Thomas Alva Edison
In Menlo Park, NJ
HIS LIFE AND INVENTIONS
FRANK LEWIS DYER
GENERAL COUNSEL FOR THE EDISON LABORATORY
AND ALLIED INTERESTS
THOMAS COMMERFORD MARTIN
EX-PRESIDENT OF THE AMERICAN INSTITUTE
OF ELECTRICAL ENGINEERS
Published in New York by Harper Brothers, 1929
AT the opening of the Electrical Show in New York City in October, 1908, to celebrate the jubilee of the Atlantic Cable and the first quarter century of lighting with the Edison service on Manhattan Island, the exercises were all conducted by means of the Edison phonograph. This included the dedicatory speech of Governor Hughes, of New York; the modest remarks of Mr. Edison, as president; the congratulations of the presidents of several national electric bodies, and a number of vocal and instrumental selections of operatic nature. All this was heard clearly by a very large audience, and was repeated on other evenings. The same speeches were used again phonographically at the Electrical Show in Chicago in 1909--and now the records are preserved for reproduction a hundred or a thousand years hence. This tour de force, never attempted before, was merely an exemplification of the value of the phonograph not only in establishing at first hand the facts of history, but in preserving the human voice. What would we not give to listen to the very accents and tones of the Sermon on the Mount, the orations of Demosthenes, the first Pitt's appeal for American liberty, the Farewell of Washington, or the Address at Gettysburg? Until Edison made his wonderful invention in 1877, the human race was entirely without means for preserving or passing on to posterity its own linguistic utterances or any other vocal sound. We have some idea how the ancients looked and felt and wrote; the abundant evidence takes us back to the cave-dwellers. But all the old languages are dead, and the literary form is their embalmment. We do not even know definitely how Shakespeare's and Goldsmith's plays were pronounced on the stage in the theatres of the time; while it is only a guess that perhaps Chaucer would sound much more modern than he scans.
The analysis of sound, which owes so much to Helmholtz, was one step toward recording; and the various means of illustrating the phenomena of sound to the eye and ear, prior to the phonograph, were all ingenious. One can watch the dancing little flames of Koenig, and see a voice expressed in tongues of fire; but the record can only be photographic. In like manner, the simple phonautograph of Leon Scott, invented about 1858, records on a revolving cylinder of blackened paper the sound vibrations transmitted through a membrane to which a tiny stylus is attached; so that a human mouth uses a pen and inscribes its sign vocal. Yet after all we are just as far away as ever from enabling the young actors at Harvard to give Aristophanes with all the true, subtle intonation and inflection of the Athens of 400 B.C. The instrument is dumb. Ingenuity has been shown also in the invention of "talking-machines," like Faber's, based on the reed organ pipe. These autom- ata can be made by dexterous manipulation to jabber a little, like a doll with its monotonous "ma-ma," or a cuckoo clock; but they lack even the sterile utility of the imitative art of ventriloquism. The real great invention lies in creating devices that shall be able to evoke from tinfoil, wax, or composition at any time to-day or in the future the sound that once was as evanescent as the vibrations it made on the air.
Contrary to the general notion, very few of the great modern inventions have been the result of a sudden inspiration by which, Minerva-like, they have sprung full-fledged from their creators' brain; but, on the contrary, they have been evolved by slow and gradual steps, so that frequently the final advance has been often almost imperceptible. The Edison phonograph is an important exception to the general rule; not, of course, the phonograph of the present day with all of its mechanical perfection, but as an instrument capable of recording and reproducing sound. Its invention has been frequently attributed to the discovery that a point attached to a telephone diaphragm would, under the effect of sound-waves, vibrate with sufficient force to prick the finger. The story, though interesting, is not founded on fact; but, if true, it is difficult to see how the discovery in question could have contributed materially to the ultimate accomplishment. To a man of Edison's perception it is absurd to suppose that the effect of the so-called discovery would not have been made as a matter of deduction long before the physical sensation was experienced. As a matter of fact, the invention of the phonograph was the result of pure reason. Some time prior to 1877, Edison had been experimenting on an automatic telegraph in which the letters were formed by embossing strips of paper with the proper arrangement of dots and dashes. By drawing this strip beneath a contact lever, the latter was actuated so as to control the circuits and send the desired signals over the line. It was observed that when the strip was moved very rapidly the vibration of the lever resulted in the production of an audible note. With these facts before him, Edison reasoned that if the paper strip could be imprinted with elevations and depressions representative of sound-waves, they might be caused to actuate a diaphragm so as to reproduce the corresponding sounds. The next step in the line of development was to form the necessary undulations on the strip, and it was then reasoned that original sounds themselves might be utilized to form a graphic record by actuating a diaphragm and causing a cutting or indenting point carried thereby to vibrate in contact with a moving surface, so as to cut or indent the record therein. Strange as it may seem, therefore, and contrary to the general belief, the phonograph was developed backward, the production of the sounds being of prior development to the idea of actually recording them.
