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ARSCLIST  June 2009

ARSCLIST June 2009

Subject:

Re: Earliest recorded sound update on NPR

From:

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Association for Recorded Sound Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Wed, 3 Jun 2009 16:16:33 EDT

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In a message dated 6/2/2009 1:55:41 P.M. Eastern Daylight Time,  
[log in to unmask] writes: (reply below)

----- as  Patrick Feaster has very convincingly argued (Spring 2007, ARSC), 
Edison's  intention was originally to write speech by actuating keys, but 
he stumbled  upon the logical possibility of playback of a recording.  

"Speech Acoustics and the Keyboard Telephone: Rethinking  Edison's 
Discovery of the Phonograph Principle,"   ARSC Journal 38:1  (Spring 2007), 10-43.  
I argue that, contrary to what you may have read  elsewhere, the phonograph 
actually originated in 1877 as a byproduct of Thomas  Edison's unsuccessful 
plan to build a "keyboard talking telegraph," an  instrument that would have 
allowed users to "play" individual speech sounds  over a telephone line 
rather than speaking them into a  mouthpiece."

If you read his article, you would have to work hard  to argue against his 
conclusions."

---------------------------
 
   Patrick has very kindly sent me a pdf version of his  2007article on 
Speech Acoustics, and it is indeed a wonderful overview of that  annus 
mirabilis (1877). I would not so much argue "against" his conclusions, as  to, ahem, 
amplify upon them. Much thanks, PF.
 
  The rhetorical device on which this re-interpretation hangs is a  cited 
comment that TAE made in 1889, that a "reliable account" had not yet  (then) 
been given of the discovery of the phonograph principle. One  wonders what 
exactly would pass such a test, in his (TAE's) eyes? And  for what reason 
would he himself, in his many interviews (1877-1880), leave out  Patrick's 
conclusion that the idea was (strictly?) a result of his work on the  "keyboard 
telegraph"? TAE certainly had many opportunities, then and later, to  
correct the "record" and preserve for posterity the 'true' story. But he never  
did this (apparently). Is there thus some "secret" (or  unknown) version?
 
 Patrick mentions an interesting US patent, 474,230 (which contains  
material that was preserved (or paralleled) in Brit pat 2909). But 474,230  was 
only part of 2909, and the US application was "divided" (in 1877), finally  
yielding also 474,231 and 474,232. The former was executed on July 9th.  
Interestingly, it took 15 years to nurse the American version(s) thru the patent  
system, and those 3 were not granted until 1892. It would be very helpful 
to  acquire the contents of their Patent Wrappers (contents) from the 
National  Archives, as the preserved correspondence and adjustments would reveal 
what  caused the conflicting issues (and long delay). Brit Pat 2909 had its  
own share of problems for Edison, as it started out as a telephone patent 
when  it was filed, but was wrongheadedly used by Edison to introduce his 
tinfoil  phonograph (in England) during its period of application (fig. 29  
added). Eventually (1882), this attempt was disavowed by him, and the  
phonographic portion was removed. One could lose US protection if one filed for  the 
same patent in another country first, even as an afterthought in a different  
patent. It was a fine art to get the procedures exactly correct.  #2909's  
belated use for protecting the phonograph was a lawyer's blunder, and  
Edison himself admitted it could never be "made right" because of the Dec 24th  
addition.
 
  I do not know what year Edison first went to Washington DC, where  
Scott's Phonoautograph (Koenig model) was on Display (and had been since  1866). 
It is still there today, 145 years after it was bought for 500 francs. As  
far as I recall, Edison never mentions, in real time, his view of it  (visual 
or in abstract thought), before 1877. I think he did see it  during his Wash 
trip in April of 1878, where he must have been surprised at how  close 
others (Scott & Koenig) had come to his "baby". But he and Scott  were worlds 
apart in their approach to sound; Scott had no interest in  preserving 
vertical vibrations, and no oscillations that were not  distinctly visual, although 
Edison would mention lateral recording in his famous  patent, 200,521. And 
no one was much interested in Thomas Young's work of  1806, which recorded 
the vibrations, in wax, of a tuning fork stylus on a  drum. Young could have 
played back the first recorded sound - a tuning  fork! Ironically, such a 
device (diapason tracing) appears even on Scott's 1860  effort.
 
 I see little doubt as to the origins of Edison's phonograph, as  arising 
directly from TAE's work with the telephone. Nor should one omit the  
contextual influence of the telegraph and its various 'repeaters.'   Telephones 
were still quite expensive and could only be rented in 1877. One  of Edison's 
anticipated uses for his recorder was to save messages intended for  
recipients who still did not own one - they could visit a central office and  play 
back what they missed (for a fee) when the call came in. This must  have 
seemed a good idea at the time, but it was also Edison's later insight that  
people would never sit in a darkened room with strangers to watch flickering  
lights.
 
  Patrick says: "We do not possess any document in which Edison  explains 
the circumstances under which he thought his keyboard telephone might  be 
used, or what its practical benefits might be."  And yet also: "Edison's  
notebook entries of 26 May 1877 show that he was then already eager to build  
both a speech recorder and a speech generator," So I am confused. Is there a  
reason why this May 26th document was not quoted (in the article),  regarding 
such a 'recorder'? And what was the actual imagined method of  "recording"?
 
  It is a fascinating enterprise to fathom how things get  invented 
(logically) - we have the enormous advantage of hindsight, looking  at the larger 
"flow" of ideas, and of course, where things "end up." But I would  even 
argue that the phonograph was invented "too soon" - after all, it would be  
another 10 years before the culture would figure out (and apply) what to do  
with it.
 
  I wish we knew more about the "Halloo" device (made by Batchelor?),  
supposedly built before the first (rotating) tinfoil model. This  "sliderule" 
contraption of wood used paraffined paper, left over from  telegraph and 
condenser use. It was only pictured, in the Scientific  American, a year later 
(Aug 1878). Certainly by July 1877, Edison had absorbed  (and said so) the 
basic insight that the human voice, in its totality,  could be saved like a 
photograph, to be preserved and recreated after its  subject had left the room. 
I still like that pivotal July 18th date, as a  defined Eureka moment. The 
various experiments that attracted Edison's  acoustic interest in 1877, in 
retrospect, look like so many 'detours'  until he got it right. But after 
all, Scott's machine had been widely  pictured AND published in many Physics 
texts (USA, England, Germany,  Italy), ever since 1860, and even at 
International Expositions (e.g. 1862). Why  did NO ONE get inspired by the device to 
save and recreate sound from  those carbonized tracings? It is one thing to 
look forward in time, another  to look back. In retrospect, we can agree with 
the Wizard that all the savants  in the world clearly overlooked how close 
Scott had come. It was easy for  Edison to say so, since he had won the 
prize.
 
Allen
 

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