HistoryWired About the Program Help Comments Smithsonian Institution
Early Sound-recording Industry

The sound-recording industry was born in the innovative atmosphere around telegraphy and telephony at the end of the 1800s. The phonograph, the graphophone, and the gramophone emerged from the workshops of independent inventors Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, and Emile Berliner. Before then, there had been no means of recording and replaying the sound of the human voice or music. A machine that could capture sound at one moment and store it for later hearing was truly revolutionary. The National Museum of American History has a compelling collection of experimental versions of these sound-recording devices and recordings made on them. Also noteworthy in the museum's collection is a sound-recording device that predates Edison. Leon Scott's phonautograph, designed in the 1860s as a physics demonstration, could record sound waves by inscribing soot deposited on paper, but could not replay them. The museum also has a selection of commercially produced machines from a variety of turn-of-the-20th-century manufacturers and a small number of studio-record-cutting lathes.


Emile Berliner and the Gramophone

Emile Berliner is by no mean a household name, but in most American households he ought to be. The disk phonograph record is his invention. In 1887, Emile Berliner patented the first of a series of inventions that would result in the commercially successful disk record and the machine to play it on--the gramophone. A German immigrant, Berliner invented the gramophone in a Washington, DC, laboratory, where he conducted his acoustical experiments with money Alexander Graham Bell paid him in the late 1870s for inventing a practical telephone transmitter.

The machine shown here, which Berliner demonstrated in Philadelphia, on May 16, 1888, has a zinc disk etched with acid. Celluloid copies could easily be stamped from it. He called the whole system--machine, process, and record--the "gramophone."

Emile Berliner's improvements profoundly influenced the direction of sound recording technology. Berliner was the first inventor to introduce the disk as a successful recording medium. Recognizing the need for a complete system for recording and play-back, he designed a means of creating a master disk, a means of reproducing that master in numerous copies, and a machine for playing back the mass-produced record. He also trademarked the design for one of the most famous and enduring logos of the 20th century--the quizzical fox terrier listening to "His Master's Voice."

In one of the quirkiest episodes in the history of American commerce, Berliner went from principal actor to behind-the-scenes player in the recording industry. Acting against treacherous competition, Berlin stopped supplying his only distributor in the late 1890s when confronted with evidence that the distributor had permitted a firm to market a machine identical to the gramophone under the name Zonophone. The distributor sued. Berliner lost the court battle, but retained patent control, and his manufacturer, Eldridge Johnson of Camden, NJ, continued the production and sale of the gramophone under a new name--Victor. The Victor Talking Machine Company became a dominant force in the record business, and Berliner remained active in the gramophone business in Canada, Great Britain, and Germany. As a result of the legal battle, though, Berliner--despite his role as technological founding father to the Victor empire--became relatively unknown in the United States, and the word "gramophone" all but disappeared from American vocabulary.

Berliner had a longstanding friendship with the Smithsonian's first curator of electricity, George Maynard, and Berliner donated to the Institution in 1900 and 1911 some of his earliest apparatus and recordings, including matrices. NMAH has about two dozen objects relating to the early days of the gramophone.


Thomas Alva Edison and the Phonograph

In 1877, Thomas Alva Edison recorded spoken words and, for the first time ever, played them back on a machine of his invention, the phonograph. Public reaction was wildly enthusiastic, and Edison earned the nickname "the Wizard of Menlo Park" largely because of the astounding nature of the phonograph.

But the little machine that recorded, stored, and then reproduced sound on a record of tin foil remained an experimental machine for nearly a decade. Edison revived his interest in the phonograph as competitors entered the field in the 1880s. He switched to wax cylinders for records and marketed his machines to offices for dictation and, in coin-operated versions, to hotels and saloons for entertainment.

NMAH has five early Edison tin-foil machines dating from 1878 and 1879, one of which came directly from Edison himself. A second machine belonged to the bookkeeper at Edison's Menlo Park laboratory. The museum has two recordings on tin foil. By far the largest public collection of Edison's machines, including his earliest, is in the care of the National Park Service.


Alexander Graham Bell and the Graphophone

In 1880 and 1881, the Smithsonian received, in three installments, sealed tin boxes from Alexander Graham Bell's Volta Laboratory, a research operation in Washington, DC, that Bell had established after his success with the telephone. Placed in the Smithsonian's vault, these boxes remained sealed, their contents unknown until l937, when, in the presence of Bell's daughter and young grandson, they were cut open. Inside were the photophone--predecessor, according to some, of today's fiber optic sound carriers--and the graphophone, an aggressive sound-recording challenger for Edison's newly invented phonograph. These were the Volta Lab's earliest successful sound-recording devices, and with them in the boxes were documents describing and illustrating how they were invented and how they worked. The Volta Laboratory's experimental apparatus, the earliest recordings, and documentation remain at the Smithsonian to this day.

The graphophone used a stylus attached to a vibrating diaphragm to record on and replay a wax cylinder. Commercial versions of the Volta Laboratory's graphophone were used mainly for office dictation. In the 1890s, practitioners in the emerging field of ethnology found the graphophone a vital field tool for recording the languages and music of Native Americans. The Bureau of Ethnology was part of the Smithsonian Institution, and several machines used in the field remain in our collections.

The Bell story is a revealing example of the Smithsonian's close relationship to then-current technologies and their inventors. The Volta Laboratory associates, on the cutting edge of the hotly contested field of recorded sound, freely admitted they had deposited the boxes in case they needed to prove priority of invention. (In the end, such proof was unnecessary, and the boxes remained sealed.) At the time, Bell was a member of the Smithsonian's Board of Regents, the Institution's appointed governing body, and actively involved in the Institution's affairs.

The Volta Laboratory collection was enhanced in 1947, when the widow of Volta Laboratory associate Charles Sumner Tainter gave the Smithsonian 10 volumes of his "home notebooks." These describe in detail the daily workings of the Volta Lab in the 1880s. From the Volta Laboratory, NMAH has approximately 20 pieces of apparatus and approximately 200 records. Bell and his associates made the recordings between 1881 and 1890 in a variety of materials, including glass, rubber, metal, and wax.


Start HistoryWired | About the Program | Help | Comments

Smithsonian Institution | Terms of Use | Privacy