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May-Jun 2005

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Edison’s Tin-foil Phonograph in Ontario
by Arthur E. Zimmerman

This article explores the reactions to the revolution launched through the tin-foil phonograph as reflected in contemporary newspapers. All newspapers cited are from 1878, unless otherwise noted.

Introduction and Terminology

Thomas A. Edison of Menlo Park, New Jersey, had his new concept of a hand-cranked tin-foil phonograph built and tested in early December 1877. He filed an application for an "Improvement in Phonograph or Speaking Machines" with the United States Patent Office on December 24, and the patent, No. 200,521, was granted on February 19, 1878. The Canadian patent, No. 9282, was granted on October 19, 1878. The term "phonograph" had been invented by F.B. Fenby of Worcester, Mass., for a complex device that he called an "Electro Magnetic Phonograph", patented in 1863 but never built (FTFTS p. 6). In late 1877, the editor of Scientific American responded to a letter from Edison’s press representative, E.H. Johnson, describing an early Edison phonographic device involving a ribbon of paper with a raised V-shaped boss that was moved past a diaphragm-activated embossing point by a clockwork drum. The editorial was titled "A Wonderful Invention - Speech Capable of Indefinite Repetition from Automatic Records" (SA Vol. 37 #20, Nov. 17, 1877, p. 304). This new sense of "record" was first used in the phrase "gramophone record" in 1896, according to the Shorter Oxford (3rd edition, revised, 1947).

The Tin-foil Phonograph on Exhibition

Several shops built some 600 variegated copies of the elegantly simple tin-foil apparatus under licence for demonstration in early 1878, because Edison was eager for publicity. The Edison Speaking Phonograph Company was established under licence by a syndicate for demonstration purposes as early as January 24, 1878. People were fully as astonished as Edison was when he first tried it out and in early demonstrations the publicity intimated that the machine was some sort of clever little imp which had incredibly life-like imitative powers: "The phonograph never speaks until it has first been spoken to. Herein it also offers a worthy admonition to many ambitious but inexperienced writers. It has no original ideas to advance, or else is possessed of that spirit of modesty which precludes the possibility of annoying the public with unripe fantasies and crude speculations" (Harper’s Weekly, March 30, 1878, pp. 21, 45 ).

Prof. J.W.S. Arnold, in a lecture-demonstration at Chickering Hall, New York City, presented the young phonograph, "a little machine that at first sight appeared to be an ordinary crimping machine", along with a vast array of mysterious scientific instruments. The little phonograph "was seen to consist of a little fly wheel with a polished outer surface grooved with a delicate spiral thread (NOTE: specified in the patent as 10 threads to the inch). Its axle was also grooved spirally so as to run sideways, and was attached to a crank handle. On one side was an adjustable iron arm with a hole at the top, on the under side of which was a piece of ferrotype plate clamped on both sides around the edges by pieces of India rubber so as to leave free a surface only a fraction of an inch in diameter in the middle. Attached beneath this was a steel point which touched the face of the wheel. Professor Arnold placed a narrow strip of tin foil covered with little pin pricks in spiral circles on the face of the wheel, fastening the edges with gum. Then he held a paper funnel over the hole in the adjustable arm and turned the crank. The first result was a succession of wheezy sounds, which nobody understood. The Professor ran the wheel back to its original position and tried again slowly this time. Then was heard quite distinctly the story of Mary had a little lamb in the voice of a decrepit old man with his mouth full of water. A third trial, the crank being turned very fast, elicited a repetition of the story in the shrill voice of an angry old woman heard at a distance, but perfectly audible. Another slip was placed upon the wheel - a virgin one this time - and the Professor talked, shouted and sang at it, all of which was correctly repeated by the phonograph afterward...." He then mounted an already-indented strip of foil onto the mandrel and shouted "absurd orders at it at intervals", which it subsequently reproduced as an over-dubbing on the original: "Mary had a little - oh shut up - lamb. Its fleece was white - give us a rest - as snow. And everywhere - go to bed - that Mary went the lamb was sure to go - How’s that?" After some closer demonstrations for the public and a prediction by Arnold’s assistant, Dr. Miller, that the machine would be improved upon "hereafter", the Professor removed the enchanted tinfoil strip, tore it up and let the crowd scramble for the souvenir scraps (NYT Mar. 24, p. 2).

