Imagine, it's the late 1880s. You are having a party at your home soon and today you are finalising the musical arrangements. After all, a party isn't a party without music! The question now is what sort of music you want to have at your party. You have plenty of choice, because recently your family has bought one of the new Edison Phonographs - you're family is the only one in the area to have one so it is very exciting. To be able to have music in your home whenever you want, other than Grandma clanking on the piano, is simply wonderful!
When I took this Edison Phonograph Cylinder to show the children they were very confused by it. Before showing them the cylinder I had told them that it was a very old fashioned way for people to play music or record sound. When they heard this they suggested it was a little bit like a modern CD, not a bad comparison. When they saw it though, they didn't know quite what to make of it. To the children, most recorded music and sound is produced by some sort of flat disc. Even records, which a few of the children know about, are simply large discs. Some of the children don't even recognise cassette or video tapes, so the Edison Cylinder which is, as its name suggests, a cylinder, was completely unknown.
Thomas Edison, the inventor of the phonograph, was a very famous and important man and without him, our lives would be very different. He was not simply famous as the creator of the phonograph, allowing portable and home music, but for developing many other important inventions including the lightbulb, telephone and telegraph, and movies! In fact, he held 1093 patents for inventions at the time of his death! You can see a list of these patents by clicking here.
Edisons phonograph was actually developed out of two other inventions he was working on in 1877, the telegraph and telephone. He discovered that he could 'write down' messages from the telegraph through using indentations in paper, and then use this to send the message repeatedly over the telegraph network. He wondered if a similar process could be used to record telephone messages and started experimenting with fast moving paraffin paper. By holding a diaphragm with an embossing point on the end against the paper small grooves were made. Soon, he changed the paraffin paper to a metal cylinder with tin foil on the outside and used the same process to 'record' sound. He drew up a sketch of a machine and gave it to his mechanic who then built it, according some some in as little as 30 hours! Edison then tested the machine by reading a nursery rhyme, Mary Had A Little Lamb, onto the cylinder. When he put the cylinder onto the playback reel, he was amazed to hear the machine play his voice back to him. You can hear a tin foil cylinder being played by clicking here. The cylinder I showed the children is a later, wax cylinder, but works in a similar way and you can hear an example of one being played by clicking here. Later still, Edison even used the cylinders in creating a talking doll, which you can learn about by clicking here. If you would like to learn more about the invention of the phonograph, click here or here.
One of the things which most interested the children when I showed them the cylinder was not actually the cylinder itself, but the story of the man who invented it. Many children are insecure that they are not good enough when it comes to their school work, and are always fascinated to hear stories of brilliant people who were perhaps not great at school either. Although Edison was a brilliant inventor, he wasn't a good student! In fact, his teacher described him as 'addled' or 'slow'. His Mum was furious at his teacher and took him out of school, teaching him at home. This helped form a very strong relationship with his mother who he described as being 'the making of me' and someone who he felt he must not disappoint. I think she would be pleased with his achievements! If you would like to learn more about Edison, click here.