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- The Phonograph vs. the Incandescent Light Bulb
The incandescent light bulb is generally considered to be Edison’s greatest invention. However, Edison did not really ‘invent’ the light bulb but rather improved upon the already existing versions to make them practicable for home use. Before Edison, many people had already worked on and even fairly succeeded in developing lighting equipment based on electricity (about.com 2006).
Edison’s discovery of the efficacy of the carbonized filament, and a few other concomitant conditions, in his search to produce a reliable and longer-lasting source of light are no doubt of tremendous significance — but they are more in the nature of innovation than original invention. Today we may best remember Edison as an inventor of electric lighting, since light has got a more powerful symbolic value than perhaps anything else in our lives, but on numerous accounts the phonograph could be regarded as the greatest invention of Edison’s life.
It was the invention of phonograph in 1877 that first catapulted Edison into the realm of international fame, he became a household name almost overnight. It was a stupendous invention, and in many ways his first great. Although Edison already had many accomplishments to his credit, especially in the fields of telegraphy and telephony, and had already founded the first modern research laboratory, the phonograph represents the major breakthrough in the young Edison’s life and career. Furthermore, it evolved from combining Edison’s earlier work on telegraph and the telephone, and as such marks the fruition of over a decade of relentless striving after invention and discovery in communications technology.
The invention of the light bulb which was to come two years later, and its boundless impact on everyday lives of people everywhere, only consolidated the reputation of Edison’s genius that had already been established by the widely acclaimed invention of the phonograph. It may be interesting to compare and contrast the two greatest inventions of Edison, the phonograph and the incandescent light bulb, to the two greatest discoveries of Einstein, the special theory of relativity and the general theory of relativity. Einstein’s first major accomplishment, the formulation of special relativity in 1905, did not bring him much fame, although it was in it that he framed the now legendary equation of E = MC2.
Even the most important achievement of his life, the formulation of the general relativity in 1915, for which he was to receive the Nobel prize, failed to bring him much acclaim — until a corroboration for it emerged from astronomical observations conducted in 1919, at which point, Einstein instantly became a phenomenal celebrity world-wide. Regarding his work, Einstein himself said the first theory of special relativity could have been discovered by anyone else even if not him, as it was only a culmination of decades of work by many other theoretical physicists, but the theory of general relativity truly had many unique insights.
Similarly many researchers had been working to come up with a viable electric source of light during Edison’s time, there was an overriding necessity for cheaper and efficient form of light in the modern civilized society; someone or other was bound to have perfected the light bulb even if Edison were nowhere in the picture. Whereas the phonograph bears the stamp of Edison’s genius and imagination in a most unique way. . The phonograph was very much of a novelty than a necessity during Edison’s time. It was in fact so unexpected by the public at that time as to have seemed almost magical (Wikipedia 2006).
It is very probable that if Edison did not come up with it, the invention of phonograph could have even been delayed by two or three decades. Therefore, the phonograph is sometimes considered to be the greatest invention of Edison’s life, even superior to his iconic light bulb. However, as in the case of Einstein, it is difficult to clearly assert which accomplishment is superior to which of the big two. Each was revolutionary, and held huge implications to the future of science and technology in its own way. If the incandescent light bulb was a brilliant feat of human ingenuity, the phonograph was no less a resounding success.
- The Invention of the Phonograph
Notwithstanding all the sensation it created, Edison’s phonograph was essentially a very simple mechanism. “The phonograph was a marvel that amazed both the scientific and technical community and the public because of its utter simplicity,” says Paul Israel in his biography ‘Edison : A Life of Invention’.
It was basically a metal cylinder wrapped around with tin foil, and may remind us of the Henry David Thoreau’s maxim: simplicity of life and elevation of purpose. When commenting about Edison’s invention, Alexander Graham Bell frankly admitted that he felt it astounding that such a simple discovery could have eluded him. However, it was Edison’s background in working with telephones, as well as the telegraph, that gave him advantage over Graham Bell who lacked grounding in the subject of telegraphy (Israel 2000).
As Professor Alfred Mayer rightly predicted upon witnessing a demonstration of the talking machine: possessing immense capabilities, the device had far-reaching implications for science and technology. However, even Edison did not set out to create a phonograph as it later turned out to be.
Edison originally conceived the phonograph merely as a kind of answering machine, in order to record telephone messages so that they could be played back and transcribed. Drawing parallels between the telephone and the telegraph, Edison wondered why should it not be possible to record telephone messages, and even produce written records out of them. Edison had been working on a machine that would print telegraphic messages by making indentations on paper tape when he began toying with the notion of recording telephone messages in a similar manner.
Edison conducted some preliminary experiments in July of 1877 with a “diaphragm having an embossing point and held against paper moving rapidly.” The results quickly gave him confidence that it was indeed possible to record human voice perfectly (ibid, p.144). However during the next several months he was too preoccupied with his work on the telephone to properly focus on the concept of phonograph.
In November that year, Edison used a piece of tinfoil wrapped around a large, grooved cylinder, instead of paraffined paper for a recording surface. The results dramatically improved. When a person uttered words into a mouthpiece, the sound vibrations were indented onto the cylinder by the recording needle. The machine could play back the words with impressive fidelity, though in low sound quality. Soon the new cylinder phonograph was on its way to the office of Scientific American in New York.
- The Development and Impact of the Phonograph
By the New Year, Edison had improved his contrivance enough to be able to make public demonstrations and attract New York journalists. Over the next few months, the publicity for the phonograph stirred up a veritable maelstrom in the media capital of the United States. But while Edison got busy constantly giving interviews and speaking to the reporters, he did not neglect to put efforts to realize the commercial potential of the phonograph. He secured major support from Bell telephone interests very early on.
In late January of 1878, Bell interests sanctioned $10,000 for Edison’s experiments and created the Edison Speaking Phonograph Company to market the new invention. To promote and market both his telephone and phonograph in Europe, Edison struck deals with a Hungarian-born European entrepreneur Theordore Puskas (ibid, p.148).
In April of 1878, Edison was invited by the President of the National Academy of Sciences, Washington D.C., to present his invention before the Academy. Edison was becoming widely recognized as a most ingenious inventor, by the scientific community and laymen alike. In Washington, Edison also got an opportunity to exhibit the phonograph to the President Rutherford B. Hayes and the members of Congress. Soon, Edison’s fame began spreading all over the nation, as well as across the Atlantic (ibid, p.153).
Though the original phonograph was devised as a business machine, over the course of the next decade, Edison’s landmark invention led him into the entertainment industry.
In retrospective, Edison made a remark later in his life to the effect that they had an interesting and apparatus in their hands but generally had not many ideas as to its wide range of practical possibilities (ibid, p. 277). Though the phonograph was discovered in a remarkably short time, as if by serendipity, its evolution in both in the fields of business and entertainment took years if not decades. In the subsequent years, many inventors including Alexander Graham Bell worked on perfecting the phonograph each in his own way, besides Edison himself.
The phonograph kept changing its face, the cylinder phonograph becoming a disk phonograph for example, and at the same time, it changed the face of communications and entertainment industry. Edison’s business in phonographs flourished well, and eventually his dream of having a phonograph in every American home became a near reality.
About.com. (2006). The Inventions of Thomas Edison : History of Phonograph – Lightbulb –
Motion Pictures. Retrieved September 14, 2006 from
Israel, Paul. (2000). Edison: A Life of Invention. Hoboken, NJ : John Wiley and Sons
Wikipedia. (2006). Thomas Edison. Retrieved September 14, 2006 from