Audio, Etc. (Sept. 1977)

Home | Audio Magazine | Stereo Review magazine | Good Sound | Troubleshooting


"Ah, sweet mystery of life!" What would this Centennial year of audio be without a few more little mysteries to carry us through to December? For the responsible engineer, there's always room for improvement in his product and his sweetest mystery is, how? To the scientist, as to the artist and the historian (since time closes in on facts), a residue of mystery is the spice of life-otherwise why bother? To establish exactly how a star is formed out of a million light years of cosmic dust, or how a bit of proto -life somehow developed from a soup of nucleic acids (my only question: would they fizz if you added bicarbonate of soda?)-these are the quests that titillate. Or maybe where G. Washington slept the night of Dec. 6, 1777, our anti-Centennial date. So long as absolutely final answers to these things, and plenty more, continue to elude us we are fascinated. Once they appear, we are bored and move on.

How dull, then, to know every bit of that sequence of events and reasonings that led our good old friend Thomas Alva to indent the foundations of the great industry which supports us all. And how dull to know exactly what the First Phonograph looked like. Of course, practically all of the necessary info, plenty of it in T.A.E.'s own handwriting, is at hand-and so is the First Phonograph.

Indeed, since last writing I have laid my own eyes on three of them, all identical. But by great good fortune, we have, collectively speaking, a very long way to go in getting the facts around. Our distribution is plain awful, thank the Lord. Otherwise I really would be bored.

In all truth, there is so much confusion right now that I am positively delighted. As they say, it's a gas. Individually, the readers of this magazine have among themselves absolutely all the info you could ever look for, as I should know from my recent mail; our ardent correspondents, alas, have cleared up most of my pet Edison mysteries for me. Though I did, reluctantly, do a bit of my own researching, first hand, like getting my own two eyes within a foot or two of the Machine itself, the First Phono. But now I've created a few more puzzles to keep me going, and replace the old ones.

Of the three First Phonos, the first was so dirty in its unwashed case that I could scarcely see the blackened and dusty cylinder. Frankly, I was shocked. The other two, at least, were in good enough condition to be presentable-they were exact replicas, one quite recent. Facts? You can buy a vastly detailed set of drawings, to build your own! I bought but didn't. Even so, I noted some more mildly questionable items. Yes, there were grooves, pre-cut in the brass cylinder, as a million citizens have seen, without noticing, and as numerous readers have attested. Fact. But to my surprise, they were widely spaced out, with relatively enormous areas of flat "!and" between. Wasteful? Edison wouldn't seem to have been looking for maximum long play. Or (mystery) did he perhaps space them out in order to give the intervening foil enough latitude to stretch, so the indentations could fill each groove under the stylus without reaching a rip point? I would think so. Remember, no one had ever seen a phono groove before that one. Canny old Edison. Knew his stresses and strains.

So you see I create a new little speculation to replace each of my lost and answered old ones. But let me get on to the fun.

Talk about second hand info. Needless to say, the great churning vehicles of public audio information, and upon the larger national scene and that small area called the Rest of the World, have not overlooked the Centennial of recorded sound. It must be celebrated. And so-quick, out to the library! Get the PR going. And send somebody for a photo. That little round circle you see all over now, with 1877/1977 inside it, is merely the beginning, and, of course, on a macro scale it is informationally correct, too, though there remains a cute bit of mystery, the precise mini -moment of the exact day, Dec 6, 1877, when Mary first had her little lamb in the words of Thomas himself. Nobody seems to have worried about that mystery, but I do.

Because it's THERE. (Now don't go and tell me, and spoil it all.) Anyhow, there has to be more than a round seal. We must have press kits. And above all, pictures. Numerous organizations, small and large, and even a few organizations ( U.K.), have felt that urgent need. So, ha, ha, HA-what a glorious batch of First Phonos they have dug up for us to look at. You can hear my chuckles a mile away.

First, and biggest, is of course the U.S. govt itself, in the guise of its profit making (?) arm, the P.O. Gotta have a (profit making) commemorative stamp, and so we do. Worthy idea, hasten to say, and many a collector will be happy to own said stamp, for a consideration, in future years. As are we to see it now, gummed so colorfully to our fast (?) mail. So, will you kindly take a look at the First Phonograph so immortalized? If you need glasses to see that close, then get out your copy of one of our esteemed brother audio mags, which conveniently arranged to enlarge the stamp to full cover size for one of its Centennial issues.

Governmental Goofs

So the P.O. thinks THAT is the First Phono? It most certainly is not. It's the long, thin model with the big flywheel that appears in Matthew Brady's Washington photo of Edison, taken when Thomas A. went down to the Capital to indulge in a bit of well-earned publicity by playing his thing to the President and to Congress. According to an Edison biography, this was in April, 1878. And who, by the way, was the President? Do you think I'd know? But I can tell you. It was Rutherford B. Hayes. This machine, then, came some four months after the First Phonograph, clear out of the Centennial year. For shame, U.S. Govt! But maybe understandable. It was, in fact, the machine that appeared in the Nation's Capital and, after all, we know that burg is a land unto itself.

