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Thomas Alva Edison with his slightly improved tin foil phonograph from 1878
Tin foil phonograph with a short cylinder and a common sound box for recording and playback
The American military march The Liberty Bell , played by the New York Military Band, recorded by phonograph in 1911

The phonograph (neologism, Greek for sound or sound writer ) is an audio recorder for the acoustic-mechanical recording and reproduction of sound with the help of sound rollers. The term refers to a " speaking machine " announced by Thomas Alva Edison on November 21, 1877 , presented 8 days later and filed by him on December 24, 1877 as a patent application . The patent was granted to him on February 19, 1878.

A simultaneous inventor was the French Charles Cros , who made plans to construct a so-called "Paléophon". However, he did not have the financial means to patent his invention. Incidentally, Cros had hardly any interest in marketing his invention; he was more interested in scientific recognition.

There was a lot of competition, above all the speech machine Euphonia by the Freiburg mathematician Joseph Faber . Faber presented the device, reminiscent of a chamber organ, in Vienna in 1840, later traveled to the USA, where he was unsuccessful with the invention and committed suicide in 1866.

Edison received further patents for the further development of his phonograph in Germany in 1878 and in the USA in 1880. His device, the distribution of which indirectly founded some of the music companies that still exist today, remained on the market for a few decades up to the 1910s, alongside the similarly functioning graphophone , but was replaced early on by the triumph of the gramophone and the record .


Edison's phonograph
Signing apparatus of the phonograph

The phonograph is in its first, the patent underlying design consisted of a Stanniolblatt related roller and is called "tin foil phonograph" ( English Tin Foil phonograph hereinafter). In front of the drum there was a sound box on one side for recording and on the other one for playback. Inside each sound box was a thin membrane to which a blunt needle was attached. To concentrate the sound, a funnel ( horn ) was attached to the sound box to be used ; this had to be held in hand at first. Depending on the operating mode, the desired sound box was locked on the roller. Later tin foil phonographs were equipped with only one sound box, which was used for both recording and playback.

Meyers Konversations-Lexikon from 1884 illustrated the functionality of the tin foil phonograph with the help of the adjacent illustrations:

A brass cylinder C is carried by a shaft A-A ', in one half A' of which a screw thread is cut, the one shaft bearing serving as a nut. A helical groove of the same pitch as screw A 'is dug on the surface of the cylinder. The cylinder is covered with a thin sheet of tinfoil and is now ready to receive the characters.

The signaling apparatus consists of a mouthpiece D in which a thin plate E is attached which, through the intermediary of the dampers F (pieces of rubber tubing), gently presses the pin G, carried by a metal spring, against the cylinder so that the pin is stationary when the Crank  B is turned, would describe a helix following the groove of the cylinder.

If you now speak into the mouthpiece while the cylinder is turned evenly, the metal plate vibrates and the pen produces impressions on the tin foil sheet that correspond to the sounds spoken. To bring this out again, you hit back the signal generator, turn the cylinder backwards and bring the pen and mouthpiece back into the initial position. If you now turn the crank as at the beginning, the pen, following the indentations in the tinfoil sheet, sets the metal plate in vibrations that correspond to the vibrations it had previously made when recording.

In other words, speech is, while the roll was rotated against the membrane, this has been by the sound forming oscillations of the air moves up and down, and the needle attached to it wrote the sounds as a wave-shaped elevations and depressions in the tin foil.

If you now run the roller under the needle again at the same speed, the recorded sound track - transmitted through the needle - moved the membrane, this the air, and the vibrations could be heard again.

Duplication, i.e. making a copy , was not yet possible, so each roller was discussed individually. The tone looked tinny and flat. Such a tin foil recording usually did not survive more than five playback processes, after which the groove depressions were flat.

Further development

Edison Home Phonograph with Wax Roller, December 1900
Edison blank, blank roller for self-recording

Bell and Tainter

In 1884 Charles Sumner Tainter and Chichester Alexander Bell , a cousin of Alexander Graham Bell , were busy improving Edison's tin foil phonograph. Bell funded the research as part of his Volta Laboratory, founded in 1880. To do this, they constructed a record with grooves made of metal. Instead of using tin foil, the grooves were filled with wax . The text that Bell personally recorded was translated as follows: "I am a graphophone and my mother is a phonograph."