Mr. Edison's own account of the invention of the phonograph is intensely interesting. "I was experimenting," he says, "on an automatic method of recording telegraph messages on a disk of paper laid on a revolving platen, exactly the same as the disk talking-machine of to-day. The platen had a spiral groove on its surface, like the disk. Over this was placed a circular disk of paper; an electromagnet with the embossing point connected to an arm travelled over the disk; and any signals given through the magnets were embossed on the disk of paper. If this disk was removed from the machine and put on a similar machine provided with a contact point, the embossed record would cause the signals to be repeated into another wire. The ordinary speed of telegraphic signals is thirty-five to forty words a minute; but with this machine several hundred words were possible.
"From my experiments on the telephone I knew of the power of a diaphragm to take up sound vibrations, as I had made a little toy which, when you recited loudly in the funnel, would work a pawl connected to the diaphragm; and this engaging a ratchet- wheel served to give continuous rotation to a pulley. This pulley was connected by a cord to a little paper toy representing a man sawing wood. Hence, if one shouted: `Mary had a little lamb,' etc., the paper man would start sawing wood. I reached the conclusion that if I could record the movements of the diaphragm properly, I could cause such record to reproduce the original movements imparted to the diaphragm by the voice, and thus succeed in recording and reproducing the human voice.
"Instead of using a disk I designed a little machine using a cylinder provided with grooves around the surface. Over this was to be placed tinfoil, which easily received and recorded the movements of the diaphragm. A sketch was made, and the piece-work price, $18, was marked on the sketch. I was in the habit of marking the price I would pay on each sketch. If the workman lost, I would pay his regular wages; if he made more than the wages, he kept it. The workman who got the sketch was John Kruesi. I didn't have much faith that it would work, expecting that I might possibly hear a word or so that would give hope of a future for the idea. Kruesi, when he had nearly finished it, asked what it was for. I told him I was going to record talking, and then have the machine talk back. He thought it absurd. However, it was finished, the foil was put on; I then shouted `Mary had a little lamb,' etc. I adjusted the reproducer, and the machine reproduced it perfectly. I was never so taken aback in my life. Everybody was astonished. I was always afraid of things that worked the first time. Long experience proved that there were great drawbacks found generally before they could be got commercial; but here was something there was no doubt of."
No wonder that honest John Kruesi, as he stood and listened to the marvellous performance of the simple little machine he had himself just finished, ejaculated in an awe-stricken tone: "Mein Gott im Himmel!" And yet he had already seen Edison do a few clever things. No wonder they sat up all night fixing and adjusting it so as to get better and better results--reciting and singing, trying each other's voices, and then listening with involuntary awe as the words came back again and again, just as long as they were willing to revolve the little cylinder with its dotted spiral indentations in the tinfoil under the vibrating stylus of the reproducing diaphragm. It took a little time to acquire the knack of turning the crank steadily while leaning over the recorder to talk into the machine; and there was some deftness required also in fastening down the tinfoil on the cylinder where it was held by a pin running in a longitudinal slot. Paraffined paper appears also to have been experimented with as an impressible material. It is said that Carman, the foreman of the machine shop, had gone the length of wagering Edison a box of cigars that the device would not work. All the world knows that he lost.
The original Edison phonograph thus built by Kruesi is preserved in the South Kensington Museum, London. That repository can certainly have no greater treasure of its kind. But as to its immediate use, the inventor says: "That morning I took it over to New York and walked into the office of the Scientific American, went up to Mr. Beach's desk, and said I had something to show him. He asked what it was. I told him I had a machine that would record and reproduce the human voice. I opened the package, set up the machine and recited, `Mary had a little lamb,' etc. Then I reproduced it so that it could be heard all over the room. They kept me at it until the crowd got so great Mr. Beach was afraid the floor would collapse; and we were compelled to stop. The papers next morning contained columns. None of the writers seemed to understand how it was done. I tried to explain, it was so very simple, but the results were so surprising they made up their minds probably that they never would understand it--and they didn't.
"I started immediately making several larger and better machines, which I exhibited at Menlo Park to crowds. The Pennsylvania Railroad ran special trains. Washington people telegraphed me to come on. I took a phonograph to Washington and exhibited it in the room of James G. Blaine's niece (Gail Hamilton); and members of Congress and notable people of that city came all day long until late in the evening. I made one break. I recited `Mary,' etc., and another ditty:
`There was a little girl, who had a little curl Right in the middle of her forehead; And when she was good she was very, very good, But when she was bad she was horrid.'
