a backing of wax, or yielding material, instead of a grooved surface, in order to support the metal foil which received the indentation. The term indenting, as used by Mr. Edison throughout his patent specifications, clearly means the action of embossing the material without the removal of any part of it, as in forming a record in tin foil by pressing it with a style. But that he did not believe in the practicability of his Phonograph is shown by the fact that this patent was allowed to lapse in April 24, 1885, in consequence of non-payment of 100 pounds fee, just at the period of the completion of the experiments of the Volta Laboratory Association." 
Page 1 of the Home Notes, 1881/03/28
from Tainter Papers, NMAH
Tainter and Chichester Bell and A. G. Bell began work on improving the phonograph in the spring 1881, and found that the indenting method using a pliable strip of tin foil was the main problem. Some other method of engraving a solid material needed to be developed, using a cutting stylus to form a groove. This "new method of recording and reproducing sounds which I had brought to Mr. Bell's attention several months before" was illustrated on the first page of Tainter's "Home Notes" with this description: "I have had in my mind for several months past a method of obtaining a record of speech vibrations, and of reproducing the speech from the record so made. The idea occurred to me while discussing the phonograph, and the defects of that instrument with Mr. Bell, and he seemed to think very highly of it at that time. This idea together with some others upon the same subject, was noted upon a piece of paper as our note-book was not at hand at the time they occurred to us. This paper has doubtless been lost or destroyed before this, and I will note the idea here. [illustration] Fig. 1 is a plan view of my phonograph (or graphophone) and Fig. 2 is an end elevation partly in section... Attached to the end of the axle E. is a large circular disk K. upon which the speech vibrations are to be recorded. This disk can be made of some soft metal that can be easily engraved, or it can be made of some light substance, like hard rubber, ivory, celluloid, or box-wood. " 
This use of a "light substance" to engrave a record groove was an important improvement over Edison's original phonograph of 1877. Tainter hired a mechanic May 1, 1881, to help him build the recording machine represented by the letters L and M and N in the illustration on the first page of the "Home Notes". This machine was a lathe designed to cut spiral grooves. He made another machine in Sept. 1881. Tainter first tried direct etching, but then tried the reverse, which was electroplating to form a raised instead of sunken line. Then he filled a groove with beeswax, cut the sound engraving in the wax, and filled the groove with reduced iron. He used a chisel-shaped stylus on June 8, 1881, and tried to use a jet of air under pressure to reproduce the sounds. He had discovered that a wax record cut with a stylus was able to better reproduce high-pitched sounds than Edison's tin-foil record.
The oldest disc record
Tainter began making lateral-cut or zig-zag records July 9, 1881, but experiments were interrupted by an attempt to locate a bullet in President Garfield July 11-Aug 28. Work on the recording machine resumed in September. Fearing that Edison would learn of their work before patents were filed, Tainter and the Bells decided to prepare a sealed tin box to be placed in a vault in the Smithsonian Institution containing their work. "We did this," said Tainter, "so that if Edison's company should get hold of our invention, through any leakage of information, before our patent was complete, we would have dated proof of what we had worked out."  They also signed a formal agreement October 8, backdated to May 1, creating the Volta Laboratory Association to be the owner of their patents. The box began to be prepared in Sept. 1881 for deposit in the Smithsonian, but would not be sealed until Oct 20. It would contain the Edison phonograph with a cylinder coated with wax and recorded by indentation with the words of Prof. A. Melville Bell, father of A. G. Bell, who said "I am a Graphophone and my mother was a Phonograph." This was recorded at an exhibition of the apparatus Sept. 25 and sealed in the box with an air-jet tube for reproducing it, but not the other air-jet apparatus. Also included were signed testimonials from the Sept. 25 exhibition, copies of pages from Tainter's Home Notes. The word "graphophone" was a transposition of the word "phonograph" to convey the same meaning. Tainter said in his Home Notes that it was Alexander Graham Bell who originated the term "graphophone" sometime before March 28, 1881, when the Homes Notes began. The word was coined as a little joke according to Bell's relatives who listened to the recording when the box was opened in 1937. 
