Audio, Etc. (May 1977)

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In case you've been too busy reading the Equipment Profiles to notice, this is our 30th Anniversary issue. We were born out of an earlier magazine, Radio, in May of 1947, just in time to catch the first big hi-fi boom.

This is also the precise 100th anniversary, by the time you receive this copy through the mail, of an idea that accounts for a very large part of our entire audio business--the conception of the phonograph, a machine to record and reproduce actual sound.

The place of its first conception was Paris, France in April, 1877. And the man was Charles, not Thomas.

We still have a number of months to wait (and so I get a leg up on the competition) before the 100th of that audible moment when Edison's actual working phonograph croaked out something about Mmrryada wddlewarn (its fleece was white as snow). There has long been disagreement on the precise date of that occurence, not at all helped by Tom Edison's flair for after-the-fact time distortions. But Matthew Josephson in his 1959 biography of Edison indicates that "Mary had a little Iamb" was probably played back some time on December 6, 1877.

In any case, the machine was "finalized" on that date, and it talked out loud to most of the assembled staff of Scientific American magazine the very next day, December 7, which is an editorially established fact. The inevitable patent application went in a week later-the required working model was built back on December 6.

Edison never wasted a moment getting his patents off and with reason.

Only months before this occasion, Elisha Gray had lost to Alexander Graham Bell on the telephone by no more than a couple of hours. Otherwise, we'd have a communications network nicknamed Ma Gray.

Involved in that famous telephone dispute was something called a warning, in Latin a caveat, a formal declaration of intent to patent, that is, a conception before the workable fact.

Curious! The U.S. Patent Office until 1910 recognized this sort of claim for priority of date, in anticipation of the full-fledged patent application and, of course, the required working model.

Presumably, Edison could have filed such a warning on the phonograph as an idea in progress, but he would have gained only a week on the tinfoil machine; and some earlier experiments would have led to nothing, since they were put aside.

Still earlier on, sailing on a different tack but definitely on the right trail, if I may mix up my metaphors, he had conceived of a vocal "repeating telegraph," an idea that came straight out of his work with the storing up of telegraph code messages on punched paper tape, which could then be run through a high-speed sending machine whenever convenient. The theme of recording and playback was already in his mind and had been, indeed, for many years in various forms. So the new repeating telegraph was first conceived as a voice recorder via wax coated paper.

At the Edison labs, summer 1877, they actually tried this out-Edison rigged up a diaphragm (very much on his mind at the time because of the Bell telephone of the year before and his own invention of the carbon transmitter) on which he mounted a crude stylus. For a first try, he stuck a piece of paraffin coated paper under the point (our paraffin, candle wax, not English paraffin, which is kerosene, or French paraffin, which is medicinal mineral oil!)-yelled a loud HALLOO! (testing, testing...) and simultaneously jerked the paper forward. Then he managed to retrace the paraffin track and was able to "hear a distinct sound, which a strong imagination might have translated into the original 'halloo'," as he himself put it. This was very nearly the phonograph. But not quite. A quick step on the way, though not towards a telegraph instrument.

Ideas from Observation

So typical! Edison was the arch-tinkerer, the pragmatist, and seldom a concept man. Not, at least, until after the fact. His ideas invariably grew out of direct observations and nine-tenths of them were technically accidental, i.e. not at all what he had been looking for nor in the direction he was supposedly going. Unlike more dogmatic minds, unlike those who today set up elaborate plans for research, get grants, follow straight down to the bottom line point by point, Edison was always ready for an instant change of course, depending. On the other hand, he was superbly prepared for these accidents via his immense background knowledge and an acute ability to notice and to stop, where others would merely move on. An accident with this sort of preparation-ready for anything-is really no accident at all.

And so the Edison phonograph began life as a telegraphic coded tape. It had even been a disc, before that, the same paraffin coated paper, on which a spiral of dots and dashes was embossed direct from the telegraph receiver. It could be "played back," not with sound but digitally, in code. (So, you see, digital recording came before analog. How's that for an idea!) The disc was put aside (symbolically, perhaps) in favor of coated paper tape, and it was then that Edison noticed a slight buzzing noise when the Morse code indentations whizzed past a restraining guide spring in the rapid play mode.

That was the actual beginning.

Would you have given that sound a thought? To Edison, it seemed vaguely like a speaking voice. Words! He almost heard them.

He was then very heavily preoccupied with sound, of course, and knew the sonic basics as well as anyone alive. He also knew about the phono-autograph of 1857, 20 years before, invented by one Leon Scott. That device came within a hair of the phonograph-but stopped. Wrong brain. Scott's gadget recorded sound waves, ever so clearly, as a visible track on paper smoked with carbon black, via diaphragm, stylus and all.

