Phonograph

In this excerpt from Americans: A Book of Lives ©1946. Hermann Hagedorn describes the moment Thomas Edison first tested his new invention to record and play back sounds:

Three weeks after his interest had first been stirred, he (Thomas Edison) handed his chief mechanic a rough sketch of a queer-looking instrument, including a metal cylinder spirally ground and mounted on a long shaft, running in two upright bearings.

The mechanic wondered. Most of the apparatus he head hitherto constructed had been electrical, but this one called for no coils, no magnets, no wires. He kept his mouth shut and followed the sketch. The instrument he subsequently brought to Edison for his approval was a cylinder covered with tinfoil and turned with a hand-crank. “What’s it supposed to do, chief?” asked the mechanic without enthusiasm.

“The thing must talk,” answered Edison.

The mechanic smiled dubiously. The bookkeeper, standing near, offered to bet a handful of cigars in support of his skepticism, whereupon the mechanic laid two dollars against the chief’s faith. Edison, lacking the two dollars, matched his bet with a barrel of apples.

Thereupon he turned the crank and in a loud voice recited, (“shouted,” he told Henry Ford):

“Mary had a little lamb,
Its fleece was white as snow,
And everywhere that Mary went
The lamb was sure to go.”

He adjusted the reproducer, restored the cylinder to its original position, and again turned the crank.

“Mary had a little lamb…”

came the words in a strange voice, unlike his own, but unmistakably clear.

The mechanic nearly fainted for fright. Edison himself admitted that he was “a little scared”; partly of the machine he had created, partly because success had come so easily. “I was always afraid of things that worked the first time.”

It’s hard to imagine a time when hearing a human voice coming from a machine would inspire fear and awe.  The incredible has become commonplace.

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