It will be remembered that Senator Roscoe Conkling, then very prominent, had a curl of hair on his forehead; and all the caricaturists developed it abnormally. He was very sensitive about the subject. When he came in he was introduced; but being rather deaf, I didn't catch his name, but sat down and started the curl ditty. Everybody tittered, and I was told that Mr. Conkling was displeased. About 11 o'clock at night word was received from President Hayes that he would be very much pleased if I would come up to the White House. I was taken there, and found Mr. Hayes and several others waiting. Among them I remember Carl Schurz, who was playing the piano when I entered the room. The exhibition continued till about 12.30 A.M., when Mrs. Hayes and several other ladies, who had been induced to get up and dress, appeared. I left at 3.30 A,M,
"For a long time some people thought there was trickery. One morning at Menlo Park a gentleman came to the laboratory and asked to see the phonograph. It was Bishop Vincent, who helped Lewis Miller found the Chautauqua I exhibited it, and then he asked if he could speak a few words. I put on a fresh foil and told him to go ahead. He commenced to recite Biblical names with immense rapidity. On reproducing it he said: `I am satisfied, now. There isn't a man in the United States who could recite those names with the same rapidity.' "
The phonograph was now fairly launched as a world sensation, and a reference to the newspapers of 1878 will show the extent to which it and Edison were themes of universal discussion. Some of the press notices of the period were most amazing--and amusing. As though the real achievements of this young man, barely thirty, were not tangible and solid enough to justify admiration of his genius, the "yellow journalists" of the period began busily to create an "Edison myth," with gross absurdities of assertion and attribution from which the modest subject of it all has not yet ceased to suffer with unthinking people. A brilliantly vicious example of this method of treatment is to be found in the Paris Figaro of that year, which under the appropriate title of "This Astounding Eddison" lay bare before the French public the most startling revelations as to the inventor's life and character. "It should be understood," said this journal, "that Mr. Eddison does not belong to himself. He is the property of the telegraph company which lodges him in New York at a superb hotel; keeps him on a luxurious footing, and pays him a formidable salary so as to be the one to know of and profit by his discoveries. The company has, in the dwelling of Eddison, men in its employ who do not quit him for a moment, at the table, on the street, in the laboratory. So that this wretched man, watched more closely than ever was any malefactor, cannot even give a moment's thought to his own private affairs without one of his guards asking him what he is thinking about." This foolish "blague" was accompanied by a description of Edison's new "aerophone," a steam machine which carried the voice a distance of one and a half miles. "You speak to a jet of vapor. A friend previously advised can answer you by the same method." Nor were American journals backward in this wild exaggeration.
The furor had its effect in stimulating a desire everywhere on the part of everybody to see and hear the phonograph. A small commercial organization was formed to build and exploit the apparatus, and the shops at Menlo Park laboratory were assisted by the little Bergmann shop in New York. Offices were taken for the new enterprise at 203 Broadway, where the Mail and Express building now stands, and where, in a general way, under the auspices of a talented dwarf, C. A. Cheever, the embryonic phonograph and the crude telephone shared rooms and expenses. Gardiner G. Hubbard, father-in-law of Alex. Graham Bell, was one of the stockholders in the Phonograph Company, which paid Edison $10,000 cash and a 20 per cent. royalty. This curious part- nership was maintained for some time, even when the Bell Telephone offices were removed to Reade Street, New York, whither the phonograph went also; and was perhaps explained by the fact that just then the ability of the phonograph as a money-maker was much more easily demonstrated than was that of the telephone, still in its short range magneto stage and awaiting development with the aid of the carbon transmitter.
The earning capacity of the phonograph then, as largely now, lay in its exhibition qualities. The royalties from Boston, ever intellectually awake and ready for something new, ran as high as $1800 a week. In New York there was a ceaseless demand for it, and with the aid of Hilbourne L. Roosevelt, a famous organ builder, and uncle of ex-President Roosevelt, concerts were given at which the phonograph was "featured." To manage this novel show business the services of James Redpath were called into requisition with great success. Redpath, famous as a friend and biographer of John Brown, as a Civil War correspondent, and as founder of the celebrated Redpath Lyceum Bureau in Boston, divided the country into territories, each section being leased for exhibition purposes on a basis of a percentage of the "gate money." To 203 Broadway from all over the Union flocked a swarm of showmen, cranks, and particularly of old operators, who, the seedier they were in appearance, the more insistent they were that "Tom" should give them, for the sake of "Auld lang syne," this chance to make a fortune for him and for themselves. At the top of the building was a floor on which these novices were graduated in the use and care of the machine, and then, with an equipment of tinfoil and other supplies, they were sent out on the road. It was a diverting experience while it lasted. The excitement over the phonograph was maintained for many months, until a large proportion of the inhabitants of the country had seen it; and then the show receipts declined and dwindled away. Many of the old operators, taken on out of good-nature, were poor exhibitors and worse accountants, and at last they and the machines with which they had been intrusted faded from sight. But in the mean time Edison had learned many lessons as to this practical side of development that were not forgotten when the renascence of the phonograph began a few years later, leading up to the present enormous and steady demand for both machines and records.
