Drawing of Graphophone
Image courtesy of WikiCommons

The graphophone was one of the first ways to record and play sound. And without this invention we would not have things like voicemail, iTunes, or Spotify. Listening to recorded sounds is something we now do on a daily basis. Recording and playing sound is easy because of Alexander Graham Bell, Charles Sumner Tainter, and Chichester Bell over 100 years ago. They invented the graphophone in 1886. They named their invention this because the word graph means mark or record and phone means sound. The name comes from what it does.

Thomas Edison made the first recording device called the phonophone in 1877. The phonophone recorded sound waves on tinfoil. The tinfoil record did not playback the sound after a few replays.

The team of inventors for the graphophone all had different skills. Alexander Graham Bell (most well-known as the inventor of the telephone) taught about hearing and speech. Tainter and Bell were scientists and cousins who went into business together.

Graphophone on a table
The graphophone at the Milwaukee County Historical Society

Bell, Tainter, and Bell wanted a machine that could record multiple copies of sound. They did science experiments with many materials. They discovered that wax was stronger than tinfoil. And wax cylinders held the grooves made by soundwaves longer. It created a clearer and stronger sound. Wax allowed for multiple replays of the record.

Bell, Tainter, and Bell were afraid that Thomas Edison would steal their invention. They sent sealed boxes to the Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC after working on their invention for months. In the tin boxes were drawings and a graphophone to prove it was their work.

One goal of the graphophone was for companies to record conversations and telephone calls. Before audio recording, the only way to record a conversation was to write down exactly what was said. Even with the graphophone and other early devices, mostly secretaries listened to recordings and wrote down exactly what was said. Even the wax recording only lasted so long.

Another use of early recordings was more fun than business meetings. Do you like music? At the time, music could only be heard live. So, recording devices were important if you wanted to hear someone beside your neighbor play the guitar. A company that is still known today–Columbia Records, originally used the graphophone. They used it to record music and sell it.

This technology is no longer just for corporations. These men started the process of recording sound and allowing for playback. Now we can record sound on cell phones, play it back, and sell it without giving it much thought at all!

Visit the National Museum of American History’s website to see the “‘Hear My Voice’: Alexander Graham Bell and the Origins of Recorded Sound” digital exhibit. There you can learn more and even hear Alexander Graham Bell’s test recording.

Written by Joy Huntington, May 2019.

Screenshot of the Graphophone post and lesson plan document

Download the Graphophone Lesson Plan and Post

Object courtesy of the Milwaukee County Historical Society.

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