Phonozoic Text Archive, Document 013

"The Phonograph," Harper's Weekly, March 30, 1878, pp. 249-50. 

If it were not that the days of belief in witchcraft are long since past, witch-hunters such as those who figured so conspicuously in the early history of our country would now find a rich harvest of victims in the Tribune building.  Here are located the head-quarters of two marvels of a marvellous age.  The telephone, which created such a sensation a short time ago by demonstrating the possibility of transmitting vocal sounds by telegraph, is now eclipsed by a new wonder called the phonograph.  This little instrument records the utterance of the human voice, and like a faithless confidante repeats every secret confided to it whenever requested to do so.  It will talk, sing, whistle, cough, sneeze, or perform any other acoustic feat.  With charming impartiality it will express itself in the divine strains of a lyric goddess, or use the startling vernacular of a street Arab.

A few days ago a reporter for Harper's visited the phonograph for the purpose of ascertaining, so far as an unscientific person might, the peculiar characteristics of the marvellous little instrument.  Prepared for an elaborate system of weights, pulleys, levers, wheels, bands, such as abounded in the case of Barnum's talking machine, whose utterances, by-the-way, were confined to some half dozen inarticulate sounds that no man living could understand, it was rather startling to find in the famous phonograph a simple apparatus, which, but for the absence of more than one cylinder, might have been a modern fluting machine....  While turning the crank the operator talks into the mouth-piece in a voice slightly elevated above the ordinary tone of conversation.  Every vibration of his voice is faithfully recorded on the tin-foil by the steel point, the cylinder making about one revolution to a word.

In order to reproduce the words--that is, to make the machine talk--the cylinder is turned back, so that the steel point may go over the indentations made by speaking into the mouthpiece.  A funnel, like a speaking-trumpet, is attached to the mouth-piece, to keep the sounds from scattering.  Now turning the crank again, every word spoken into the mouth-piece is exactly reproduced, with the utmost distinctness.

Thus the disk is either a tympanum or diaphragm, as the case may be, the first when it listens, and the second when it talks.  Herein the phonograph seems actually to have got ahead of that other marvellous construction, the human body.  In our anatomical economy the contrivances by which we are enabled to hear and talk are not only separate and distinct, but are also much more complicated than the method by which the phonograph accomplishes the same results.

While comparing this remarkable machine to the race whose characteristic attribute it has stolen (it is, we believe, habitually asserted by people who have no means of knowing any thing whatever about the matter that man is the only animal that talks), it may not be unfitting to allude to the admirable example it sets many garrulous and wearisome individuals.  The phonograph never speaks until it has first been spoken to.   Herein it also offers a worthy admonition to many ambitious but inexperienced writers.  It has no original ideas to advance, or else is possessed of that spirit of modesty which precludes the possibility of its annoying the public with unripe fancies and crude speculations.  The phonograph only consents to astonish the world at the instance of some dominant and controlling mind.  When it is about to exhibit itself, an operator must be on hand to put it through its paces.  On the occasion in question, this gentleman was Mr. William H. Applebaugh, General Superintendent of the Telephone Company of New York.

Seating himself before the instrument, Mr. Applebaugh confided to the disk names, numbers, scraps of poetry, comic songs, and various other bits of information calculated to amuse the phonograph, but not improve its mind.  These were faithfully recorded upon the foil, which was made to revolve by turning the crank.  Then the disk was sent back to the original starting-point, the crank again set in motion, and the metallic point brought into contact with the foil.  Presently the phonograph began, in clear, distinct tones, to count, to call names, to describe its own peculiar talents, to give its own address, and finally to sing:

  "There was an old man whose name was Uncle Ned,
   And he died long ago, long ago;
  And there wasn't any wool on the top of his head,
   On the place where the wool ought to grow."

This dropping into poetry apparently gave a sentimental turn to the thoughts of the phonograph, for presently, in spite of the fact that it was discoursing to a mixed and probably unsympathetic audience, it began to long for

    "the touch of a vanished hand,
   And the sound of a voice that is still."

As yet the phonograph is in its infancy.  Its discovery was the result of an accident, and so far but little idea can be formed of the development of which it is susceptible.  The gentleman who has the honor of being its inventor is Professor Thomas A. Edison, the famous electrician, who, in experimenting with the telephone, happened to notice the manner in which the disks of that instrument vibrated in accordance with the breath used in speaking.  Believing these vibrations could be recorded so as to be reproduced, he set to work to manufacture a machine for the purpose, and the result is the phonograph.  In a short time we shall, no doubt, have the curious little contrivance worked up to its highest perfection.  And then, possibly, there will follow a revolution in all departments of public singing and speaking.  There is no reason why we should not have all the great men of the age, as well as all the brilliant singers and actresses, taken possession of and driven off the course by the phonograph.   The tin-foil, whereon all they have said is duly recorded, will be electrotyped, and copies sold at so much a piece.  We shall all waste a portion of our substance on these little instruments; and then we have only to turn a crank, or set a kind of clock-work in motion, in order at any time to hear the great ones of the earth discourse in our own parlors.

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