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Edison Did Hear

May 2024
1min read

In his column on “technological turkeys” (“The Business of America,” May/June) Mr. Gordon errs in asserting that Thomas Edison heard nothing during the historic first trial of the phonograph. According to Edison’s own account: “I was never so taken aback in all my life. I was always afraid of things that worked the first time.” In addition, the Edison tin-foil recording stylus did not incise but rather indented. (This subtle patented difference from the Bells and Tainter would cause Edison and others many legal headaches during the years 1896-1913.)

It is ironic that Selectavision, a playback-only machine, was overtaken by the VCR with its recording capability. Seventy-five years earlier, the then technically superior vertically reproducing cylinder phonographs, which could also record at home, were being supplanted by lateral-cut disc machines, which played back only.

Lateral sound recording was being used commercially as early as 1889 and was in major production by 1895. The fidelity, however, was inferior to the vertically recorded cylinders of the time. It wasn’t until the years of the First World War that the sound quality of the two systems was comparable. Even so, Edison continued to supply vertically recorded entertainment cylinders until 1929.

As Mr. Gordon stated elsewhere in the May/June issue: “One technology replaces another only because it is cheaper or better or both.” In the case of lateral recording, it was a fairly long wait for either condition.

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