The stamp, of course, shows the first Washington phonograph. What else? Interesting differences. Evidently Edison had begun to realize the importance of steady pitch. The flywheel he added would have at least eliminated the more erratic ups and downs of the first hand -cranked model. I'll be willing to guess that Mary was marginally unintelligible not so much because of distortion and limited frequency range as simply because of the pitch erratics. That flywheel no doubt improved speech by a great deal and even made music a faint possibility.

So the U.S., wittingly or otherwise, is celebrating the Second Phonograph, officially speaking. Not the first. OK, I'll do you one better. How about that respectable, if somewhat less sizeable local institution of ours known as R.I.A.A., the Record Industry Association of America? Never can quite remember. Yes, it's the outfit that standardized the well known curve for disc recording, ending the war of the equalizations of years ago, and good riddance. It's the organization for all audio manufacturers who are into records in some form or another (and who isn't). Publicity Foibles

Anyhow, the R.I.A.A. naturally felt that as a leader in the field it should signalize, shall we say, the first signal, along with and maybe slightly ahead of the rest of us. But yes! And so-out go the people in charge-hired PR? And pictures, PICTURES! They dug 'em up and they sent 'em out, a folder of gorgeous glossies, printed captions along the margins, along with a complete press -release "History of the Phonograph." Interesting indeed and I read every word. The photo kit was excellent, even including a novel scene of early electrical orchestra recording before a single carbon mike, the one with the box underneath. (What they didn't notice was the studio, small and totally dead, hung all around with big heavy curtains to suppress any lingering room sound. At that time the marvelous usefulness of liveness had yet to be understood.

This was an acoustic -type recording made via electronics. They all were for a number of years into the electrical era-just try a few real oldies and see.) Another picture shows the youthful Peter Goldmark, then top man in CBS Labs, New York City, with the famed stack of 78 albums in a wooden frame around eight or nine feet high and Dr. G. holding the same albums in LP form (10 and 12 inch) in his two hands.

Do I remember-I was there at the press conference where this stunt was first pulled off to launch the original LP.

Well, finally, having got the photos in the wrong order, I reached picture No. 1. Guess wot. " Edison's original phonograph, patented in 1877, consisted of a piece of tin foil wrapped around a rotating cylinder. The vibrations of his voice as he spoke into a recording horn (sic) caused a stylus to cut grooves (sic) into the tin foil." That from R.I.A.A., who ought to know.

Second-hand info? If there was a "recording horn" on the First Phono, I have yet to see it. Unless you call the receiver on an old telephone a horn.

(A tiny horn in front, yes.) And if the stylus cut grooves, then, dear me, what a pile of shredded foil we would have had! But you ain't heard the whole of this R.I.A.A. story.

Picture No. 1, gorgeously detailed and shiny, was a photo of AN Edison type machine with brass cylinder. And grooves-but only over one half of the surface. Is that a layer of tin foil I can almost discern, half recorded? Do I see a joint, sort of, down near the bottom? (Yes, by the way, a reader tells me that indeed the tin foil phono did play with a repeated fast tick, tick, tick, over the joint, just as I had guessed. Another mystery shattered.) If so, this is the only picture of a brass -cylinder machine I have seen with the foil in place. It definitely was missing on the Three First Phonos I looked at in person.

First Phono Discord

But hey, what is this R.I.A.A. phonograph? IT IS NOT THE FIRST PHONOGRAPH. Nor is it the official Second, the one the P.O. uses. In plain fact, it is a model I have never seen before at all. Mystery, O happy days!

No flywheel, short, and yes, the fatter, shorter brass cylinder of the original model. It must be a very early type. It has a crank like No. 1 too (counterweighted for pitch control). But the solid metal base continues upwards in two curved pedestals, drilled partway up to take the main shaft with the cylinder (the far end threaded, not the near end as in the First Phono) and on the side -slanted top is a cross member holding a telephone -like diaphragm unit; it releases on one side via a handle. Nice scrollwork lines on base and handle. The original model's record and play units were fastened on the base itself, one on each side.

This one operates from above-and there is no second unit. Was this a record/play head? Looks that way.

The Washington model is the same.

So I'm guessing this is No. 1 1/2, early 1878, perhaps before the improved official Washington model of that April. Don't ask R.I.A.A. They still probably think it's the First Phonograph in all its glory. As does the P.O. with its model, on that stamp. How nice to have three versions! That's what you can do with second-hand info, and I'm all for it, if it makes for mystery.

P.S. Believe it or no, the A.E.S., taking over R.I.A.A.'s record history text, has published a booklet that also includes the R.I.A.A. wrong first phonograph, tastefully re -done from the photo into a drawing! As Abe Lincoln said ....

(Source: Audio magazine, Sept. 1977; Edward Tatnall Canby)

= = = =

Prev. | Next

Top of Page    Home

Updated: Thursday, 2016-12-08 18:33 PST