It deserves to be pointed out that the phonograph has changed little in the intervening years from the first crude instruments of 1877-78. It has simply been refined and made more perfect in a mechanical sense. Edison was immensely impressed with its possibilities, and greatly inclined to work upon it, but the coming of the electric light compelled him to throw all his energies for a time into the vast new field awaiting conquest. The original phonograph, as briefly noted above, was rotated by hand, and the cylinder was fed slowly longitudinally by means of a nut engaging a screw thread on the cylinder shaft. Wrapped around the cylinder was a sheet of tinfoil, with which engaged a small chisel-like recording needle, connected adhesively with the centre of an iron diaphragm. Obviously, as the cylinder was turned, the needle followed a spiral path whose pitch depended upon that of the feed screw. Along this path a thread was cut in the cylinder so as to permit the needle to indent the foil readily as the diaphragm vibrated. By rotating the cylinder and by causing the diaphragm to vibrate under the effect of vocal or musical sounds, the needle-like point would form a series of indentations in the foil corresponding to and characteristic of the sound-waves. By now engaging the point with the beginning of the grooved record so formed, and by again rotating the cylinder, the undulations of the record would cause the needle and its attached diaphragm to vibrate so as to effect the reproduction. Such an apparatus was necessarily undeveloped, and was interesting only from a scientific point of view. It had many mechanical defects which prevented its use as a practical apparatus. Since the cylinder was rotated by hand, the speed at which the record was formed would vary considerably, even with the same manipulator, so that it would have been impossible to record and reproduce music satisfactorily; in doing which exact uniformity of speed is essential. The formation of the record in tinfoil was also objectionable from a practical standpoint, since such a record was faint and would be substantially obliterated after two or three reproductions. Furthermore, the foil could not be easily removed from and replaced upon the instrument, and consequently the reproduction had to follow the recording immediately, and the successive tinfoils were thrown away. The instrument was also heavy and bulky. Notwithstanding these objections the original phonograph created, as already remarked, an enormous popular excitement, and the exhibitions were considered by many sceptical persons as nothing more than clever ventriloquism. The possibilities of the instrument as a commercial apparatus were recognized from the very first, and some of the fields in which it was predicted that the phonograph would be used are now fully occupied. Some have not yet been realized. Writing in 1878 in the North American-Review, Mr. Edison thus summed up his own ideas as to the future applications of the new invention:
"Among the many uses to which the phonograph will be applied are the following:
1. Letter writing and all kinds of dictation without the aid of a stenographer.
2. Phonographic books, which will speak to blind people without effort on their part.
3. The teaching of elocution.
4. Reproduction of music.
5. The `Family Record'--a registry of sayings, reminiscences, etc., by members of a family in their own voices, and of the last words of dying persons.
6. Music-boxes and toys.
7. Clocks that should announce in articulate speech the time for going home, going to meals, etc.
8. The preservation of languages by exact reproduction of the manner of pronouncing.
9. Educational purposes; such as preserving the explanations made by a teacher, so that the pupil can refer to them at any moment, and spelling or other lessons placed upon the phonograph for convenience in committing to memory.
10. Connection with the telephone, so as to make that instrument an auxiliary in the transmission of permanent and invaluable records, instead of being the recipient of momentary and fleeting communication."
Of the above fields of usefulness in which it was expected that the phonograph might be applied, only three have been commercially realized--namely, the reproduction of musical, including vaudeville or talking selections, for which purpose a very large proportion of the phonographs now made is used; the employment of the machine as a mechanical stenographer, which field has been taken up actively only within the past few years; and the utilization of the device for the teaching of languages, for which purpose it has been successfully employed, for example, by the International Correspondence Schools of Scranton, Pennsylvania, for several years. The other uses, however, which were early predicted for the phonograph have not as yet been worked out practically, although the time seems not far distant when its general utility will be widely enlarged. Both dolls and clocks have been made, but thus far the world has not taken them seriously.