In 1885, however, they returned to the roller shape, as the plate construction was too complicated. Bell and Tainter used a thin, elongated roller made of cardboard that was covered with a thin layer of wax. The devices kept the name " Graphophone ". Edison refused any collaboration with Bell. Shortly thereafter, the American Graphophone Company was founded as a competitor, which merged in 1891 with the Columbia Phonograph Company, a local subsidiary of the North American Phonograph Company, which was soon dissolved, and now the world's oldest music company in the form of Columbia Records .

Edison's wax rollers

The wax cylinder phonograph presented by Edison at the end of 1887 was called The New Phonograph in Anglo-Saxon usage . Edison used rollers made from a special, 5–6 millimeter thick paraffin wax . This significantly improved the sound quality and significantly reduced wear and tear during playback. In addition, the wax rollers could also be sanded down and reused. One of the earliest surviving musical recordings - a performance of Handel's oratorio Israel in Egypt on June 29, 1888 at Crystal Palace , London - was made with such an Edison wax cylinder phonograph.


Lioret cylinder

In 1893 the French watchmaker Henri Lioret took a different route. Instead of the wax, he used celluloid , which was on a brass core as a carrier. The durability and robustness of its strikingly short rollers were unsurpassed. His system remained commercially unsuccessful because he did not succeed in developing a practical copying process either, and his sound carriers could not be played on a standard Edison phonograph.

Duplication of reels

From 1893 pantographic 1: 1 copying machines were often used for Edison's wax rollers . Wax rolls previously had to be recorded individually or in groups of four to ten phonographs. A correspondingly adjusted copier also enabled a certain amount of sound amplification on the target copy by means of leverage. As early as 1889 Edison dealt with a casting process as a reproduction, but initially unsuccessfully. To make a cast roll as a copy, a conventional roll was first recorded directly. The roller was then freed of wax chips and set in rotation while standing between two high-voltage gold leaf electrodes. As a result, a wafer-thin gold deposit was deposited on the played surface. This could then be galvanically reinforced. However, the original roller was destroyed in this process. Rollers could then be cast from the roll matrix obtained, which in turn were suitable for the production of matrices. This process did not find practical application until around 1898 for small series of rollers, which were then reproduced for sale as high-quality templates with conventional copying machines. It was not until 1902 that Edison replaced the copied rollers across the board with the gold casting process, also known as chilled cast iron. Since the rollers no longer had to be played directly on, a harder wax could be used that did not wear out as quickly as the brown wax used up until then.


The playing time of a roller was about two to three minutes, depending on the recording speed. A great advantage of the phonograph was the ability to record unrecorded reels yourself. The rollers usually ran at a speed of 120, 125, 144 or 160 revolutions per minute, voice recordings also slower (mostly 80 revolutions per minute). The speeds were also varied further. At times, Columbia reels were also played at 185 / min, which shortened the recording time even further and was therefore discarded after a short time.

Other providers

Wax cylinder, Phonoscope Zurich, 1900

In Germany , the Edison Society had its own recording studio and factory in Berlin . Columbia also had a German subsidiary ( Columbia wax roller, approx. 1905 ? / I ). In addition, after 1900 numerous other companies began to produce their own wax rollers, mostly compatible with Edison's format, under different brand names. The French Pathé developed into the largest roller manufacturer of European origin ; an important German producer were the Cologne Excelsior works. Audio file / audio sample

In 1900, the American sound technology pioneer Thomas B. Lambert registered a patent for a process in the USA that enabled the production of Edison-compatible rollers from celluloid and combined the advantages of the gold casting process developed by Edison with those of the robust Lioret rollers . From an entrepreneurial point of view, Lambert was unsuccessful, as the litigation costs hit him very hard financially; However, his patents, successfully defended in many processes, prevented Edison and other roller manufacturers from also producing celluloid rollers. Lambert did not sell his rights until 1908, so that several roller factories in the USA and Europe could take over the celluloid technology.

