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Edison’s First Patented Phonograph of October 1877
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Edison’s First Patented Phonograph of October 1877

by Stephan Puille

Revised version. First published in: The Antique Phonograph, Vol. 30, No. 4, Victorville, CA, USA, December 2012, pp. 3-6 Link - Hier klicken

Edison’s U.S. patent 200,521, “Improvement in Phonograph or Speaking Machine”, patented on 19 February 1878, is unanimously regarded as his first phonograph patent. This can no longer be upheld after I found a now completely forgotten phonograph part of Edison's Canadian telephone patent, patented on 20 October 1877 in Ottawa. Three earlier forms of the phonograph were integral part of that patent. Only months afterwards the invention gained the appearance that we all know, the tinfoil phonograph.

It is not clearly identified when exactly Edison recorded sound for the first time with the intention to reproduce it. The historian Patrick Feaster defined the period “on or before 17 July 1877.“ (1) I always found it difficult to believe that Edison left his important invention unprotected for more than five months, until he applied for U.S. patent 200,521, “Improvement in Phonograph or Speaking Machine” on 24 December 1877. However, the invention was still too immature in July 1877 to be patented, and I am referring in this respect to the examination of the provisional specification of British patent No. 2909, “Improvement in Speaking Telegraphs,” dated 30 July 1877, by the London patent agents Brewer & Jensen. Although, principally, Brewer & Jensen were of the opinion that the nucleus of the phonograph showed up, they stated that

“... the phonograph had not apparently at the date of the provisional specification been discovered by Edison ... [and] the reproduction of the sounds by mechanical means only (without any connection with electricity) is not alluded to at all in the provisional specification.” (2)

Unlike the tinfoil model of December 1877, the phonograph of autumn 1877 cannot be imagined as a stand-alone device. It was rather conceptualized as an integral part of a telegraph circuit. Neither construction, mode of action, nor recording medium had been fixed, and many versions were tested and evaluated in the seven-weeks period between mid-July and early September 1877. (3)

On 7 September 1877 the phonograph seemed advanced enough to be presented to the public. The draft of a press release, accompanied by sketches of several early models, survived in Edison’s laboratory notes. Allegedly, the recording quality was so good that the voice characteristic of the speaker could be recognised. However, from today’s view, it was a wise decision to withdraw the press release:

Edison Phonograph. An apparatus for recording automatically the human voice and reproducing the same at any future period … It would seem that so wonderful result as this would require elaborate mechanery [sic.] on the contrary the apparatus although crude as yet is wonderfully simple.” (4)

At about this time the prospect of a lucrative business with the, supposedly, newly set-up Canadian Telephone + Telegraph Construction Co., combating Edison’s competitor Alexander Graham Bell in his own sphere of influence, convinced Edison to take out the Canadian telephone patent, which also included the phonograph, at his own expense:

Bell is making a stir in Canada but if I get your instrument here I will make it hot for him + will hurry forward matters as fast as possible.” (5)

The simultaneous registering of his patent in Russia, Spain, Italy, Austria, Germany, France and Belgium should be taken over by the investors Cornelius Herz and Stephen Dudley Field of the New California Electric Works. The phonograph part was to be included in the patent description, but the exploitation rights should be marketed separately:

It is further understood that the portion of the patent which pertains to apparatus for recording + reproducing the human voice + other sounds locally is not to be sold with the telephone apparatus ...” (6)

Herz and Fields never applied for the patent because they found it “worthless.” (7) Thus it was that the Canadian patent became the first to include Edison’s phonograph. New York patent attorney Lemuel Wright Serrell finished the papers on 20 September 1877. (8) They were signed and sworn by Edison before George T. Pinckney, notary public, Kings County, New York County on the same day.

Taissaint G. Coursolles, Edison’s solicitor in Ottawa, forwarded the patent application to the Canadian Department of Agriculture, to which at the time was also assigned the responsibility for patents. A few days after receipt on 11 October 1877, Joseph-Charles Taché, Deputy Minister of Agriculture and Statistics, and also Deputy Commissioner of Patents referred the papers to Rodolphe Laflamme, Minister of Justice who signed it without delay. Canadian patent 8026 for the “Speaking Telegraph” was patented on 20 October 1877.

