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Early Sound Recording and the Invention of the Gramophone

The history of recorded sound in Canada can be said to have begun on May 17, 1878 with a demonstration of Edison's recently invented talking machine, the phonograph, at the Governor-General's residence in Ottawa. The Earl of Dufferin and his guests spoke Greek and sang popular songs, and listened as the machine reproduced the sound of their voices. Though the new invention was greeted with amazement and delight (and the interest of early ethnologists, who set out to record the speech and music of aboriginal peoples), sound recording would not become a commercially successful medium of entertainment until the advent of Emile Berliner and his gramophone.

Emile Berliner as a young man  

Berliner was born in Hanover, Germany in 1851, where he was apprenticed to a printer after graduating from school in 1865. In 1870, he immigrated to the United States, settling first in New York, and working at various odd jobs to earn his livelihood. In 1877, he decided to relocate to Washington, D.C., having been offered employment there as a clerk in a dry goods store owned by a fellow German immigrant.

It was during this period that Berliner began to experiment with the technology associated with the newly invented telephone. He conceived of and patented the carbon button transmitter in 1877 1, which was bought by Alexander Graham Bell for $100 000 and $5000 per annum to keep Berliner on retainer. The money enabled Berliner to devote himself exclusively to the creation of the gramophone.

  Léon Scott de Martinville's phonautograph, 1857

The ideas and practically demonstrated principles upon which Berliner based his invention were long well known. Sound produces vibrations which can cause a needle attached to a diaphragm to move over a rotating surface in an undulating pattern. When the needle is moved through the groove cut by the sound vibration, the sound is reproduced. The first documented machine to record sound waves was the phonautograph of the Frenchman, Léon Scott de Martinville, in 1857. The device consisted of a diaphragm and a boar's hair bristle that traced a sinuous line laterally on a manually rotated cylinder coated with lampblack. Though the phonautograph created a visual analogue of sound waves, the machine could not reproduce those sounds.

Twenty years later, Thomas Edison, the son of Canadian parents, devised the phonograph while working on the repeating telegraph. The first phonograph had a cylinder covered with tinfoil mounted on a hand-cranked screw. It had a rigid stylus which, unlike the styli of both the phonautograph and the later gramophone, cut the groove vertically in what is known as the "hill-and-dale" manner. Edison patented his invention in 1878 and, assured of its protection, abandoned it to concentrate on the development of the incandescent light bulb.

Thomas Edison; photo taken around the time he invented the phonograph   A drawing of the phonograph from Thomas Edison's Canadian patent no. 9282

Then, in 1880, Alexander Graham Bell established an electro-acoustic research facility in Washington, D.C. (the Volta Laboratory Association) with prize money granted to him by the French Academy of Science in recognition of his invention of the telephone. He brought in his cousin, Chichester Bell, an English scientist and Charles Sumner Tainter, who soon turned their attention to developing an improved phonograph based on Edison's British patent of 1878. In 1885 and 1886 respectively, they were granted Canadian and American patents for their machine, which they called a graphophone. It was much like the phonograph, but with a few significant improvements. Instead of tinfoil, which was delicate and difficult to remove and replace with a recording intact, Bell and Tainter used wax-coated cardboard cylinders. In addition to greater ease of handling, the employment of wax also produced a higher quality recording and enabled a longer playing time. Moreover, Bell and Tainter utilized clockwork, a foot treadle and subsequently an electric motor instead of Edison's manual crank.

A drawing of the gramophone from Emile Berliner's Canadian patent no. 55079  

Both Edison and the Volta Associates saw the talking machine primarily as a business tool, a dictating machine to replace human stenographers. When Berliner set to work developing the gramophone, he decided to approach the technology from a different perspective, allowing him to bypass the Edison and Bell-Tainter patents entirely. He looked to the phonautograph for inspiration and devised a machine that used discs instead of cylinders, and lateral recording instead of vertical. In Berliner's process, the sound tracing was first etched side-to-side in a spiral on a zinc disc, then this master was electroplated to create a negative which could then be used to stamp copies in vulcanized rubber (and later shellac) -- a process better suited to mass reproduction of musical entertainment.

1 Thomas Edison patented a similar transmitter or microphone in the same year and there is some controversy over the correct attribution for the invention of the microphone.