Tainter prepared an electrotype for his Smithsonian box that was finally sealed and deposited at the Smithsonian Oct. 20. In his Home Notes vol. 3, page 51, he said: "Several days ago we succeeded in getting a fair electrotype of a zig-zag phonogram, in the manner described on the preceding page. This electrotype was put into the sealed package which we have been preparing for some time past, together with the phonograph upon which nearly all the experiments have been made, and yesterday was taken to the Smithsonian Institution and deposited in the confidential archives of the Institution." The phonograph mentioned by Tainter was an Edison tin foil cylinder phonograph that had been used by Tainter and Bell for experiments since 1879. Tainter emphasized that his electrotype was different than the Edison cylinder: "It may be well to note that the record formed on the cylinder of the phonograph deposited in the Smithsonian Package was of the vertical type, or the form in which vibrations are impressed perpendicular to the surface of the recording material, like that used in the DICTAPHONE, and commonly called the "hill and valley" type, because the record groove is of varying depth. In 1881, we used to call this the Edisonian record, as it was the type Mr. Edison used in the Phonograph of 1877. The record on the electro-type in the Smithsonian package is of the other form, where the vibrations are impressed parallel to the surface of the recording material, as was done in the old Scott Phonautograph of 1857, thus forming a groove of uniform depth, but of wavy character, in which the sides of the groove act upon the tracing point instead of the bottom, as is the case in the vertical type. This form we named the zig-zag form, and referred to it in that way in our notes. Its important advantage in guiding the reproducing needle I first called attention to in the note on p. 9, Vol. 1, Home Notes on March 29, 1881, and endeavored to use it in my early work, but encountered so much difficulty in getting a form of reproducer that would work with the soft wax records without tearing the groove, we used the hill and valley type of record more often that the other."
from Tainter Papers, NMAH
see Patent 341,212
During this period of late 1881 and early 1882, Tainter experimented with different methods of duplication, such as stamping and pressing, different kinds of reproducers using magnetism and air and fluids, and different kinds of wax mixtures. He resumed work on his talking machine after a short vacation June 30-August 15, 1882. In August, he developed a speed governor similar to the device he had developed in 1873 making chronographs at the Alvan Clark & Sons factory for the Transit of Venus Expedition of 1874. The purpose of this governor was to produce a constant record speed. Tainter first described in his Home Notes Vol. 5 on 1881/12/30 the principle of constant surface velocity that was included in patent #341,214 of 1886/05/04. This made the flat disk a practical alternative to the cylinder.He was most successful during this period with the jet principle that later would be described in patent #341,212. He was trying to overcome one of the most persistent problems in recording, the surface noise caused by the needle rubbing inside the groove. "According to the present invention the record is caused to act upon a fluid (gas or liquid) in which it induces the sonorous vibrations or changes similar to such vibrations. The solid body or style which rubs over the record, or is otherwise directly vibrated by it, and which has heretofore always been employed, is or may be dispensed with. The vibrations are communicated to the air or other suitable fluid by direct contact of the same with the record. One advantage of the arrangement is that wear on the record is or may be thus reduced, if not practically avoided. It may also be observed that this method not only admits of reproduction from a very minute record, but also enables sounds of considerable loudness to be obtained. The fluid may remain as a body in contact with the record, or it may be forced against the same as a jet." 