As this patent is all but unknown and inaccessible in digital form I contacted the Canadian Intellectual Property Office (CIPO) for assistance. The CIPO staff was so kind to send me a xerox-copy of the documents at no cost! The twentieth claim of the patent describes the phonograph part:

The method herein specified for recording the undulations of the diaphragm or yielding material, and the reproduction of sound by such material acting upon a diaphragm to communicate to the same vibrations similar to the original ones ...” (9)

The description is accompanied by six drawings, two each of three different phonograph models, which I took to illustrate my article, supplemented by abstracts of its functioning taken from the patent description of Canadian patent 8026:

1. “Indented edge” phonograph

Figure 4 and 5:
The edged point of a recorder indents the knife-edge of a previously embossed paper, or of a substance deposited on the paper. The indented edge gives motion to the point of the reproducer.

2. “Dried ink” phonograph

Figure 7 and 8:
The recorder gives more or less pressure to a flexible inking-pen, the point of which rests upon paper. According to the pressure, the pen deposits more or less ink in a continuous line. The difference of friction between large and small quantities of dried ink moves a rod, resting with its point on the inked paper, and connected to the diaphragm of the reproducer.

3. “Bent wire” phonograph

Figure 14 and 15:
A thin wire passes through the eye of a pin connected to the diaphragm of the recorder. The diaphragm movement bends the wire just before it is embedded into a strip of paper by the pressure of two rollers. The resulting lateral undulations in the paper strip can then be used to reproduce the recorded sound.

I already described the "bent wire" phonograph, using a lateral recording and reproducing process(!), in The Sound Box of March 2006, the predecessor of The Antique Phonograph, and pointed out that it still showed up in U.S. Patent 200,521 of 24 December 1877 and in German patent 14308 of 24 January 1878. (10)

Apparently, Edison was of the opinion that, once the principle of the phonograph was patented, there was no urgent need to protect its major improvement of December 1877, the tinfoil phonograph. That is why neither in Canada nor in Europe patents for the tinfoil model were initially filed for. This led to considerable uncertainty by The Edison Speaking Phonograph Company some months later:

The documents herewith were sent to me by the Canadian patent office and the marked sections would seem to show that your patent of Oct. 17 for „Speaking Telegraph“ will not cover the [tinfoil] phonograph. I think immediate steps should be taken to secure your invention by patent in Canada.” (11)

Even if the phonograph model of autumn 1877 had become rather obsolete, it was still important enough to be considered in a contract negotiation more than one year later. When Edison sold his Canadian patent to The Gold & Stock Telegraph Co. of New York, on 21 January 1879, the immediate retransfer of the rights to the “twentieth clause of the claim of said letters patent 8025 [sic. 8026] and commonly known as the phonograph” was included in the deal. (12)

History books do not have to be rewritten after my discovery, but one thing is for sure: Edison's Canadian patent 8026 must be regarded as the founding patent of the phonograph. From now on it occupies a prominent place in the patent history of Edison’s phonograph.

(1) Patrick Feaster, “Perfectly Reproduced Slow or Fast”: A New Take on Edison’s First Playback of Sound, in: The Sound Box, Vol. 29, No. 1, March 2011, p. 7
(2) Brewer & Jensen to Vallance & Vallance, 4 July 1878 TAED HM780050
(3) Thomas Alva Edison, Charles Batchelor, James Adams, Laboratory Notes and Drawings, in: Unbound Notebooks, Vol. 12, 17 August 1877 TAED NV12108
(4) Thomas Alva Edison, Press release, in: Unbound Notebooks, Vol. 17, 7 September 1877 TAED NV17013
(5) Robert Watson Jr. to Thomas Alva Edison, 27 August 1877 TAED D7719ZAT
(6) Cornelius Herz, George H. Bliss, Stephen Dudley Field, Thomas Alva Edison, Contract, 19 September 1877 TAED D7719ZBZ
(7) Charles Batchelor to George H. Bliss, 6 December 1877 TAED MBLB1237
(8) Lemuel Wright Serrell to Edison, 19 September 1877 TAED D7715ZAA
(9) Canadian Patent Office, Patent No. 8026, Thomas Alva Edison, of Menlo Park, New Jersey, Speaking Telegraph, patented 20 October 1877, application filed 11 October 1877
(10) Stephan Puille, Tinfoil Phonographs in Germany, Supplement to Part 1, in: The Sound Box, Vol. 24, No. 1, March 2006, pp. 21-22
(11) Charles E. Bailey and The Edison Speaking Phonograph Company to Thomas Alva Edison, 10 July 1878 TAED D7828ZBL
(12) The Gold & Stock Telegraph Co. to Thomas Alva Edison, Assignment, 31 January 1879 TAED D7939J

[ Edited Sat Jan 02 2016, 12:41pm ]
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