Edison Patents the Cylinder Phonograph

Thomas Alva Edison’s cylinder phonograph became an instant sensation but was not an immediate commercial success. However, with further development, the phonograph became the basis for the recording industry, one of the central forms of mass entertainment of the twentieth century.

Summary of Event

Thomas Alva Edison invented the cylinder phonograph in Menlo Park, New Jersey, as an offshoot of his work on the telegraph and telephone Telephone . His was the first device capable of recording and playing back sound, and it created a worldwide sensation. The device helped Edison achieve worldwide celebrity and garner support for his future inventive work. However, his phonograph was not a practical commercial product until it was improved in the 1890’s. The sale of phonographs soared after these improvements, and the resulting financial windfall helped Edison develop some essential technologies of the twentieth century, such as electrical systems and the storage battery. Phonograph;invention of
Cylinder phonograph
Edison, Thomas Alva
[p]Edison, Thomas Alva;and cylinder phonograph[Cylinder phonograph]
Inventions;cylinder phonograph
[kw]Edison Patents the Cylinder Phonograph (Dec. 24, 1877)
[kw]Patents the Cylinder Phonograph, Edison (Dec. 24, 1877)
[kw]Cylinder Phonograph, Edison Patents the (Dec. 24, 1877)
[kw]Phonograph, Edison Patents the Cylinder (Dec. 24, 1877)
Phonograph;invention of
Cylinder phonograph
Edison, Thomas Alva
[p]Edison, Thomas Alva;and cylinder phonograph[Cylinder phonograph]
Inventions;cylinder phonograph
[g]United States;Dec. 24, 1877: Edison Patents the Cylinder Phonograph[4980]
[c]Inventions;Dec. 24, 1877: Edison Patents the Cylinder Phonograph[4980]
[c]Science and technology;Dec. 24, 1877: Edison Patents the Cylinder Phonograph[4980]
[c]Music;Dec. 24, 1877: Edison Patents the Cylinder Phonograph[4980]
[c]Cultural and intellectual history;Dec. 24, 1877: Edison Patents the Cylinder Phonograph[4980]
Batchelor, Charles
Kruesi, John

By the 1870’s, the telegraph had become an essential technology for U.S. industry and westward expansion, and Edison’s work as a telegraph operator in various midwestern states had prompted him to attempt improvements to the device. His development of the quadruplex telegraph brought him sufficient financial resources to pursue his own interests. In early 1876, he moved to Menlo Park and set up a laboratory with a select team of technicians and craftsmen. Edison and his assistants had worked on an automatic telegraph that used a small wheel with a strip of treated paper. A stylus rested on it and chemically recorded the dots and dashes.

Alexander Graham Bell’s Bell, Alexander Graham exhibition of a telephone Telephone at the 1876 Centennial Exposition shifted the focus of Edison’s research. He noted the problems with Bell’s device and set to work on an improved device that would not interfere with Bell’s patents. The Menlo Park team worked on a system in which the sound vibrations produced by the human voice hit a diaphragm and exerted varying pressure on a button of pressed carbon. They mounted the diaphragm in a frame with a mouthpiece, spoke into it, and tested the resulting vibration levels. Edison, moreover, recalled his automatic telegraph. When he saw how well its stylus indented sound vibrations into treated paper, he concluded that he should be able to reproduce the sound thus recorded. A similar stylus on the diaphragm of the Edison telephone Telephone would make indentations, or “voice impressions,” on treated paper. When the paper was pulled through the device a second time, Edison reasoned, it should reproduce the sounds it had registered.

Thomas Edison with his cylinder phonograph.

(Library of Congress)

From June through November, 1877, Edison and his assistants returned periodically to the device and worked on improvements. Charles Batchelor Batchelor, Charles was Edison’s primary assistant. Batchelor recorded much of the information on the development of the phonograph in his laboratory notebooks. His notes indicate that Batchelor aided Edison greatly in the development of the phonograph, although the original idea of combining the diaphragm, the human voice, and the special paper was Edison’s.

By December, 1877, Edison was satisfied with the device’s design and had the talented Swiss machinist working in his machine shop, John Kruesi Kruesi, John , construct a phonograph. Edison later claimed that Kruesi believed the machine could not work. Despite his disbelief, Kruesi constructed the first phonograph from Edison’s designs. The original phonograph consisted of a spiral-grooved, solid brass cylinder mounted on a long shaft with a screw pitch of ten threads per inch. A thin sheet of tinfoil was pressed firmly into the cylinder’s grooves. The machine was hand cranked. The cylinder turned on the shaft and moved from right to left. Speaking into a funnel-like mouthpiece in the phonograph activated a diaphragm. A stylus connected to the diaphragm then pressed into the tinfoil, on which the vibrations occurring in the diaphragm were recorded. Once the recording was complete, the stylus was pulled back, the cylinder was rewound, and a stylus on the other side of the machine was applied to the tinfoil in order to read the information recorded on it. The original sound was then re-created, albeit only if the machine was cranked at the same rate as it had been during the recording. Later, the two styluses would be combined into a single mechanism capable of recording and playing sound.