The original phonograph, as invented by Edison, remained in its crude and immature state for almost ten years--still the object of philosophical interest, and as a convenient text-book illustration of the effect of sound vibration. It continued to be a theme of curious interest to the imaginative, and the subject of much fiction, while its neglected commercial possibilities were still more or less vaguely referred to. During this period of arrested development, Edison was continuously working on the invention and commercial exploitation of the incandescent lamp. In 1887 his time was comparatively free, and the phonograph was then taken up with renewed energy, and the effort made to overcome its mechanical defects and to furnish a commercial instrument, so that its early promise might be realized. The important changes made from that time up to 1890 converted the phonograph from a scientific toy into a successful industrial apparatus. The idea of forming the record on tinfoil had been early abandoned, and in its stead was substituted a cylinder of wax-like material, in which the record was cut by a minute chisel-like gouging tool. Such a record or phonogram, as it was then called, could be removed from the machine or replaced at any time, many reproductions could be obtained without wearing out the record, and whenever desired the record could be shaved off by a turning-tool so as to present a fresh surface on which a new record could be formed, something like an ancient palimpsest. A wax cylinder having walls less than one-quarter of an inch in thickness could be used for receiving a large number of records, since the maximum depth of the record groove is hardly ever greater than one one-thousandth of an inch. Later on, and as the crowning achievement in the phonograph field, from a commercial point of view, came the duplication of records to the extent of many thousands from a single "master." This work was actively developed between the years 1890 and 1898, and its difficulties may be appreciated when the problem is stated; the copying from a single master of many millions of excessively minute sound-waves having a maximum width of one hundredth of an inch, and a maximum depth of one thousandth of an inch, or less than the thickness of a sheet of tissue-paper. Among the interesting developments of this process was the coating of the original or master record with a homogeneous film of gold so thin that three hundred thousand of these piled one on top of the other would present a thickness of only one inch!
Another important change was in the nature of a reversal of the original arrangement, the cylinder or mandrel carrying the record being mounted in fixed bearings, and the recording or reproducing device being fed lengthwise, like the cutting-tool of a lathe, as the blank or record was rotated. It was early recognized that a single needle for forming the record and the reproduction therefrom was an undesirable arrangement, since the formation of the record required a very sharp cutting-tool, while satisfactory and repeated reproduction suggested the use of a stylus which would result in the minimum wear. After many experiments and the production of a number of types of machines, the present recorders and reproducers were evolved, the former consisting of a very small cylindrical gouging tool having a diameter of about forty thousandths of an inch, and the latter a ball or button-shaped stylus with a diameter of about thirty-five thousandths of an inch. By using an incisor of this sort, the record is formed of a series of connected gouges with rounded sides, varying in depth and width, and with which the reproducer automatically engages and maintains its engagement. Another difficulty encountered in the commercial development of the phonograph was the adjustment of the recording stylus so as to enter the wax-like surface to a very slight depth, and of the reproducer so as to engage exactly the record when formed. The earlier types of machines were provided with separate screws for effecting these adjustments; but considerable skill was required to obtain good results, and great difficulty was experienced in meeting the variations in the wax-like cylinders, due to the warping under atmospheric changes. Consequently, with the early types of commercial phonographs, it was first necessary to shave off the blank accurately before a record was formed thereon, in order that an absolutely true surface might be presented. To overcome these troubles, the very ingenious suggestion was then made and adopted, of connecting the recording and reproducing styluses to their respective diaphragms through the instrumentality of a compensating weight, which acted practically as a fixed support under the very rapid sound vibrations, but which yielded readily to distortions or variations in the wax-like cylinders. By reason of this improvement, it became possible to do away with all adjustments, the mass of the compensating weight causing the recorder to engage the blank automatically to the required depth, and to maintain the reproducing stylus always with the desired pressure on the record when formed. These automatic adjustments were maintained even though the blank or record might be so much out of true as an eighth of an inch, equal to more than two hundred times the maximum depth of the record groove.
Another improvement that followed along the lines adopted by Edison for the commercial development of the phonograph was making the recording and reproducing styluses of sapphire, an extremely hard, non-oxidizable jewel, so that those tiny instruments would always retain their true form and effectively resist wear. Of course, in this work many other things were done that may still be found on the perfected phonograph as it stands to-day, and many other suggestions were made which were contemporaneously adopted, but which were later abandoned. For the curious-minded, reference is made to the records in the Patent Office, which will show that up to 1893 Edison had obtained upward of sixty-five patents in this art, from which his line of thought can be very closely traced. The phonograph of to-day, except for the perfection of its mechanical features, in its beauty of manufacture and design, and in small details, may be considered identical with the machine of 1889, with the exception that with the latter the rotation of the record cylinder was effected by an electric motor.
