Brief History of Audio Recording

An Edison cylinder phonograph from about 1899. (Photo by Norman Bruderhofer/ via Wikimedia Commons)
An Edison cylinder phonograph from about 1899. (Photo by Norman Bruderhofer/ via Wikimedia Commons)

On this date in 1877, Thomas Edison announced his invention of the phonograph.

Here are some things you may not have known about sound recording.

Edison’s phonograph was the first machine to record sound and then play it back. But it wasn’t the first to record sound. The first device known to record sound was called the phonautograph and was invented by Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville of France in 1857. He intended his recordings to be studied visually. In 2008, historians used optical scanners to convert some of his recordings into digital audio files.

Here’s a clip from that recording of Scott singing “Au Clair de la Lune”:


The phonautograph was followed by the Paleophone or “Voice of the Past” in early 1877.

Later that year, Edison announced his phonograph.

Edison was trying to figure a way to play back telegraph messages and then automate speech sounds for transmission by telephone. His early experiments involved recording on a disc, much like what we now know as records. However, the first phonograph used a cylinder wrapped with tinfoil as the recording medium. He used a cylinder because the sound wouldn’t have to be manipulated to play at the same speed, the way a disc record does.

Here is a sample of an early Edison recording:


The oldest disc record is from 1881. Emile Berliner patented a type of phonograph called the Gramophone in the UK in 1887. The term Gramophone never really caught on in the U.S., however, it did inspire the name of the Grammy Award. The first phonograph parlor opened in 1889 in San Francisco. Customers could listen to recordings for a nickel apiece.

There was no volume control on early phonographs, the sound emanating from a large amplification horn. One way people would quiet the machine was by stuffing fabric into the horn. This is believed to be the source of the phrase “Put a Sock In It.”

Our question: What is the best-selling album of all time?

Today is Armed Forces Day in Bangladesh and Greece, and World Television Day.

It’s unofficially National Gingerbread Day, National Stuffing Day, and Pumpkin Pie Day.

It’s the birthday of philosopher Voltaire, who was born in 1694; singer Bjork, who is 51; and baseball hall of famer Ken Griffey Jr., who is 47.

Because our topic happened before 1960, we’ll spin the wheel to pick a year at random.

This week in 1996, the top song in the U.S. was “No Diggity” by Blackstreet.

The No. 1 movie was “Space Jam,” while the novel “The Deep End of the Ocean” by Jacquelyn Mitchard topped the New York Times Bestsellers list.

Weekly question

In addition to Ken Griffey Jr., what other baseball hall of famer was born in Donora, Pennsylvania on November 21 (however, not in the same year)?


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