Edison’s Talking Machine

In 1877 Thomas Edison invented the first device to ever record and play back sound. Soundwaves captured by a mouthpiece caused a stylus attached to a diaphragm to move up and down, making indentations on a sheet of tinfoil wrapped around a rotating drum. In playback, the stylus traced those indentations, causing the diaphragm to recreate a recognizable version of the original sound.

Thomas Edison with his tinfoil phonograph, 1878

Thomas Edison with his tinfoil phonograph, 1878

Courtesy of Library of Congress

Listening in Public

Thomas Edison’s “talking machine” was a public sensation. It—not the light bulb—earned him the moniker “Wizard of Menlo Park.” Americans first read about the device in the papers, but soon witnessed it for themselves at public demonstrations around the country. They were in awe. This machine could capture a sound and transport it to the future.

One of the tinfoil phonographs used for demonstrations, around 1878

Edison tin foil recording, fragment

Sales of Thomas Edison’s tinfoil phonograph were poor—its recordings were fragile and short-lived—and he abandoned it. Nearly a decade later, spurred by competition from Alexander Graham Bell, Edison made multiple improvements and introduced new machines that found popular appeal. The Edison Home Phonograph, first manufactured in 1896, played individually prerecorded wax cylinders.

Edison cylinder record box

Edison cylinder record box

Meet Edison's Tinfoil Phonograph from 1877

This is the earliest machine for recording and playing recorded sound. See how it works in this video with Curator Carlene Stephens.

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