Its essential use as then contemplated was as a substitute for stenographers, and the most extravagant fancies were indulged in as to utility in that field. To exploit the device commercially, the patents were sold to Philadelphia capitalists, who organized the North American Phonograph Company, through which leases for limited periods were granted to local companies doing business in special territories, gen- erally within the confines of a single State. Under that plan, resembling the methods of 1878, the machines and blank cylinders were manufactured by the Edison Phonograph Works, which still retains its factories at Orange, New Jersey. The marketing enterprise was early doomed to failure, principally because the instruments were not well understood, and did not possess the necessary refinements that would fit them for the special field in which they were to be used. At first the instruments were leased; but it was found that the leases were seldom renewed. Efforts were then made to sell them, but the prices were high--from $100 to $150. In the midst of these difficulties, the chief promoter of the enterprise, Mr. Lippincott, died; and it was soon found that the roseate dreams of success entertained by the sanguine promoters were not to be realized. The North American Phonograph Company failed, its principal creditor being Mr. Edison, who, having acquired the assets of the defunct concern, organized the National Phonograph Company, to which he turned over the patents; and with characteristic energy he attempted again to build up a business with which his favorite and, to him, most interesting invention might be successfully identified. The National Phonograph Company from the very start determined to retire at least temporarily from the field of stenographic use, and to exploit the phonograph for musical purposes as a competitor of the music-box. Hence it was necessary that for such work the relatively heavy and expensive electric motor should be discarded, and a simple spring motor constructed with a sufficiently sensitive governor to permit accurate musical reproduction. Such a motor was designed, and is now used on all phonographs except on such special instruments as may be made with electric motors, as well as on the successful apparatus that has more recently been designed and introduced for stenographic use. Improved factory facilities were introduced; new tools were made, and various types of machines were designed so that phonographs can now be bought at prices ranging from $10 to $200. Even with the changes which were thus made in the two machines, the work of developing the business was slow, as a demand had to be created; and the early prejudice of the public against the phonograph, due to its failure as a stenographic apparatus, had to be overcome. The story of the phonograph as an industrial enterprise, from this point of departure, is itself full of interest, but embraces so many details that it is necessarily given in a separate later chapter. We must return to the days of 1878, when Edison, with at least three first-class inventions to his credit--the quadruplex, the carbon telephone, and the phonograph --had become a man of mark and a "world character."
The invention of the phonograph was immediately followed, as usual, by the appearance of several other incidental and auxiliary devices, some patented, and others remaining simply the application of the principles of apparatus that had been worked out. One of these was the telephonograph, a combination of a telephone at a distant station with a phonograph. The diaphragm of the phonograph mouthpiece is actuated by an electromagnet in the same way as that of an ordinary telephone receiver, and in this manner a record of the message spoken from a distance can be obtained and turned into sound at will. Evidently such a process is reversible, and the phonograph can send a message to the distant receiver.
This idea was brilliantly demonstrated in practice in February, 1889, by Mr. W. J. Hammer, one of Edison's earliest and most capable associates, who carried on telephonographic communication between New York and an audience in Philadelphia. The record made in New York on the Edison phonograph was repeated into an Edison carbon transmitter, sent over one hundred and three miles of circuit, including six miles of underground cable; received by an Edison motograph; repeated by that on to a phonograph; transferred from the phonograph to an Edison carbon transmitter, and by that delivered to the Edison motograph receiver in the enthusiastic lecture-hall, where every one could hear each sound and syllable distinctly. In real practice this spectacular playing with sound vibrations, as if they were lacrosse balls to toss around between the goals, could be materially simplified.
The modern megaphone, now used universally in making announcements to large crowds, particularly at sporting events, is also due to this period as a perfection by Edison of many antecedent devices going back, perhaps, much further than the legendary funnels through which Alexander the Great is said to have sent commands to his outlying forces. The improved Edison megaphone for long-distance work comprised two horns of wood or metal about six feet long, tapering from a diameter of two feet six inches at the mouth to a small aperture provided with ear- tubes. These converging horns or funnels, with a large speaking-trumpet in between them, are mounted on a tripod, and the megaphone is complete. Conversation can be carried on with this megaphone at a distance of over two miles, as with a ship or the balloon. The modern megaphone now employs the receiver form thus introduced as its very effective transmitter, with which the old-fashioned speaking- trumpet cannot possibly compete; and the word "megaphone" is universally applied to the single, side-flaring horn.
A further step in this line brought Edison to the "aerophone," around which the Figaro weaved its fanciful description. In the construction of the aerophone the same kind of tympanum is used as in the phonograph, but the imitation of the human voice, or the transmission of sound, is effected by the quick opening and closing of valves placed within a steam- whistle or an organ-pipe. The vibrations of the diaphragm communicated to the valves cause them to operate in synchronism, so that the vibrations are thrown upon the escaping air or steam; and the result is an instrument with a capacity of magnifying the sounds two hundred times, and of hurling them to great distances intelligibly, like a huge fog-siren, but with immense clearness and penetration. All this study of sound transmission over long distances without wires led up to the consideration and inven- tion of pioneer apparatus for wireless telegraphy-- but that also is another chapter.
Yet one more ingenious device of this period must be noted--Edison's vocal engine, the patent application for which was executed in August, 1878, the patent being granted the following December. Reference to this by Edison himself has already been quoted. The "voice-engine," or "phonomotor," converts the vibrations of the voice or of music, acting on the diaphragm, into motion which is utilized to drive some secondary appliance, whether as a toy or for some useful purpose. Thus a man can actually talk a hole through a board.