Edison first demonstrated the phonograph in his Menlo Park laboratory on December 6, 1877, when he read from the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” The machine reproduced the sound of Edison’s voice reciting the words of the rhyme. The sound astonished the laboratory staff, as well as the editors of Scientific American
Scientific American to whom Edison demonstrated the machine the next day. Edison applied for a patent on the phonograph on December 24, 1877.

The initial tinfoil cylinder phonograph, while working, had problems that made it commercially unviable. The operator had to apply just the right pressure when placing the tinfoil against the grooves, and the hand crank required a very consistent rate of cranking during both recording and playback. In addition, although everyone thought it was a wonderful invention, no one was quite sure what to do with it. Edison’s initial thoughts for applications of the device had been to use it as a dictating machine or as a way to record telephone calls. The playback of music Music;and phonographs[Phonographs] for entertainment came later.

The immediate effect of Edison’s invention was to enhance his own reputation. Edison became known as the Wizard of Menlo Park and was world famous within months. Reporters flocked to Menlo Park and followed his every move. From that point on, even Edison’s unsuccessful inventions garnered far more attention than other inventors’ successful ones. Edison, relying on his new reputation, built a laboratory complex in West Orange, New Jersey, for the invention of new products. The laboratory’s first output was an improved phonograph.

When Alexander Bell, Alexander Graham Graham Bell and Charles Sumner Tainter Tainter, Charles Sumner demonstrated a wax-cylinder phonograph during the mid-1880’s, Edison returned his attention to his own phonograph. The wax cylinder worked more consistently and proved more commercially practical. Edison’s team developed a wax cylinder technically superior to that of Bell and Tainter, but it was also more expensive. In addition, Edison’s machine was more difficult to operate. It found limited success as a dictating machine.

Teams developed the new wax cylinder phonograph in a fashion that would set the standard for twentieth century industrial research laboratories. One team focused on determining the best material for the cylinders. Another focused on duplicating them. There were also teams for the mechanics of the phonograph, the motor and battery, and the recording and playback portions. Eventually, the West Orange complex included a large phonograph and record factory. By the turn of the century, Edison’s team had developed an improved phonograph that played music well and cost less than other models. They had also developed an improved record-duplication process. Agents demonstrating dictating phonographs installed coin slots in the devices and set up phonograph parlors in which to showcase them. They discovered that customers enjoyed listening to a recording for a nickel. The age of recorded musical entertainment had begun. Sales provided a steady stream of funds for further Edison inventions, and his company became the recording industry’s leader.

The Edison laboratory continued to improve the phonograph. However, Edison insisted that cylinders were the best form for recording media. It was therefore another company that first developed disc records. Other companies were also able to acquire contracts with more popular singers than those recorded by Edison. Edison, although partially deaf, insisted on choosing potential recordings himself, and he focused on the quality of singers’ voices rather than their popularity. By 1929, Edison had left the recording industry.


Edison’s invention of the phonograph inaugurated the era of recorded sound that would forever change history. The income and celebrity that Edison derived from his phonograph contributed to other innovations, such as the alkaline storage battery, a practical light bulb, and motion pictures. The phonograph’s financial windfall and notoriety also helped build the first large-scale industrial research laboratory, which would set the model for industrial research, development, and invention in the twentieth century. Edison, the most heroic and best known of the individual inventors who characterized the nineteenth century, ushered in the laboratory and the team-focused research and development that would characterize the twentieth century.

Further Reading

  • Baldwin, Neil. Edison: Inventing the Century. Reprint. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001. Biography focusing on Edison’s personality and family relations.
  • Israel, Paul. Edison: A Life of Invention. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1998. Detailed technical biography focusing on Edison’s inventions.
  • Jenkins, Reese V., et al, eds. The Papers of Thomas A. Edison. 5 vols. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989-    . An edition of edited and annotated documents written by Edison and his close associates.
  • Josephson, Matthew. Edison: A Biography. Reprint. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1992. A standard biography of Edison.
  • Melosi, Martin V. Thomas A. Edison and the Modernization of America. Glenview, Ill.: Scott, Foresman, 1990. Biography focusing on the business side of the Edison enterprise.
  • Read, Oliver, and Walter L. Welch. From Tin Foil to Stereo: The Evolution of the Phonograph. Indianapolis: Howard Sams, 1976. A detailed analysis that puts Edison’s invention of the phonograph into perspective with other phonograph inventions and developments.

Daguerre and Niépce Invent Daguerreotype Photography

Sholes Patents a Practical Typewriter

Bell Demonstrates the Telephone

Muybridge Photographs a Galloping Horse

Edison Demonstrates the Incandescent Lamp

Goodwin Develops Celluloid Film

Strowger Patents Automatic Dial Telephone System

First Commercial Projection of Motion Pictures

Marconi Patents the Wireless Telegraph

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Nineteenth Century, 1801-1900</i><br />

Alexander Graham Bell; Thomas Alva Edison. Phonograph;invention of
Cylinder phonograph
Edison, Thomas Alva
[p]Edison, Thomas Alva;and cylinder phonograph[Cylinder phonograph]
Inventions;cylinder phonograph