During the nineteenth century, a series of methods were devised to visualize and ultimately reproduce sound. Thomas Young described a chronometer in 1807 in Course of Lectures on Natural Philosophy and the Mechanical Arts. By connecting it to a tuning fork, the vibration could be described with pin K on cylinder H, with which the frequency of the tuning fork could be determined.


In 1827, Charles Wheatstone invented the kaleidophone, the name a variation of the kaleidoscope, that lissajous figures described using sound. Wheatstone also played an important role in the development of telegraphy and built an automaton, a mechanical man who simulated a human voice, based on the mechanical turk by Wolfgang von Kempelen from 1769.

In response to Félix Savart’s work on vibrating strings, Jean-Marie Duhamel described his vibroscope in Remarque à l’occasion du Mémoire de M. le colonel Savart, sur les cordes vibrantes. Similar to Young, the vibrations of a tuning fork were transferred to a piece of paper. Jules Antoine Lissajous used a light source with tuning forks and a mirror to visualize sound waves.

Rudolf Koenig visualized sound waves with his manometric flame in which sound vibrates a gas flame, which is slowed down via a rotating cubic mirror, so that it becomes visible to the human eye. Koenig made various instruments with the sound analyzer as the highlight.


In 1856, the Frenchman Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville invented the phonograph to record sound vibrations. Here, a carbon black blackened or glass drum was described by a stylus attached to a horn. In 1860 he made the first recording of the human voice. However, Scott’s instrument did not have playback options. The instrument was copied extensively and used for demonstrations in Europe and the United States, including in 1866 by Joseph Henry of the Smithsonian Institution. In 2008, the scientists at Lawrence Berkely National Laboratory first succeeded in converting an old drawing of a phonograph to sound. It was a recording of the folk song Au clair de la lune, recently found in a French archive. It was sung on April 9, 1860, making it the oldest known sound recording in history. The clip was officially presented at a conference in Palo Alto, California on March 28, 2008.


In 1877, the French poet and inventor Charles Cros submitted an idea to the Académie des sciences for a paleophone, an instrument that could convert the soot-drawn line of a phonograph into a groove on a metal disc or cylinder using a photo engraving. . However, Cros did not build a model.

Thomas Edison was already a well-known inventor and had worked on telegraphy when Alexander Graham Bell invented the phone. Both Bell’s mother and wife were deaf, which inspired him to investigate sound and deafness. The phone caught Edison’s attention – almost deaf himself – and he began researching how to save and replay phone calls. Before Cros could carry out his idea, Edison had invented the phonograph and had it built by John Kruesi, with which he first demonstrated on November 29, 1877. The first recording Edison made was Mary Had a Little Lamb. The success surprised Edison himself:

I was never so taken back in my life.

Others who were working in the same field had some frustration, such as Bell who wrote to Gardiner Hubbard: ”

It is a most astonishing thing to me that I could possibly have let this invention slip through my fingers when I consider how my thoughts have been directed to this subject for so many years past. So nearly did I come to the idea that I had stated again and again in my public lectures the principles of the phonograph.

This made it the first device that could not only record and save recordings, but also replay them. Edison used tin foil wrapped around a spiral grooved cylinder. A diaphragm in a tube was vibrated by the sound. This diaphragm was connected to a stylus that vibratedly pressed the foil into the grooves. Sound playback was accomplished inversely, with the grooves in the tin foil driving the stylus, which then moved the diaphragm to produce sound.

Where many other inventors got stuck in the laboratory phase, Edison was also adept at the commercial side. In December, he played the instrument at the editors of Scientific American, who introduced himself with the text Good morning. How do you do? How do you like the phonograph? The editors were very impressed:

No matter how familiar a person may be with modern machinery and its wonderful performances, or how clear in his mind the principle underlying this strange device may be, it is impossible to listen to the mechanical speech without his experiencing the idea that his senses are deceiving him.

This generated the attention of the general public and Gardiner Hubbard. Hubbard was Bell’s father-in-law and involved in the newly founded Bell Telephone Company. He invested in the Edison Speaking Phonograph Company, but the quality of the phonograph, according to the company, was insufficient to sell it directly to the public and money was initially earned from paid demonstrations with the device. In the meantime, attempts were made to build a more reliable instrument, but Edison soon focused more on other inventions, especially the light bulb.

Edison was not the only one impressed. The general public was fascinated and Edward Bellamy provided his utopian novel Looking Backward. 2000-1887, then after Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Ben-Hur. A Tale of the Christ the biggest bestseller in the United States:

[…] if we could have devised an arrangement for providing everybody with music in their homes, perfect in quality, unlimited in quantity, suited to every mood, and beginning and ceasing at will, we should have considered the limit of human felicity already attained, and ceased to strive for futher improvements.

However, developments did not stop when this was achieved.


With Edison’s diminishing attention, Hubbard helped his son-in-law Bell make an improved version of the phonograph. Bell had won the prix Volta for his invention of the phone and used the money to set up the Volta Laboratory. He developed improved versions of the phonograph with his cousin Chichester Bell and Charles Sumner Tainter. The tin foil tore easily and recordings could only be played back a few times, with the sound quality also being meager. Chichester Bell and Tainter were chosen as the storage medium and in 1881 an early wax roll version was handed over to the Smithsonian Institution which included the text I am a graphophone and my mother was a phonograph.

In 1885 the improvements had progressed so that the graphophone could be shown to the general public. Edison’s small mouthpiece had been replaced by a larger horn and the receiver was no longer the transmitter. Instead, rubber tubes brought the faint sound directly to the ears. Edison was asked to join the company, but he saw Volta as pirates and refused, and the Volta Graphophone Company was founded in 1886. Tainter was able to improve the sensitivity of the machine in such a way that twenty washing rolls could be picked up simultaneously.

While Volta gave demonstrations in Washington with the new device, the American Graphophone Company was founded in Philadelphia by local businessmen. American Graphophone obtained the US license from Volta in exchange for shares. The overseas license was sold to International Graphophone in 1889. The Howe Machine Company factory of Elias Howe initially manufactured graphophones for American Graphophone.