The History of Communication Technology


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By Adam Kennedy,

In the late 1870’s, as Thomas Edison was in his heyday of creating and improving on communications devices, he was struck with the dilemma of making the telephone the main medium of communication. The problem was however, the telegraph’s message could quickly be recorded and sent out to a recipient in a telegram. With a phone call, the message had to be listened to by a person then written down and sent out. Edison theorized that having a device record the voice on the telephone, and then used to playback later would be the ultimate answer. Enter the Edison Phonograph.

The Edison Phonograph

While working with the telephone and telegraph, Edison was using an electrical diaphragm to make a voice into an electrical signal and a stylus connected to a telegraph to make dots and dashes on paper to independently record telegraph signals. After working with the two for some period of time in 1877, Edison had the idea to converge the two together and attempt to make a machine that records voice. He took the stylus from the telegraph and attached it to a diaphragm connected to a telephone. Edison spoke into his new contraption and the stylus clearly made an indentation on the paper when he spoke. When he played it back however, there was just some static noise. This was headway though, Edison proved that his voice could be recorded, it just needed modifications and more research, the invention at this time was rough and spur of the moment after all. Edison and his associates went back to the drawing board for several more months to perfect the phonograph.

On December 3 1877, Edison had done it, he had come up with plans for the machine and had it assembled in his workshop. This time, important modifications were made. Instead of using paper as a medium of recording, he used tin foil to record the sound waves. Also, the tin foil was made into a cylinder; the cylinder would rotate around in a circle with a stylus touching it. When sound waves vibrated, the stylus was touching the tin cylinder, it would indent the tin making a perfect copy of the sound.

How the phonograph works

The first audio recorded and played back was Edison saying the nursery rhyme, “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”
Edison soon got bored with the invention and did not do much with it for the next several years. Other inventers soon discovered the great invention and began to work with it themselves. In 1886, one of these men was a man by the name of Charles Sumner Tainter of the Alexander Graham Bell Company. He took the idea of the tin cylinder and changed it into wax and used a less rigid stylus, the result was an improved phonograph with better quality of playback. They called it the graphophone.

Once Edison was done making his new invention, the light bulb, his competitive personality brought him back to the phonograph. He wanted to make his phonograph better than the Bell Company’s graphophone. When he was done with his improvements, a businessman, Jesse H. Lippincott, bought all of the phonograph companies including Edison’s, and attempted to make a monopoly out of the phonograph industry. Lippincott would only rent the machines out to businesses and not sell them. This was greatly opposed and his idea to not go over to well, he became sick in 1890 and Edison took control of the company. Once Edison had control, he ended the rental policy and began to sell the phonographs.

In 1894, Edison made a brilliant business move, he declared bankruptcy of the North American Phonograph company of which he did not own, and then bought the company back. With the company now under his control, he made a step in the direction that we are all thankful for today, home entertainment. Edison began to market the phonograph to standard people for entertainment. The price of the device fell dramatically and was more available to the consumer. Edison cylinders typically played music, but it was not uncommon for the cylinders to be comic shorts.

There were two main problems with Edison cylinders, first of all, they only played for about two minutes and there was no means of mass reproduction for the cylinders. That means that if a singer is performing a song for example, they can only record a few cylinders at a time. Therefore, the singer had to sing the song numerous times just to make enough cylinders to sell.

The problem was solved in 1901 when Edison came up was a method to mass-produce the wax cylinders. A master cylinder would be made from gold, and then the gold master would be used as a mold to make the duplicate wax cylinders. The benefits of mass production were quite evident in that the price of wax cylinders fell to about 35 cents apiece.

As time went on, competitors began to use circular discs instead of cylinders, they provided more playback time, however the sound quality was not as good, it was a give take situation. Edison opposed the idea of the disc, however almost everyone else switched to the disc because of the longer playtime, which was seen as to be more important. Eventually in 1913 Edison gave in and started to produce what we now know as records.
From here on, the phonograph turns into what we see it as today, early models were crank operated and had a large horn as a speaker, they were knows as victrolas. The now “record player,” would shape the century providing musical entertainment to anyone who wanted it. The phonograph played a role in toys, time announcing clocks, books for the blind, and family records. Additionally, the phonograph made talking movies possible, Edison was the frontrunner of the cinema and it could not have been possible if he had not made the phonograph years earlier.
Edison’s phonograph played an integral role in World War I. He made a special machine the soldiers could take with them to the battlefront to help raise moral and remind them of home.

Phonograph cylinders

The world would be a different place today if it were not for the invention of the phonograph, music is an essential part of people’s lives around the globe; it is a way of expression and a reflection of oneself. The ability to playback music shaped all the generations of the twentieth century, every teenager’s life revolves around music. The phonograph played a gigantic role on the transmission of ideas from one place to another. Especially with the usage of the cinema, news could be broadcast, and with the help of the phonograph, educate cultures about one another. Without the phonograph, the culture of the world, without a doubt, would be completely different.