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Development of the Phonograph at Alexander Graham Bell's Volta Laboratory   By:

Development of the Phonograph at Alexander Graham Bell's Volta Laboratory by Leslie J. Newville

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The fame of Thomas A. Edison rests most securely on his genius for making practical application of the ideas of others. However, it was Alexander Graham Bell, long a Smithsonian Regent and friend of its third Secretary S. P. Langley, who, with his Volta Laboratory associates made practical the phonograph, which has been called Edison's most original invention.

THE AUTHOR: Leslie J. Newville wrote this paper while he was attached to the office of the curator of Science and Technology in the Smithsonian Institution's United States National Museum.

The story of Alexander Graham Bell's invention of the telephone has been told and retold. How he became involved in the difficult task of making practical phonograph records, and succeeded (in association with Charles Sumner Tainter and Chichester Bell), is not so well known.

But material collected through the years by the U. S. National Museum of the Smithsonian Institution now makes clear how Bell and two associates took Edison's tinfoil machine and made it reproduce sound from wax instead of tinfoil. They began their work in Washington, D. C., in 1879, and continued until granted basic patents in 1886 for recording in wax.

Preserved at the Smithsonian are some 20 pieces of experimental apparatus, including a number of complete machines. Their first experimental machine was sealed in a box and deposited in the Smithsonian archives in 1881. The others were delivered by Alexander Graham Bell to the National Museum in two lots in 1915 and 1922. Bell was an old man by this time, busy with his aeronautical experiments in Nova Scotia.

It was not until 1947, however, that the Museum received the key to the experimental "Graphophones," as they were called to differentiate them from the Edison machine. In that year Mrs. Laura F. Tainter donated to the Museum 10 bound notebooks, along with Tainter's unpublished autobiography.[1] This material describes in detail the strange machines and even stranger experiments which led in 1886 to a greatly improved phonograph.

Thomas A. Edison had invented the phonograph in 1877. But the fame bestowed on Edison for this startling invention (sometimes called his most original) was not due to its efficiency. Recording with the tinfoil phonograph is too difficult to be practical. The tinfoil tears easily, and even when the stylus is properly adjusted, the reproduction is distorted and squeaky, and good for only a few playbacks. Nevertheless young Edison, the "wizard" as he was called, had hit upon a secret of which men had dreamed for centuries.[2] Immediately after this discovery, however, he did not improve it, allegedly because of an agreement to spend the next five years developing the New York City electric light and power system.

[Illustration: Figure 1. CHARLES SUMNER TAINTER (1854 1940) from a photograph taken in San Diego, California, 1919. ( Smithsonian photo 42729 A. )]

Meanwhile Bell, always a scientist and experimenter at heart, after his invention of the telephone in 1876 was looking for new worlds to conquer. If we accept Tainter's version of the story, it was through Gardiner Green Hubbard that Bell took up the phonograph challenge. Bell had married Hubbard's daughter Mabel in 1879. Hubbard was then president of the Edison Speaking Phonograph Co., and his organization, which had purchased the Edison patent, was having trouble with its finances because people did not like to buy a machine which seldom worked well and proved difficult for an unskilled person to operate.

In 1879 Hubbard got Bell interested in improving the machine, and it was agreed that a laboratory should be set up in Washington. Experiments were also to be conducted on the transmission of sound by light, and this resulted in the selenium cell Photophone, patented in 1881... Continue reading book >>

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