In the patent application, Edison predicted that:

    "The indented material may be detached from the machine and preserved for any length of time, and by replacing the foil in a proper manner the original speaker’s voice can be reproduced, and the same may be repeated frequently, as the foil is not changed in shape if the apparatus is properly adjusted.

    "The record, if it be upon tin foil, may be stereotyped by means of the plaster of paris process, and from the stereotype multiple copies may be made expeditiously and cheaply by casting or by pressing tin-foil or other material upon it. This is valuable when musical compositions are required for numerous machines."

Edison himself gave an exhibition of the little machine in Washington, D.C. on April 19 for a large group of Senators and Representatives, and the device reproduced the voices of Messrs. Garfield, Cox and others with "remarkable accuracy". He also demonstrated it for President Rutherford B. Hayes at the White House. The inventor declared that the improved phonograph would be ready for use in four or five months for business letter dictation - any "office boy, who need not be a shorthand writer, can write it down at any time, as rapidly or slowly as he desires" - for bringing good music and elocution into the home - Adelina Patti might sing "Blue Danube" into the phonograph and Edison would reproduce the perforated tin-foil recording and sell it in sheets for reproduction in any parlour - for preserving the tones of the great and, more specifically, for preserving the accents of two rapidly disappearing aboriginal languages (NYT Apr. 20, p. 1).

A few months after the initial patent approval, Edison and his agents were telling people that they would soon be able to buy the spoken texts of complete novels and extended musical numbers in manufactured foil sheets for mounting and playing on their own phonographs. Handling delicate tin-foil strips, lining them up and mounting them correctly into place on the spiral-engraved mandrels, was technically very challenging, even for practiced hands. The Edison people continued making these claims through June of that year (HS June 4, p .2), but the primeval tin-foil technology is not what they were secretly envisioning. They were not really thinking about cylinder machines and manipulating flimsy sheets of fragile tin-foil. At that time, Edison was furiously working on a disc and turntable adaptation of his cylinder machine (British Patent Application No. 1644, April 24, 1878, FTFTS pp. 28A-28T; "The Edison Invention of the Phonograph" by Ray Wile, ARSC J., Vol. XIV #2, p. 5), his "phonet" idea. The disc format would allow him to press great numbers of copies of long-playing recordings onto sturdier copper foil discs, which could be easily dropped onto a flat turntable for playing and removed for storage and repeated plays. This "phonet" concept never materialized and no prototypes exist. It never came to fruition because Edison encountered severe problems with inner groove distortion in the disc format, and then he abandoned all work on sound recording to devote his time to developing and perfecting the electric light bulb.

Some time in the spring of 1878, the Edison Speaking Phonograph Company’s General Manager, James Redpath, divided the continent into territories and leased the exhibition rights for the tin-foil phonograph to contracted agents who were obliged to report to him regularly and to remit the admission fees collected (FTFTS p. 26).

The Tin-foil Phonograph in Ottawa

Edison’s agents turned up in Canada in the late spring of 1878, giving public demonstrations of the tin-foil phonograph in large halls, at 25˘ a head. It was announced that the Ontario agents, Messrs. Orson G. McCall and George U. Danforth of New York, were bringing the Speaking Phonograph on a tour of the province while J.E. Gove had the contract for Quebec. McCall and Danforth were reported making arrangements in Ottawa on Tuesday, May 14 (although they were actually in Toronto on the 14th and 15th), and the exhibition was announced for St. James’ Hall, commencing Thursday, May16 "for a few days only" (OC May 14, p. 4; May 16, p.1). That Thursday afternoon, the two agents took the wonderful invention to Rideau Hall, where it was demonstrated for their Excellencies Governor General Lord Dufferin and the Countess (OC May 17, p. 4). In her memoir of Canada ("My Canadian Journal" by the Marchioness of Dufferin and Ava, London, 1891, p. 382 - her diary entry for the event, however, specified the morning of Friday, May 17), Lady Dufferin wrote that the first time her husband spoke into the machine, ".....he spoke too loud and tore the tinfoil". She observed that "It is quite a small thing, a cylinder which you turn with a handle, and which you place on a common table. We were so amazed when we first heard this bit of iron speak that it was hard to believe there was no trick! But we all tried it. Fred sang ‘Old Obadiah’, D(ufferin) made it talk Greek, the Colonel sang a French song, and all our vocal efforts were repeated. As long as the same piece of tin-foil is kept on the instrument you can hear all you have said over and over again; and the inventor will soon have completed a flat instrument (A.E.Z. note: that is, the disc-playing "phonet" machine), in which you will be able to put in old sayings of yours, or of others, and hear them again..... The last performance was for D(ufferin) to say something which should be repeated by the machine to a public exhibition in Ottawa in the evening. When D(ufferin) had finished, it was repeated to us by the machine, and was, we hope, again delivered with good effect in the evening."

