Invention of phonograph Science

Music to the ears

Edison with the phonograph   | Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

What do you do when you want to listen to some music? You either pick your mobile phone or music player, pick a song you want to listen to or maybe even tune in to your favourite radio channel, and then let the music blare on the speakers or take it personal with your earphones. However whichever way you go about the process, in almost all the cases the tunes you want to groove into are just a click away.

So much so that it is hard for us to imagine a time in which there were no means to record sound and play it back. And yet, it has only been less than one and half centuries since the first such device was invented. The phonograph was first demonstrated by Thomas Alva Edison late in November 1877.

Accidental discovery

If I were to tell you that the phonograph was invented by an accident, it wouldn't be far from the truth. Edison, who was at that time deeply embroiled in works pertaining to telephony and telegraphy, was looking at ways to record telephonic conversations and methods to use paper strips to record telegraph messages.

And then, one evening in July 1877, Edison had a breakthrough — why not use the method he had devised for telegraphic messages for sound? The method here in question was capturing a passage of Morse codes used in telegraphy as a series of indentations on a spool of paper.

The experiment

Thinking out loud with his assistants, Edison suggested mounting a diaphragm, attached with a needle, above rollers for paper strips. The diaphragm moves when one talks through the mouthpiece, with the attached needle inscribing indentations onto the paper.

The original sound could then be reproduced when the process was reversed. When the paper was pulled through the rollers, the needle now caused the indentations to move the diaphragm, which in turn produced the sound. The first midnight recording session was held and even though the output was nowhere near perfect, it was encouraging.

Having started out with paraffin paper at first, Edison refined his concept to include spinning, tin-foil wrapped cylinder. Even though the output was much better now, it could still be used only for a few times, after which the foil will tear up.

Edison, however, was convinced that his device was heading to offices that he failed to bow to the music industry. It was only after years that he finally jumped on the bandwagon, time during which he was working with incandescent lamps and phonographs had clicked with the business of entertainment.

"I haven't heard a bird sing since I was twelve years old," Edison wrote in 1885, alluding to having largely lost his ability to hear around 1859. He might have gone deaf for reasons unknown, but it nevertheless didn't stop him from getting the music industry going. And while phonographs might have become a thing of the past, recording sound in order to play it back will definitely stay on forever.

Reach A.S.Ganesh at ganesh.a.s@thehindu.co.in


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Printable version | Oct 20, 2021 6:30:21 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/in-school/sh-science/music-to-the-ears/article7936713.ece

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