Although his Home Notes for the period from Dec. 11, 1882, and March 25, 1883 were lost in a fire of 1897, Tainter remembered continuing work on his jet reproducer. (pp. 49-51) He hired a photographer friend, Mr. J. Harris Rogers, to help with the photographic recording experiments. Chichester Bell noted on April 15, 1884: "During the past few days a good many experiments have been made by Mr. Rogers, Mr. Tainter and myself in photographing speech vibrations impressed on a jet. Mr. Rogers has made enlarged copies of parts of the negative from which the positive facing page 62 were printed, which show most beautifully the variations in form of the jet. A remarkably beautiful photograph has been taken by Mr. Tainter and Mr. Rogers of a beam of light varied by transmission through the nappe formed on a glass plate in front of a slot, by a bichromate of potash jet, to which I recited Moore's - 'Believe me of all those endearing young charms,' etc. During May and June, Tainter perfected the jet telephone transmitter for patent #336,173.
from Tainter Papers, NMAH
see Patent 341,214
Tainter's drawings of his first cylinder machine were given to a mechanic and it was built by May 14, 1885. This was a machine similar to patent 341,288 with a paper cylinder 9-inches long and 2 inches diameter coated with a wax mixture 1/4-inch thick. The cylinder played for 10 minutes and the spacing between grooves was 1/250 inch (i.e., 120 grooves per inch "pitch").
Tainter built a second cylinder machine July 6, 1885, with a smaller cylinder, 6 inches long and 1-3/8 inches diameter, with a "pitch" of 150 grooves per inch rather than the first machine's 120 grooves. On July 15 he added hearing tubes of the kind shown in Fig. 16 of patent 341,288. He continued perfecting this machine through August 1885. It was then decided to build and test 6 machines before the Volta Lab would end with the departure of Chichester Bell on November 1. At the suggestion of Hubbard, Tainter went to New York to supervise the construction of these 6 machines at the factory of Bergman & Co., 292 Avenue B, in New York. But the work was too slow, so Tainter shipped the unfinished machines to D.C. and returned to the Volta Lab to finish them there in November and December 1885. These machines were completed by Jan. 1, 1886, and were similar to patent 341,288. The earliest Smithsonian graphophone that survives appears to be similar to these first successful models built by Tainter.
The helical paper tube
from Tainter Papers, NMAH
see Patent 374,133
Tainter established a new laboratory for the company at 2020 F Street in Washington DC and hired a mechanic, Charles Stolpe, to help improve the graphophone. To replace the original wax-covered paper cylinder that needed to be shaved clean for each use, Tainter developed the helically wound paper tube that was granted patent 374,133 on Nov. 29, 1887. He also developed a machine to make the paper tubes. This tube "became in later years, an extensive article of commerce, and is now used for many purposes, such as mailing tubes, cartons for groceries, drugs, and many other things, besides the recording tubes for which it was specially invented." Patent 428,646 was granted May 27, 1890, on improved machine that made the tubes in lengths of four feet and heat-fused a very thin and highly polished coat of wax to the surface. This corrected a problem of air bubbles in the wax of the early tubes.
The treadle patent drawing
from Tainter Papers, NMAH
see Patent 341,214
"I find upon referring to my article published in the Electrical World July 14, 1888, that I constructed another model in 1886, which was intermediate between that of patent 341,288 and patent 375,579. This model, which had escaped my memory, is shown in the illustration Fig. 4, of the Electrical World article. The machine was a modification of patent 341,288 model, and I arranged it upon a sewing machine table with a governor, as shown in Fig. 4 of the World article."
from Tainter Papers, NMAH
see Patent 380,535
Tainter improved the cylinder holder and ear-plugs in patent 380,535, and added a new feature that allowed the making of two records at the same time, allowing the operator to keep one copy of a dictated letter and mail a duplicate copy to the correspondent. In early 1887, the Volta Company investors urged Tainter to make several models to test. "These gentlemen were Mess. Andrew Devine, and John H. White, both official reporters of the National House of Representatives, and James O. Clephane, a former official reporter of the House, but who at that time had a large stenographic business of his own, and was also occupied with the promotion of several important inventions of that day; one of them being the Mergenthaler Linotype machine, and another, the Lanston Monotype machine, both of which came into very extensive use." Tainter gave Andrew Devine one of the new dictation graphophones to take to the Capitol for use in the House of Representatives. "As soon as this was demonstrated the system was adopted by the other House reporters, and later by the Senate reporters as soon as they were able to get the machines to use."
