The history of sound recording began with a sheet of tinfoil and a brief
nursery rhyme ("Mary had a little lamb..."). Edison invented the first
phonograph in December, 1877, creating an instant sensation -- but a brief one. Once
the initial public curiosity was satisfied the technology languished for almost a
decade. The machines below are original artifacts of the earliest days of the phonograph.
(Phonographs marked with an asterix are no longer in the collection.)
(Original tinfoil phonographs came in a variety of sizes.)
demonstration was presented at Stanford University on March 28, 2008 as part of the
official unveiling of the world's oldest recovered sound (see FirstSounds.org for
the full story).
In 1878 the phonograph was a brand-new novelty which was displayed to the paying public at various performances around the country. I attempted to recreate an exhibition as it would have been done back in 1878, with a variety of audio recordings including spoken and musical performances, as well as special effects. The "heckling" lecture seen here is based verbatim on a contemporary news report of a similar demonstration. Although the sound quality of such over-recording is not as good as a direct recording, this sort of wizardry enchanted audiences then -- and now.
Over 200 people witnessed this demonstration, with the sound clearly heard even in the back of the auditorium. It was perhaps the only large-scale public exhibition of a tinfoil phonograph in over a century.