More than any other fruit of Edisons fertile brain, this one was not merely useful but magical Photo-illustration: Stuart Bradford
When Thomas Edison died in 1931, at 84, he held nearly 1,100 patents in the United States and more than 2,300 patents worldwide. By far the most famous one was his patent for the lightbulb, but he came up neither with the idea of an evacuated glass container nor with the use of an incandescing filament. More fundamental was Edisons conception, entirely de novo, of the complete system of electricity generation, transmission, and conversion, which he put into operation first in London and in lower Manhattan in 1882.
But for sheer originality bordering on the magical, nothing compares to Edisons U.S. Patent No. 200,521, issued on 19 February 1878, for the first-ever way to hear recorded sound.
The phonograph was born out of the telegraph and telephone. Edison spent years trying to improve the formermost of his early patents were related to printing telegraphsand he was intrigued by the latter ever since its introduction, in 1876. Edison got his first telephone-related patents in 1878. He noticed that playing a recorded telegraph tape at a high speed produced noises resembling spoken words. What would happen if he recorded a telephone message by attaching a needle to the receivers diaphragm, produced a pricked tape, and then replayed that tape? He designed a small device with a grooved cylinder overlaid with tinfoil that could easily receive and record the motions of the diaphragm. I then shouted, Mary had a little lamb, etc., Edison recalled. 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.
Soon he took the phonograph on a tour, e...