A great many things have happened on December 6th over the centuries, but for audio buffs the world over one event stands out above the rest. It was on this date in 1877 that the first audio recording was made by Thomas Edison. Previously, April 12th was considered to be the anniversary based on a date Edison wrote on a sketch of his device made in 1917; but subsequent research has revealed that Edison had misremembered the date and now many historians accept December 6th as the date of record. (pun intended)
That first recording was made with the assistance of Charles Batchelor and John Kruesi. Working under the Edison’s direction they created the first phonograph consisting of a cylinder with a sheet of tinfoil wrapped around it. Sound was received through a funnel, which was connected to a diaphragm. Yelling into the funnel caused sound waves to vibrate the diaphragm, which in turn vibrated a small stylus (needle) that was attached to it. The stylus pressed the pattern of the sound waves onto the tinfoil as the cylinder was turned by a hand crank.
The indented tinfoil sheet then was moved to another, nearly identical, device that had a stylus attached to the diaphragm with a delicate spring. As the hand crank was turned this time the stylus was passed over the indents on the tinfoil. The indentations caused the stylus and thus the diaphragm to vibrate in the same manner as when the original words were spoken. The vibrations of the diaphragm were amplified by another funnel and, if one listened closely, the recording was heard.
Kreusi, who actually built the device from Edison’s sketches, is credited with the first review of an audio recording. His response? “Gott in Himmel!” (God in Heaven!)
The tricky part was turning the crank at the exact same speed as when recorded so the sounds could be recognized. Those early tinfoil recordings were quite fragile and could be played only a couple of times before they would become damaged and be lost forever. In later, more commercial models, wax and other materials would replace the tinfoil.
And what was that original recording you ask? It was Thomas Edison himself reciting the childhood classic “Mary Had a Little Lamb“. As already mentioned, those tinfoil recordings were fragile and the 1877 original is lost forever, but the following link will let you listen to a re-enactment made by Edison at the Golden Jubilee Celebration of the Phonograph made in 1927.
Today, 134 years later, quality recording technology is readily available to almost anyone. You probably have one in your pocket or purse right now. Few inventions have contributed to the shaping of culture and society world-wide as the ability to record and distribute the human voice.
In celebration of this world changing event I leave you with my favorite recording of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” by Stevie Ray Vaughn.