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.
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
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 Home Phonograph
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.