In 1877 Thomas Alva Edison invented the phonograph cylinder–a hand cranked cylinder covered with tin foil. It may seem unlikely now, but this simple invention would lead to the first commercial format for recording and reproducing sound. It is common knowledge that Edison was a visionary who created not only to fulfill a perceived need, but to fulfill needs no one had ever considered before. In this case, Edison foresaw many possible uses for his invention, among them letter-writing and dictation, audio recordings for the blind, education, music, and even the idea of creating “family records” (like recording the last words of a dying relative). Edison outlined his plans for his invention in an article called The Phonograph and its Future published in the The North American Review in 1878, which you can see here thanks to the lovely people at the Cornell University Library.
Edison knew the potential for his humble cylinder, but I wonder if he truly understood that by giving us the key to recorded sound that it would have such far-ranging and long-lasting repercussions. It’s true that the phonograph cylinder did not win the battle for format supremacy. But it was that all important first step down a long road that would influence not only music and popular culture for all time, but it also shaped one of the basic foundations of civilization: how to preserve and distribute information. Taken together with his motion picture camera and the light bulb, well… let’s just say that life would be a whole lot different without them. For one thing, you wouldn’t be reading this blog right now.
Edison has certainly had a significant, if indirect, impact on my own life. So in honor of Mr. Edison and his wonderful inventions, here is your chance to explore the lost medium of the phonograph cylinder!