The Citizen reported the next day, "His Excellency made a brief speech (into the phonograph) which was ground out in his voice last night to the intense satisfaction of those who visited St. James’ Hall." (OC May 17, p. 4). McCall and Danforth repeated the exhibition on Friday evening, the 17th, before "a large number of citizens" (OC May 18, p. 4).

The Tin-foil Phonograph in Toronto

Advertisements began to appear in the Toronto newspapers on May 15, promoting the exhibition of Edison’s phonograph, the wonderful talking machine, beginning on Thursday the 16th at the Hall, formerly the Church of the Ascension, on King Street opposite the Rossin House ("The Palace Hotel of Canada, the only first class hotel in Canada with graduated prices": $2, $2.50 and $3 per day). Robertson’s "Landmarks of Toronto" identifies the Hall as a large upper room above W.H. Rice’s Toronto Wire Works at #116, on the north side of King West near York Street. Hours of exhibition were 10 to 12, 2 to 5 and 7 to 9, evenings, admission 25˘.

The press had a private half-hour showing at the Rossin House on the afternoon of the14th. The Mail reporter observed: "Looking at the machine, one could never imagine that such a plain-looking thing could imitate the human voice in all its variations. It is formed of a six-inch cylinder of steel with a face almost eight inches wide and cut with a spiral groove about twenty-five to an inch. The cylinder is mounted on a shaft a couple of feet in length and an inch in diameter which is in turn supported by a couple of uprights fastened onto a single bed piece. A crank at one end of the shaft and a screw cut at the other with thread corresponding to that on the face of the cylinder, causes the face of the latter to advance at each revolution and a sharp metallic point fastened to the metal diaphragm of a small mouth-piece accurately follows the groove when the machine is in motion. A covering of tin foil is placed over the face of the cylinder, the attendant speaks into the mouthpiece, turning the crank at the same time, and the metallic point makes depressions of the tin foil exactly corresponding to the sound made. On again passing over the uneven surface the point follows the set outline, and an exact reproduction of the original sound is the result. In appearance the machine suggests a small lathe with a pulley of broad face mounted for finish." Mr. McCall quoted a portion of Poe’s "Raven", dictated several letters and sang a verse of "Yankee Doodle", all of which the machine repeated perfectly (TDM May 15, p. 4). On Wednesday, the 15th, McCall visited Government House and gave an exhibition to the Lieutenant- Governor of Ontario and the Misses Macdonald, "who expressed much satisfaction with the result" (TDM May 17, p. 4).

The Mail, inexplicably, reported the phonograph on exhibit at the Hall opposite the Rossin House and drawing large numbers on the 16th and 17th (TDM May 17, p. 4; May 18, p.4), but it had to have been showing in Ottawa at that time. None of the press reports indicated that McCall and Danforth had leased two machines, so the Toronto newspapers were likely promoting the wonders of the revolutionary instrument prematurely.

From the description given here and later in Hamilton (HS June 4, p. 2), the machine that toured Ontario had an axle-shaft or crank that was two or three feet in length and a large fly-wheel ("a pulley of broad face"). It might well have been one of those manufactured for Edison by S. Bergmann, New York (FTFTS p. 20). The drawing on the contemporary advertisements, showing Marie Rôze singing into the phonograph (see cover), does not resemble known models, but it does show a large fly-wheel on the end of the crank. On the other hand, the machine shown in the so-called "Mathew Brady" photograph does have a long axle-shaft and large fly-wheel.