see Acoustic devices
The Graphophone Company tried to manufacture 300 machines in New York but the work went slowly and required many adjustments in the laboratory for defects. Tainter proposed that the Company establish its own factory to make the graphophones, and on July 26, 1888, the Company signed an agreement with Tainter and Saville to develop such a factory. After Tainter finished negotiations in late July with Henry Edmunds of the English electrical firm of Walter T. Glover & Co. to allow Edmunds to sell to sell the British patents of the Volta Co., he and Saville went to Bridgeport Conn. to rent the old Howe Sewing Machine factory. The Volta Lab then moved its machines and workers to Bridgeport and slowly struggled to build the machine tools necessary to manufacture graphophones for Lippincott's sales agencies. By October, Tainter was physically exhausted and came down with a bad case of pneumonia. He went to Barbados in the Caribbean until sufficiently recovered to return to Bridgeport in Feb. 1889.
|Columbia Eagle 1897, from NMAH|
see Acoustic devices
Berliner published in 1894 his first list of gramophone discs for sale, at 60 cents each, 6 and 7/8-inch diameter (after 1895 are 7-inch), made of celluloid, after 1895 of hard rubber, after 1897 of shellac.  The Berliner Gramophone Co. finally received its American patent in 1896, began to manufacture machines wholesaled to distributors such as Frank Seaman's New York Gramophone Co. for $3 per machine and $1.50 per dozen discs. Seaman sold under another name, the National Gramophone Co.  Eldridge Johnson filed Aug. 16, 1898, for a patent on the lateral-cut wax master and electroplated matrix master and multiple stampers. Johnson later said that this "changed the Gramophone or disc Talking Machine from a scientific toy to a commercial article of great value. It was the first and most important step in the evolution of the disc talking machine."  Eldridge Johnson had improved the gramophone with a spring motor in 1897 and would be the founder of the Victor Talking Machine Co. in 1901 with the "little nipper" dog as trademark. Philip Mauro of Columbia won lawsuit against Berliner in 1899 with a dubious "floating stylus" theory, and filed an injunction against Berliner to prevent his use of the gramophone name. Columbia made machines based on the Joseph Jones patent filed 1897, awarded 1901, but Johnson would eventually win his lawsuit over the Jones patent claim in 1911. Victor and Columbia would pool patents 1902. 
- Unless otherwise noted, the information on Charles Tainter is from his unpublished manuscript "The Talking Machine and Some Little Known Facts in Connection with its Early Development," Tainter Papers, Smithsonian National Museum of American History, Washington D. C.
- Edmunds, p. 10.
- Tainter, "Home Notes," p. 1.
- San Diego Union, "Phonograph Said Perfected..."
- San Diego Union,"Original Wax Record..."
- "Specification forming part of Letters Patent No. 341,212," Tainter Papers.
- see the articles by Fabrizio and Wile on the corporate and patent battle between Edison and Tainter.
- Burt, p. 713. Natural waxes of esters with high amounts of fatty acid and alcohol included beeswax, carnauba, spermaceti, and montan wax. Ozocerite was a mineral wax from coal, not a true wax. Schulze-Berge and Edison experimented in 1887 and 1888 with all kinds of natural and mineral waxes for Edison's gold-plating process patent caveat filed Oct. 21, 1887. It is not clear whether Edison or Tainter was first to experiment with ozocerite, but Tainter was the first to file for the ozocerite patent Nov. 14, 1887. By 1903, Edison had settled on a stearic acid-ceresin-carnauba mixture for his gold-plating process. In 1912 Edison introduced the Blue Amberol cylinders made of celluloid and his Diamond Disk laminated flat disk made of celluloid covered with a condensite varnish later.
- Wile, "Edison and Growing Hostilities," pp. 8-33.
- Fabrizio, pp. 5-10
- Wile, "Etching the Human Voice," pp. 2-22.