Edison's "Amberol" wax rollers

In 1908 Edison changed his roller format by doubling the groove density. The usual playing time of a good two minutes was extended to over four minutes and should continue to compete with the record . For older Edison phonographs, conversions were offered to be able to play both types of drum. Since all available Edison phonographs had a supporting spindle guide, not only the sound box but also the spindle had to be adjusted accordingly. In most cases, a gear ratio was used, which let the spindle run at half speed and thus slowed down the spindle feed according to the groove density. The first four-minute sound boxes with the designation Model H differed from their 2-minute counterpart Model C only in their scanner, also a sapphire in the shape of a door knob, which, however, was offset by 90 degrees and was significantly smaller. The 4-minute reels were advertised under the name "Amberol", an artificial word derived from high-quality amber (English, in German amber ). At that time they also consisted of a hard wax mixture, which was, however, even more brittle and fragile than the wax mixture used for 2-minute rollers.

Edison's "Blue Amberol" celluloid rollers

From 1912 Edison stopped the production of two-minute rollers and manufactured the four-minute rollers from celluloid, which he named "Blue Amberol Records"; the color tones varied from a light sky blue to an almost black color due to the manufacturing process. A special series for classical music was also produced in purple as "Royal Purple Amberol". The manufacturing process was similar to that of the wax rollers, but the Blue Amberols had a core made of plaster of paris. After the celluloid tube had been pressed, this was poured in and given an internal shape. But even the blue amberols, which were improved again and were technically excellent in terms of recording , were no longer able to recapture the European and American sound carrier market, which in the meantime was dominated by records . As a sound carrier system that was no longer economically viable, they asserted themselves in the USA well into the 1920s, mainly due to Edison's personal preference for the roller format.

Edison's plate phonograph system

In 1913 Edison presented his own record format, the Diamond Disc . Like the reels, this system only used subscript and could only be played on a so-called Diamond Disc Phonograph . A diamond was used for scanning, which also explains the name. In 1914, Edison's recording studio in West Orange, New Jersey, burned down with all the accessories for the drum mount. Instead of an expensive rebuilding of the studios, it was decided to copy the reels from Diamond disc recordings in the future. Up until the last few years this was done exclusively by acoustic means. Therefore, rollers from this time have a less brilliant brilliance than their predecessors.

The end

In 1929, Edison's ordinary shellac records were last made.

In the fall of 1929 Edison had to give up the entire record production due to the global economic crisis ; this ended the era of the phonograph as an entertainment device. Dictation phonographs remained on the market for office use in the USA until the 1950s.


Inconsistent use of language

In Europe (with the exception of France), all manufacturers' reel devices were called "phonographs" or "reel players", whereas acoustic record devices were generally referred to as " gramophones ", although this was actually a protected brand name.

In the USA there is no linguistic distinction between the various device classes, rather the term "phonograph" is common for a large number of sound reproduction devices: This applies to Edison's original phonograph with its cylindrical sound carriers as well as Emil's 10 years later (1887) Berliner invented the gramophone with its disc-shaped sound carriers and also includes the more modern analog record players . Correspondingly, the term “ gramophone record” is still common in British English for record”, or “phonograph record” in America (in addition to the short form “record” used in both language areas).

Records as edible "talking chocolate"

Thomas Alva Edison founded the German Edison Phonograph Compagnie in Cologne in 1895 together with his friend, chocolate producer Ludwig Stollwerck and other partners . Together with Stollwerck, Edison developed the " Talking Chocolate ", consisting of a phonograph that was produced especially for children from 1903 and played music from a chocolate record. This toy phonograph was called "Eureka", contained a Junghans wind-up clock mechanism and was sold in Europe and the USA with a tin or wooden case. In addition to the chocolate records, permanent records were also offered for the apparatus.

The only historical photo taken by Otto von Bismarck

In February 2012 it became known that around twelve rollers from the years 1889 and 1890, which had been discovered in the 1950s and almost forgotten again, had been digitized with the help of collected money and their content published. Among them are recordings of classical pieces such as an excerpt from the beautiful miller by Franz Schubert . This find received special attention, however, because under the rollers there is probably the only voice recording of the Prussian statesman Otto von Bismarck . In addition to a few lines of the Latin poem Gaudeamus igitur , the Uhland ballade Swabian customer ("As Kaiser Rotbart lobesam ...") and an American folk song popular at the time, he also reads the first lines of the French national anthem and advice to his son.