McCall explained the workings of the machine several times a day to large crowds, including many clergymen and leading citizens: "a snatch of a song, imitations of a cock crowing, a whistled tune, the notes of a cornet, and the sound of laughing were returned to the ear of the listener with most comical fidelity, and with sufficient loudness and distinctness to be appreciated at the far side of the hall. To assist in its evolution (of sound), a funnel is placed on the mouth-piece, but this is not an essential...." (TG May 20, p. 4). The Mail noted that the Archbishop and many clergy had viewed the machine the day before with surprise and amusement and that Mr. McCall received a telegram from Mr. Edison on the 21st "saying that the invention had been so perfected that it will record a speech spoken fifteen feet from the instrument" (TDM May 22, p. 4). Toward the end of the Toronto run, McCall announced an extension for another week (ET May 27, p. 4), published a local poem, "Address to the Phonograph "(ET May 29, p.1), and invited teachers "to make special arrangements for special exhibitions for scholars" at 10˘ each (TDM May 27 -29, p. 2). In fact, Mr. James Hughes, Inspector of Public Schools, exhorted "all to go and see this wonderful invention" (TDM May 30, 31 and June 1, p. 2). On the 29th, the Mail announced "The phonograph speaks at Hamilton next week" (TDM May 29, p. 4).

The Tin-foil Phonograph in Hamilton

The "first public exhibition in Hamilton, Ontario, of Edison’s marvellous phonograph - the machine which talks, laughs, weeps and sings, and which imitates any mortal sound which can be produced" was given at 2:00 and 7:30 p.m. in Pronguey’s Hall on Monday June 3, 1878, before many churchmen and other leading citizens of the place. The exhibition by Messrs. McCall and Danforth was to run all week and admission was still 25˘. Mr. McCall described the machine as consisting of "a simple cast iron cylinder, about eight inches long and four inches in diameter, with a horizontal shaft about three feet long. This shaft rests in two arms and has a handle at one end to turn the cylinder with, the whole resting on a cast iron frame at the base. The surface of the cylinder and shaft is planed smooth, and a spiral thread is cut into the whole length of the cylinder and the shaft, 16 to the inch, as to enable the whole cylinder to move to the right or left as the handle is revolved. Attached to the base is an adjustable standard or arm that supports an ordinary mouth-piece similar in structure to the mouth-piece of the telephone. To the under part of the diaphragm, or disk, in the mouth-piece is attached a portion of an ordinary No. 9 sewing needle. The cylinder is now covered with common tin-foil, and the mouthpiece adjusted to the cylinder so that the point of the needle slightly indents the surface of the tin-foil. The cylinder is next revolved, and words are spoken into the mouth-piece, and the sound waves, caused by the speaking, cause the diaphragm, or disk, to vibrate and make the point of the needle (as it traverses the tin-foil along the spiral grooves) to indent or cut into this plastic surface of the tin-foil the sound waves. Thus, on reversing the cylinder and placing the point of the needle over that portion of the foil where it first started and revolving the cylinder, the sound waves are generated by the vibrations of the plate or disc, as the needle re-traverses the cylinder, causing the machine to give forth from this vibrating plate exact words or notes thrown upon it."

McCall had the machine repeat in his Yankee twang and in different modulations of voice that it was the wonder of the 19th century, then a quotation from Scott, "Breathes there a man with soul so dead.....", something from Poe’s "Raven", a whistled tune and a verse of "Yankee Doodle", but the piece that gave the most enjoyment was a little racist ditty. McCall told them that the sounds could be reproduced from the ordinary sort of foil about 50 to 75 times, but that in the perfected machine, Edison was going to use copper plate foil and that could be played back many thousands of times. He predicted "a complete revolution in the book and musical world" because a ten-inch square foil could be made to contain 40,000 words - a whole Dickens novel at 1/4 the cost - which people could mount and play on their phonographs and repeat it at their pleasure "in the author’s own words". Again, this was a covert reference to the disc-playing "phonet" machine, development of which had by now been abandoned. Rev. Mr. Carmichael wanted to know if the phonograph could record a kiss because that would be invaluable for love-letters. Mr McCall opined (incorrectly) that, as the kiss is a drawing in of air rather than a giving out, a kiss would not record. The improved phonographs would, however, be sensitive to sounds at a distance of sixteen feet, thus eliminating the need for the mouth-piece, and would available for purchase in Hamilton by the middle of October at a cost of $100 (HS June 4, p. 2).

The End of the Road for the Tin-foil Phonograph

James Redpath wrote to McCall in Hamilton on June 5, sympathizing with his bad luck in attracting customers, but not from any failure in managerial ability. He regretted that he could not offer McCall a better territory to work. (from the letterbook of James Redpath, Uriah H. Painter Papers, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, through the courtesy of Paul Israel, Thomas A. Edison Papers, Rutgers University, Piscataway, N.J.) Advertisements for the exhibition in Hamilton continued through June 10, but the Spectator did not announce the next stop (HS June 10, p. 4, et seq.).