- Charosh, p. xiii.
- Wile, "The Gramophone Becomes a Success." pp. 139-170.
- Isom, pp. 718-719.
- Kennedy, p. 6
- Bell, Alexander Graham. "On the Production and Reproduction of Sound by Light," American Journal of Sciences, Third Series, vol. XX, n. 118, Oct. 1880, pp. 305- 324. [Read before the American Association for the Advancement of Science, in Boston, August 27, 1880] from Histoire de la television by Andre Lange
- Burt, Leah S. "Record Materials, Part I: Chemical Technology in the Edison Recording Industry," Journal of the Audio Engineering Society, 25, October/November 1977, pp. 712-717.
- Charosh, Paul, compiled by. Berliner Gramophone Records, American Issues, 1892-1900. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1995.
- Edmunds, Henry. "The Graphophone," paper read Sept. 7, 1888, at the British Association for the Advancement of Science Bath Meeting, copy in the Tainter Papers, Smithsonian National Museum of American History, Washington D. C.
- Fabrizio, Timothy C. "District of Columbia: The Graphophone in Washngton, D.C.," Association for Recorded Sound Collections Journal 27, no. 1, 1996, pp. 1-10.
- "First 'Radio' Built by San Diego Resident; Partner of Inventor of Telephone," San Diego Evening Tribune, July 31, 1937.
- Isom, Warren Rex. "Record Materials: Evolution of the Disc Talking Machine," Journal of the Audio Engineering Society 25, October/November 1977, pp. 718-723.
- Kennedy, Rick. Jelly Roll, Bix, and Hoagy: Gennett Studios and the Birth of Recorded Jazz. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.
- Koenigsberg, Allen. The Patent History of the Phonograph,1877-1912.Brooklyn, NY: APM Press, 1990.
- Maguire, Franck Z. "The Graphophone," Harper's Weekly, July 17, 1886, pp. 458-460.
- "Original Wax Record of 1881 Played First Time; S. D. Man Co-Inventor,"San Diego Union, October 28, 1937.
- Paul, George F. "Opportunity Lost: The American Graphophone Company and its Six Inch Cylinders," Association for Recorded Sound Collections Journal 30 Spring 1999, pp. 7-19.
- "Phonograph Said Perfected by San Diego Man, Not Bell," San Diego Union, October 29, 1937.
- Tainter, Charles Sumner. "The Graphophone," Electrical World, July 14, 1888, pp. 57-74.
- Tainter, Charles Sumner. "Exhibit Tainter Home Notes, U.S. Circuit Court, District of New Nersey, American Graphophone Co. vs. Edison Phonograph Works." Vols. 1-8, 11-12, 1881-1886, Tainter Papers, Smithsonian National Museum of American History, Washington D. C.
- Tainter, Charles Sumner. "The Talking Machine and Some Little Known Facts in Connection with its Early Development," unpublished manuscript, 1930, pp. 1-104, Tainter Papers, Smithsonian National Museum of American History, Washington D. C.
- Wile, Raymond R. "The Development of Sound Recording at the Volta Laboratory," Association for Recorded Sound Collections Journal 21, No. 2, 1990, pp. 208-225.
- Wile, Raymond R. "Edison and Growing Hostilities," Association for Recorded Sound Collections Journal 22, No. 1, 1991, pp. 8-33.
- Wile, Raymond R. "The Gramophone Becomes a Success in America, 1896-1898," Association for Recorded Sound Collections Journal 27, No. 2, 1996, pp. 139-170.
- Wile, Raymond R. "Etching the Human Voice: The Berliner Invention of the Gramophone," Association for Recorded Sound Collections Journal 21, No. 1, 1990, pp. 2-22.
- 1999 by Steven E. Schoenherr. All rights reserved.
The photos on these pages are used with permission of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. They may not be reproduced or distributed without written permission of the NMAH.
Return to Recording Technology History | this page revised Feb. 10, 2000, by Schoenherr