Thomas Edison's Favorite Invention: The Phonograph

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Thomas Edison seated beside a phonograph in 1921. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Just the other day, I heard one of the earliest popular recorded sambas, Donga’s “Pelo Telefone,” from 1916 and released on an Edison talking record, probably a wax cylinder. A few years later the “OKeh Laughing Record” (which featured a man and a woman laughing uncontrollably – an absurdist hit if there ever was one) was released on a 78 rpm disc. Thanks to Thomas Edison’s invention of the phonograph, we can enjoy music history denied to past generations.

imagesEdison patented the phonograph – just one of his countless inventions – on February 19, 1878. The word “phonograph” comes from two Greek words, “phono” for sound, “graph” for writing. He called it his “speaking machine,” and though he also invented the incandescent light bulb, the motion picture camera, and other astounding devices that changed our lives, the phonograph remained his favorite. He called it his “baby.”

An 1899 advertisement for the Edison Concert Phonograph. Courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Of course, the irony is that Edison had lost most of his hearing by the time he was 12 years old, when he could no longer hear songbirds. On the other hand, when his new invention played back him singing “Mary had a little lamb,” he was thrilled. The volume on the little aluminum cylinder was louder than birds. But not everyone was happy with the invention. Organizers of live music events were worried that they’d be put out of business by the new device and the recordings it captured. Orchestras and bands felt the same way. Fortunately they were all wrong.

I think Edison would be happy to know that record players and vinyl sales are up these days, though CD’s may soon go the way of cassettes and 8-tracks. Although streaming services like Spotify and Tidal are convenient, many music lovers are buying more vinyl and record players to spin it on. In some ways, then, it’s come full-circle.

For your amusement, here is the 1923 “OKeh Laughing Record.” This was issued long before the Indian laughing guru became popular!

Finally, let’s revisit Donga’s 1916 “Pelo Telefone”:

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