The extreme rarity of original tinfoil phonographs makes it difficult for collectors to enjoy examples of these historic machines. However, high quality replica phonographs have been made over the years, bringing otherwise unobtainable machines into the reach of those who are intrigued by the astonishingly simple yet effective technology found in these relics of 1877-1880.
The tinfoil phonographs made in the late 1870s come in a wide variety of sizes
and styles, ranging from tiny to huge, simple to elaborate. The most elaborate ever
made was the "Drawing Room" phonograph made of hand-filed brass for the
Edison Speaking Phonograph Company by Sigmund Bergmann in New York in mid-1878. This was the
deluxe version of Bergmann's standard exhibition phonograph, which was made of painted
cast iron. The basic cast iron phonograph was mounted to a plain wood box, while
the deluxe instrument had a beautifully inlaid rosewood box for supplies. The 'standard' Bergmann exhibition tinfoil had 24 threads per inch; the brass 'drawing room instrument' had 40tpi. Weighing
over 125 pounds and measuring nearly three feet wide and one foot high, this extraordinary
phonograph cost $200 in 1878 dollars, a fortune for the time. Only seven brass phonographs
were originally made, with just a single example known to have survived (in a museum
in Scotland.) This was not only the most elaborate and ornate tinfoil phonograph
ever made, it was also the finest. The sound quality surpasses any phonograph made
prior to 1888. It was suitable for grand public exhibitions, as well as for use in
the "scientist's sanctum," as the instruction manual points out!
In 2000, museum curators allowed master machinist Bill Ptacek to disassemble and take detailed measurements and photographs of Bergmann phonograph serial number 172, the only known brass Bergmann that survives. Ptacek crafted three exact duplicates of this machine, with every detail precisely matching the original. It is an exceptional piece of workmanship and is visually stunning. It is also the loudest and clearest of any tinfoil phonograph I have ever heard.
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