The Memory of Sound

Today in 1877, Thomas Edison recorded his voice on the phonograph for the first time, reciting “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Here is his re-enactment of that first recording. Edison offered the following possible future uses for the phonograph in the North American Review in June 1878:

  1. Letter writing and all kinds of dictation without the aid of a stenographer.
  2. Phonographic books, which will speak to blind people without effort on their part.
  3. The teaching of elocution.
  4. Reproduction of music.
  5. The “Family Record”–a registry of sayings, reminiscences, etc., by members of a family in their own voices, and of the last words of dying persons.
  6. Music-boxes and toys.
  7. Clocks that should announce in articulate speech the time for going home, going to meals, etc.
  8. The preservation of languages by exact reproduction of the manner of pronouncing.
  9. Educational purposes; such as preserving the explanantions made by a teacher, so that the pupil can refer to them at any moment, and spelling or other lessons placed upon the phonograph for convenience in committing to memory.
  10. Connection with the telephone, so as to make that instrument an auxiliary in the transmission of permanent and invaluable records, instead of being the recipient of momentary and fleeting communication.

But around that time, Edison lost interest in his invention, seeing no way to make money from it. He went back to work on the phonograph in 1888, spurred by competition from Alexander Graham Bell’s American Graphophone Company, and received 75 patents on phonograph improvements within the next two years. His focus now was on the use of the phonograph as a business machine and he insisted that “it is not a toy.” But by 1891, according to Steven Lubar in InfoCulture, there were 1,000 arcade machines, with one record per machine, and by the turn of the century, the home market was well established.

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