Somewhat weary of all this work and excitement, and not having enjoyed any cessation from toil, or period of rest, for ten years, Edison jumped eagerly at the opportunity afforded him in the summer of 1878 of making a westward trip. Just thirty years later, on a similar trip over the same ground, he jotted down for this volume some of his reminiscences. The lure of 1878 was the opportunity to try the ability of his delicate tasimeter during the total eclipse of the sun, July 29. His admiring friend, Prof. George F. Barker, of the University of Pennsylvania, with whom he had now been on terms of intimacy for some years, suggested the holiday, and was himself a member of the excursion party that made its rendezvous at Rawlins, Wyoming Territory. Edison had tested his tasimeter, and was satisfied that it would measure down to the millionth part of a degree Fahrenheit. It was just ten years since he had left the West in poverty and obscurity, a penni- less operator in search of a job; but now he was a great inventor and famous, a welcome addition to the band of astronomers and physicists assembled to observe the eclipse and the corona.
"There were astronomers from nearly every nation," says Mr. Edison. "We had a special car. The country at that time was rather new; game was in great abundance, and could be seen all day long from the car window, especially antelope. We arrived at Rawlins about 4 P.M. It had a small machine shop, and was the point where locomotives were changed for the next section. The hotel was a very small one, and by doubling up we were barely accommodated. My room-mate was Fox, the correspondent of the New York Herald. After we retired and were asleep a thundering knock on the door awakened us. Upon opening the door a tall, handsome man with flowing hair dressed in western style entered the room. His eyes were bloodshot, and he was somewhat inebriated. He introduced himself as `Texas Jack'--Joe Chromondo--and said he wanted to see Edison, as he had read about me in the newspapers. Both Fox and I were rather scared, and didn't know what was to be the result of the interview. The landlord requested him not to make so much noise, and was thrown out into the hall. Jack explained that he had just come in with a party which had been hunting, and that he felt fine. He explained, also, that he was the boss pistol-shot of the West; that it was he who taught the celebrated Doctor Carver how to shoot. Then suddenly pointing to a weather-vane on the freight depot, he pulled out a Colt revolver and fired through the window, hitting the vane. The shot awakened all the people, and they rushed in to see who was killed. It was only after I told him I was tired and would see him in the morning that he left. Both Fox and I were so nervous we didn't sleep any that night.
"We were told in the morning that Jack was a pretty good fellow, and was not one of the `bad men,' of whom they had a good supply. They had one in the jail, and Fox and I went over to see him. A few days before he had held up a Union Pacific train and robbed all the passengers. In the jail also was a half-breed horse-thief. We interviewed the bad man through bars as big as railroad rails. He looked like a `bad man.' The rim of his ear all around came to a sharp edge and was serrated. His eyes were nearly white, and appeared as if made of glass and set in wrong, like the life-size figures of Indians in the Smithsonian Institution. His face was also extremely irregular. He wouldn't answer a single question. I learned afterward that he got seven years in prison, while the horse-thief was hanged. As horses ran wild, and there was no protection, it meant death to steal one."
This was one interlude among others. "The first thing the astronomers did was to determine with precision their exact locality upon the earth. A number of observations were made, and Watson, of Michigan University, with two others, worked all night computing, until they agreed. They said they were not in error more than one hundred feet, and that the station was twelve miles out of the position given on the maps. It seemed to take an immense amount of mathematics. I preserved one of the sheets, which looked like the time-table of a Chinese railroad. The instruments of the various parties were then set up in different parts of the little town, and got ready for the eclipse which was to occur in three or four days. Two days before the event we all got together, and obtaining an engine and car, went twelve miles farther west to visit the United States Government astronomers at a place called Separation, the apex of the Great Divide, where the waters run east to the Mississippi and west to the Pacific. Fox and I took our Winchester rifles with an idea of doing a little shooting. After calling on the Government people we started to interview the telegraph operator at this most lonely and desolate spot. After talking over old acquaintances I asked him if there was any game around. He said, `Plenty of jack-rabbits.' These jack-rabbits are a very peculiar species. They have ears about six inches long and very slender legs, about three times as long as those of an ordinary rabbit, and travel at a great speed by a series of jumps, each about thirty feet long, as near as I could judge. The local people called them `narrow-gauge mules.' Asking the operator the best direction, he pointed west, and noticing a rabbit in a clear space in the sage bushes, I said, `There is one now.' I advanced cautiously to within one hundred feet and shot. The rabbit paid no attention. I then advanced to within ten feet and shot again--the rabbit was still immovable. On looking around, the whole crowd at the station were watching--and then I knew the rabbit was stuffed! However, we did shoot a number of live ones until Fox ran out of cartridges. On returning to the station I passed away the time shooting at cans set on a pile of tins. Finally the operator said to Fox: `I have a fine Springfield musket, suppose you try it!' So Fox took the musket and fired. It knocked him nearly over. It seems that the musket had been run over by a handcar, which slightly bent the long barrel, but not sufficiently for an amateur like Fox to notice. After Fox had his shoulder treated with arnica at the Government hospital tent, we returned to Rawlins."
