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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.

Edison Kruesi Tinfoil

Kruesi tinfoil phonograph prototype 1877


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 created by 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 captured.   

After some trial and error and lots of experience, we were able to faithfully record and reproduce the human voice. 

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 furniture polish.
Pledge is a product of S. C. Johnson & Son, Inc.


The original Bill 'n Ron from Tin Foil Alley! 

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. 


The stars of the Summer 2007 meeting held at the Hanson MA Historical Society were this family of machines, the Victor I thru VI. Hmmm, one is missing in the photo.

Click here: for the Summer 2007 meeting.

For more photos of the MOCAPS meetings, click Shows, Clubs, More.

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

Boston, MA  USA