Audio documents

An Edison phonograph plays: Iola by the "Edison Military Band" (video, 3 min 51 s)

Iola played by the "Edison Military Band", Edison Record # 9417, August 1906, length 116 sec.

A Picture no Artist can paint by Florrie Forde, Edison Record # 13544, September 1906, length 114 sec.

In a cool ground , Franz Porten , Columbia hard cast wax roller # 50264, ca.1905.

My South Polar Expedition , Ernest Henry Shackleton , Edison Amberol Roller # 4M-473, March 30, 1910


German literature

  • Ronald W. Clark: Edison - The inventor who changed the world (translation by L. Nürenberger). Societäts-Verlag, Frankfurt / Main 1981, ISBN 3-7973-0385-8
  • Martin Elste : Small record lexicon . Bärenreiter-Verlag, Kassel 1989, ISBN 3-7618-0966-2
  • Stefan Gauß: Needle, groove, funnel. Cultural history of the phonograph and the gramophone in Germany (1900–1940) . Böhlau, Cologne / Weimar / Vienna 2009, ISBN 978-3-412-20185-2
  • Günter Große: From the Edison cylinder to the stereo record . VEB Lied der Zeit, Leipzig 1981, ISBN 3-7332-0052-7 (2nd edition)
  • Herbert Jüttemann : Phonographs and Gramophones . 3. Edition. Verlag Historischer Technikliteratur, Herten 2000, ISBN 3-931651-98-3 .
  • Friedrich Kittler : Writing-down systems 1800/1900 . München, Fink 1985, ISBN 3-7705-2881-6 (English edition: Discourse Networks 1800/1900, with a foreword by David E. Wellbery. Stanford 1990)
  • Friedrich Kittler: gramophone, film, typewriter . Brinkmann & Bose, Berlin 1986, ISBN 3-922660-17-7 (English edition: Gramophone, Film, Typewriter . Stanford 1999)
  • Peter Overbeck: The sound carriers. In: Arnold Jacobshagen, Frieder Reininghaus (Hrsg.): Music and culture. Media, markets, institutions . Laaber-Verlag, Laaber 2006, ISBN 3-89007-430-8 , pp. 75-112 (Handbook of Music in the 20th Century, Volume 10).
  • Alfred Parzer-Mühlbacher: The modern speaking machines, their treatment and application. A. Hartleben's Verlag, Vienna 1902.

English literature

  • Jad Adams: Hideous Absinthe . 1st edition. The University of Wisconsin Press, 2004, ISBN 0-299-20000-0 .
  • George L. Frow: Edison Cylinder Phonograph Companion . 2nd Edition. Stationery X-Press, Woodland Hills CA 1994, ISBN 0-9606466-1-2 (English)
  • Howard Hazelcorn: Columbia Phonograph Companion . Volume 1. 1st edition. Mulholland Press, Los Angeles CA 1999, ISBN 0-9606466-5-5 ()
  • Neil Maken: Hand-cranked Phonographs . 5th edition. Promar Publishing, Huntington Beach CA 1998, ISBN 0-9640687-1-0 (English)
  • Lisa Gitelman: Always already new: media, history and the data of culture . MIT Press, Cambridge MA [u. a.] 2008, ISBN 978-0-262-57247-7

See also


  • George E. Tewksbury: A Complete Manual of The Edison Phonograph . (English) .

Web links

Wiktionary: Phonograph  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations
Commons : Phonograph  - album with pictures, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. Patent US200521 : Phonograph or Speaking Machine. Published February 19, 1878 .
  2. The London Times named in the article The New Phonograph of January 21, 1888 "Joseph Faber and others" as well-known competitors in the market.
  3. patent DE12631 : innovations on the phonograph. Published July 12, 1878 .
  4. Patent US227679 : Phonograph. Published May 18, 1880 .
  5. ^ The first Edison wax cylinder phonograph recordings from 1888/89
  6. ^ The Thomas A. Edison Papers Project. State University of New Jersey, USA
  7. The sound samples of the voices of Bismarck and von Moltke from 1889 (MP3 files)
  8. Sensational sound recordings - this is how Bismarck sounded! . one day , January 31, 2012.