On June 17th, Redpath wrote to agents O.G. McCall in St. Catharines and to J.E. Gove in Quebec, to inform them that the Company was "exceedingly dissatisfied, not with their management of the exhibitions in Canada....." but with the fact that they had violated the terms of their leases by not making daily reports of the money taken in on behalf of the Company. If the violations persisted, their leases would be immediately revoked. Then, on July 1, 1878, he wrote to both agents informing them that their leases were cancelled because of failure to make reports and to send in remittances, as required. Since Gove was the bondsman for both groups, he was to remit all fees, to notify McCall that his lease was cancelled and to return the phonographs. To this point, both agents had "persisted in giving exhibitions" and in refusing to make their financial returns to Redpath and the Company (ibid.).

To scientists, the new phenomenon of recording sounds was something worth serious investigation. In Glasgow, Professor Fleming Jenkin and Mr. A. J. Ewing were attempting to read the indentations on the tin-foil, looking for recognizable patterns based upon their own little library of recorded vowels and consonants. They were also cavorting with recorded words played backward and puzzling over reversing palindromic phrases, such as Adam’s salutation to the first woman, "Madam, I’m Adam" (HS June 14, p. 3; TG July 20, p. 2).

By mid-summer, however, the novelty of and excitement about the little hand-cranked phonograph were rapidly wearing off for the public. The sound reproduction was weak and metallic, spoken word came out bleated and was difficult to understand, and the small bag of tricks devised to astonish the public, such as the sequential superposition onto the same foil of spoken and musical accompaniments, was losing its power to impress. The instrument was really just an ingenious toy, and was obviously yet incapable of fulfilling the many practical roles that Edison and his agents were predicting for it. In a prospectus of the attractions at the annual Chicago Exposition, where the chief sensations were to be "the restoration of a mammoth" from Prof. Ward’s Scientific Museum at Rochester, N.Y., and the fiery immolation of ten new exposition buildings and a 4000-seat grandstand, Edison’s invention was already being looked down upon as "the longsuffering phonograph" (TG Sept 5, p. 3).

A kind of post-script to the short and inglorious career of the tin-foil phonograph turned up in mid-1881, when President Bentley of the Philadelphia Local Telegraph Company was interviewed about his work on a large phonographic appliance that would be able to receive and preserve messages, taken from the telephone lines, on tin-foil. This was a revival of the original idea behind Edison’s paper-ribbon phonograph (SA Vol. 37 #20, Nov. 17, 1877, p. 304). Bentley justified his adaptation of Edison’s invention, declaring, "....the phonograph has never been of the slightest value except as a curiosity, but by making it receive the messages from the telephone and preserving them it will become of value....." In early August 1881, a reporter visited Sigmund Bergmann & Co., 110 Wooster Street, New York (404 Wooster Street, according to FTFTS p. 20), a firm which made many of Edison’s instruments. Edison was there too that day, and Bergmann confirmed that Edison had been working on such a telephonic phonograph machine himself and had sent a model of it to the Electrical Exhibition in Paris. Edison had had to contrive an electrical motor adaptation for the hand-cranked machine in order to get his phonograph accepted into the Electrical Exhibition at all (TG Aug. 4, 1881, p. 7). Nothing came of either answering machine device.

Bibliographic Key: All newspapers are from 1878, unless otherwise noted.
ARSC J. = Association for Recorded Sound Collections Journal
ET= Toronto Evening Telegram
FTFTS = "From Tin Foil to Stereo" - Oliver Read and Walter L. Welch, H.W. Sams & Co., Indianapolis, 2nd edition, 1976
HS = Hamilton Spectator
NYT = New York Times
OC = Ottawa Citizen
SA = Scientific American
TDM = Toronto Daily/Evening Mail
TG = Toronto Globe

Many thanks to Bill Pratt for supplying a copy of the dated flyer and thus drawing to my attention the exhibition of the tin-foil phonograph in Toronto in 1878, to Paul Dodington for identifying the singer, to Allen Koenigsberg for identifying the source, to the City of Toronto Archives and to Paul Israel of Edison Archives at Rutgers University for archival assistance.

Arthur E. Zimmerman is the author of "In the Shadow of the Shield", one of the best books on the history of regional radio in Canada. He is still working on a book on the earliest years of the Montreal and Toronto Marconi radio stations, XWA / CFCF and CHCB, respectively, and is searching for copies of early Canadian radio magazines, circa 1920-23. He can be reached at (416)-923-2001.