The eclipse was, however, the prime consideration, and Edison followed the example of his colleagues in making ready. The place which he secured for setting up his tasimeter was an enclosure hardly suitable for the purpose, and he describes the results as follows:
"I had my apparatus in a small yard enclosed by a board fence six feet high, at one end there was a house for hens. I noticed that they all went to roost just before totality. At the same time a slight wind arose, and at the moment of totality the atmosphere was filled with thistle-down and other light articles. I noticed one feather, whose weight was at least one hundred and fifty milligrams, rise perpendicularly to the top of the fence, where it floated away on the wind. My apparatus was entirely too sensitive, and I got no results." It was found that the heat from the corona of the sun was ten times the index capacity of the instrument; but this result did not leave the value of the device in doubt. The Scientific American remarked;
"Seeing that the tasimeter is affected by a wider range of etheric undulations than the eye can take cognizance of, and is withal far more acutely sensitive, the probabilities are that it will open up hitherto inaccessible regions of space, and possibly extend the range of aerial knowledge as far beyond the limit obtained by the telescope as that is beyond the narrow reach of unaided vision."
The eclipse over, Edison, with Professor Barker, Major Thornberg, several soldiers, and a number of railroad officials, went hunting about one hundred miles south of the railroad in the Ute country. A few months later the Major and thirty soldiers were ambushed near the spot at which the hunting-party had camped, and all were killed. Through an introduction from Mr. Jay Gould, who then controlled the Union Pacific, Edison was allowed to ride on the cow-catchers of the locomotives. "The different engineers gave me a small cushion, and every day I rode in this manner, from Omaha to the Sacramento Valley, except through the snow-shed on the summit of the Sierras, without dust or anything else to obstruct the view. Only once was I in danger when the locomotive struck an animal about the size of a small cub bear--which I think was a badger. This animal struck the front of the locomotive just under the headlight with great violence, and was then thrown off by the rebound. I was sitting to one side grasping the angle brace, so no harm was done."
This welcome vacation lasted nearly two months; but Edison was back in his laboratory and hard at work before the end of August, gathering up many loose ends, and trying out many thoughts and ideas that had accumulated on the trip. One hot afternoon --August 30th, as shown by the document in the case--Mr. Edison was found by one of the authors of this biography employed most busily in making a mysterious series of tests on paper, using for ink acids that corrugated and blistered the paper where written upon. When interrogated as to his object, he stated that the plan was to afford blind people the means of writing directly to each other, especially if they were also deaf and could not hear a message on the phonograph. The characters which he was thus forming on the paper were high enough in relief to be legible to the delicate touch of a blind man's fingers, and with simple apparatus letters could be thus written, sent, and read. There was certainly no question as to the result obtained at the moment, which was all that was asked; but the Edison autograph thus and then written now shows the paper eaten out by the acid used, although covered with glass for many years. Mr. Edison does not remember that he ever recurred to this very interesting test.
He was, however, ready for anything new or novel, and no record can ever be made or presented that would do justice to a tithe of the thoughts and fancies daily and hourly put upon the rack. The famous note-books, to which reference will be made later, were not begun as a regular series, as it was only the profusion of these ideas that suggested the vital value of such systematic registration. Then as now, the propositions brought to Edison ranged over every conceivable subject, but the years have taught him caution in grappling with them. He tells an amusing story of one dilemma into which his good-nature led him at this period: "At Menlo Park one day, a farmer came in and asked if I knew any way to kill potato- bugs. He had twenty acres of potatoes, and the vines were being destroyed. I sent men out and culled two quarts of bugs, and tried every chemical I had to destroy them. Bisulphide of carbon was found to do it instantly. I got a drum and went over to the potato farm and sprinkled it on the vines with a pot. Every bug dropped dead. The next morning the farmer came in very excited and reported that the stuff had killed the vines as well. I had to pay $300 for not experimenting properly."
During this year, 1878, the phonograph made its way also to Europe, and various sums of money were paid there to secure the rights to its manufacture and exploitation. In England, for example, the Microscopic Company paid $7500 down and agreed to a royalty, while arrangements were effected also in France, Russia, and other countries. In every instance, as in this country, the commercial development had to wait several years, for in the mean time another great art had been brought into existence, demanding exclusive attention and exhaustive toil. And when the work was done the reward was a new heaven and a new earth--in the art of illumination.
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Last updated by Jim Halpin on 9/17/99.