Period. That is as far as he got. There they were, the actual traces of a sonic waveform, scarcely different from our own grooves on disc today. And yet for a couple of decades nobody thought to go a step further and do the physical mirror act, play the grooves back.

Nobody, that is, until in early 1877 an impecunious French poet, strictly an amateur at science but with some good connections, somehow got onto the whole bit, the exact same idea as Edison's, independently. With him, it came as a concept, out of sheer mind, rather than via experiment and inspired observation. Charles Cros simply had an idea that he thought might work and felt he ought to do something about it.

But what? Unlike Edison, he had no laboratory full of ready assistants, nor the vast background of practical mechanics and physics which so deftly aided Edison in reaching a workable model. He floundered, and probably would have gotten nowhere. But this man had precisely the right idea, pure and simple, before Edison. Let me quote him from Roland Gelatt's "Fabulous Phonograph" (Lippincott 1954), as translated. The Cros process was to consist in "obtaining traces of the movements to and fro of a vibrating membrane and in using this tracing to reproduce the same vibrations, with their intrinsic relations of duration and intensity, either by means of the same membrane or some other one equally adapted to produce the sounds which result from this series of movements."

Poetic deja vu

That was written down on April 18, 1877, a full eight months before the Edison phonograph and, if I am right, well before the experiments with the repeating telegraph. Apparently, as Gelatt recounts it, the poet tried desperately to raise some cash to try his idea in practice and apply for a patent; failing that, he did the next best thing-deposited his paper, sealed, dated, at the Académie des Sciences in Paris. That was April 30. Now just suppose Cros had filed that same document, or a similar one, in the form of an official dated warning at the U.S. Patent Office? Cros could not at this time have known of Edison's work, barely begun and in a different direction, and it seems doubtful that Edison could have known about Cros at least until late in the autumn of 1877, if then. Of course, Cros would have had to follow through, with the completed invention, you understand...but he would have had the priority.

More marvels. In October an article in a French magazine took up Cros, and the author actually called it the phonograph. Where did he find that name? It isn't clear. Edison could have seen the article by December but this is unlikely-it was in something called "The Clergy Week." Probably each man came independently to this name by analogy, following upon the telegraph and the telephone.

Towards late autumn, possibly, or probably, because of advance reports around November of Edison's experiments (he was famous for tossing out flamboyant advance hints of things to come), Cros got disturbed and demanded that his paper be unsealed and officially read at the Académie. It was. And believe it or no, that reading was on December 5, 1877, just one day before Edison's tinfoil machine was put into its final shape, so to speak, for publication.

So who invented the phonograph? If you mean, who made it work, there can be no question and I suspect the U.S. Patent Office would go along.

Edison, and Edison alone (with his colleagues), made it talk. But I keep worrying, myself, about that warning idea.

True, a lot of warnings have been thrown out, including that by Elisha Gray. Very soon, one of Edison's own patents would be challenged, by none other than Emile Berliner, who later developed the flat disc (with acid-etched grooves); Berliner also thought of the loose-particle transmitter, or microphone, and his caveat was filed just two weeks before Edison's patent application. After 15 years, that one was settled in Edison's favor. (The specific use of carbon granules was his idea.) Definitely, a warning does not have the status of a full patent application and leaves the inventor open to very serious questioning unless he in turn comes through with the complete works. It is highly doubtful that Cros could have competed with Edison on this basis.

Yet-it would have been a challenge, this clearly stated idea for a phonograph filed and on record before Edison's work! What might have happened?

Humane Protection

Not too much. Judging from Edison's numerous other involvements in patent wars, I suspect, having discovered the Cros prior caveat via the Patent Office (we are still assuming it was filed in the U.S.), he would immediately have sent an emissary to France to work out a deal-and most probably, to take M. Cros over, body and soul, as an Edison partner, of sorts.

The more wily Edison operation, to invent some ingenious alternative gadget that could by-pass the opposing claims, wouldn't have been possible-Cros had the situation neatly covered in generalties. Edison, unlike the financial barons of his day, was not given to cruelty nor inhumanity, though he would go a long, long way to always protect his own interests, humanely.

So we might well have had in Paris, 1878, a new Cie. Edison -Cros, fabriquateurs de machines sonores.

And at least a modicum of glory for poor Charles. The co-conceiver of the phonograph. I think he deserved it.

My research doesn't tell me whether this actually happened, nor does Mr.

Gelatt help. Cros isn't even mentioned in the Edison biography. Next time I go to France I'll have to find what happened to him. They'll know, most certainly.

(Source: Audio magazine, May 1977; Edward Tatnall Canby)

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