Edison Invents the Phonograph
In 1877 Edison was trying to find a way to transcribe
telegraphic and telephonic voice/sounds that could be stored
(recorded) and later transmitted. Edison had the benefit of ten years of practical experience
working with telegraph & telephone inventions. So it's no
accident that after trying a variety of recording mediums such
as paper and wax, he conceptualized and sketched a design
that would capture vibrations caused by the air pressure of the
human voice against a diaphragm that pushed a stylus in and out
of a sheet of tinfoil wrapped on a cylinder.
The above sketch drawn by Thomas Edison on
November 29, 1877 was the basis of a design from which Edison's
master mechanic, John Kruesi built the first crude but practical
model of a machine that could record and playback sound. This
prototype known at the "Kruesi model" is on permanent display
at the Edison National Historic site in West Orange, NJ where copies
of blueprints created by Edison's engineers were available for sale
several years ago. I understand that now only reprints made by third
parties are available as even copies from the Edison site are
becoming more difficult to find. Those blueprints have been used by many mechanical engineering
students and others interested in experimenting with Edison's first
phonograph and to produce a variety of replicas.
Although there was little commercial application of early tinfoil
phonographs, except for educational or demonstration purposes for a short time Edison and others did market
'Exhibition' speaking phonographs. Any of these tinfoil
phonographs whether original (very rare) or reproduction are highly collectable.
One of the best reference works about these early phonographs is the
book written by avid-collector and respected researcher, Rene Rondeau TINFOIL PHONOGRAPHS.
This book contains many photographs and excellent research. If you are
one of the fortunate few who has a tin foil phonograph and if you need
'authentic' tinfoil, Rene has a limited supply
available for sale by clicking here. Good friend
and knowledgeable collector Bill Floyd recommends experimenting with
heavy duty aluminum foil; I believe this is the type of
aluminum foil used with barbeque grills. Once you've
successfully made a recording and played it back, then you should
try the authentic tinfoil.
Here's an example of a replica of the 'Kruesi model'
owned by PhonoJack. John Kruesi, a Swiss-born
machinist translated many of Edison's ideas into working
models as this first phonograph. Kruesi's talent for
building and testing models was critically important as it
was Edison's basic design methodology. Although the design is relatively
simple, it is very difficult to faithfully copy. The curator
of the British Sound Archive told me the original
prototype and some details of the recorder weren't documented and the original Kruesi prototype which had been on loan to British museums
from 1880-1928 and later returned to the Edison National
Historic Site in West
Orange, NJ does not
contain some 'original' component(s).
Even the best mechanical engineers say
this design is labor intensive and it's a challenge to
make it an operational prototype.
Kruesi tinfoil phonograph prototype
This is a replica of the original Kruesi prototype. This is perhaps the most precise
copy (one of twelve) of the original Kruesi model that was
Bill Ptacek in 1996.
This is the very first phonograph to record and reproduce
sound. The dimensions: 11-5/8" by 10-5/8" base, the
mandrel is 3-3/8" wide and 3-3/4" diameter, 11 threads per inch.
This lighting in this photo is a
little better. You can see the high quality workmanship that
went into creating this exceptional, working model.
Edison's assistant and master machinist John Kruesi created
this working model from a conceptual design and drawing prepared
by Edison, shown on the top of this web page. Edison's
team later created blueprints from the Kruesi model "on loan"
and later returned from England.
One of the first steps to prepare for recording on
tinfoil is to securely wrap actual tinfoil, (not aluminum
foil) around the mandrel. To hold the tinfoil in
place, we used a glue stick. The Avery purple
glue stick works nicely; you can see how well you're applying the
glue. Tom Edison might have used shellac to hold the
tinfoil in place.
The next step is to align the recording phonet by adjusting
the knob that moves the stylus toward or away from the groove on
the mandrel. This is a bit tricky because depth alignment
must be precise to allow the voice vibrations to be optimally
After some trial and error and lots of experience, we
were able to faithfully record and reproduce the human
As this phonograph doesn't have the large flywheel to
help regulate the speed of manual rotation, we practiced a
few times without positioning the "tracing-point" stylus
such that with the right pressure it gently traces a line
into the tinfoil between grooves in the mandrel.
You can pretty much tell if you've recorded sound
vibrations such that they can be replayed by looking at the
vibrations captured on tinfoil. We made repeated
attempts, getting improving results each time.
We were able to identify which recordings would produce the
best sound by closely looking at the vibrations created by the
stylus. It is the air pressure of the human voice that
vibrates the diaphragm which in turn causes the stylus to
record sound into the tinfoil. Bill Floyd recommends using
extra heavy gauge aluminum foil to experiment. For more
authentic experiments, Edison's team recommended authentic
aluminum foil; copper foil was also tested. We also
sprayed the foil with a light coat of Pledge™
Pledge is a product of S. C. Johnson & Son, Inc.
The original Bill 'n Ron from Tin Foil Alley! Æ
Bill Floyd recording Ron L'Herault's rendition of Al
Jolson's s Rock-A-Bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody at
a meeting of the Massachusetts Old Colony Antique
Phonograph Society, a MAPS affiliate.
Here's the gang that had just completed the charter* meeting
of the Massachusetts Old Colony Antique Phonograph Society (MOCAPS)
the local chapter affiliated with the
Michigan Antique Phonograph Society (MAPS).
Here's the Massachusetts Old Colony Antique
Phonograph Society again. Membership is growing, putting on
a few pounds after a long winter.
Click here: Spring 2007 meeting.
Edison uses the Press
Reports that Edison 'stumbled upon' or discovered the phonograph
by accident are simply wrong. Edison and his team kept
meticulous notebooks 'papers' that are now available to researchers. Whether
Edison was establishing 'first use' or using the press to document
his progress with new inventions or self-promoting, we may never
know. But Edison knew the value of a good press agent, E. H.
Johnson who helped him promote his inventions. As Johnson had
already set up good connections with Scientific American, the Daily
Graphic and Scribner's, it's not surprising that popular periodicals jumped at the chance to set up live
demonstrations and then publish accounts of Edison's progress.
Imagine the excitement and the demand for
newspapers that gave early accounts of a machine that could talk.
Harper's Weekly and others provided details such as how a machine used tinfoil to record and play back the human voice.
This is not the last time a beautiful
woman would sell a demonstration
to see a phonograph, perhaps the first.
A rare document from 1878 encourages exhibitors to sell sheet music (50%
discount) The Song of Mister Phonograph which celebrates
Edison's new invention.
Please Click Here to see the PhonoJack Edison Collection