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´╗┐Title: Development of the Phonograph at Alexander Graham Bell's Volta Laboratory - Contributions from the Museum of History and Technology, United States National Museum Bulletin 218, Paper 5, (pages 69-79)
Author: Newville, Leslie J.
Language: English
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Transcriber's note:

      Passages in italics are enclosed between underscores

      Additional spacing after some of the quotations is intentional
      to indicate both the end of a quotation and the beginning of a
      new paragraph as presented in the original text.

Contributions from the Museum of History and Technology,
United States National Museum Bulletin 218,
Paper 5, (pages 69-79)






     _The fame of Thomas A. Edison rests most securely on his genius for
     making practical application of the ideas of others. However, it
     was Alexander Graham Bell, long a Smithsonian Regent and friend of
     its third Secretary S. P. Langley, who, with his Volta Laboratory
     associates made practical the phonograph, which has been called
     Edison's most original invention._

     THE AUTHOR: _Leslie J. Newville wrote this paper while he was
     attached to the office of the curator of Science and Technology in
     the Smithsonian Institution's United States National Museum._

The story of Alexander Graham Bell's invention of the telephone has been
told and retold. How he became involved in the difficult task of making
practical phonograph records, and succeeded (in association with Charles
Sumner Tainter and Chichester Bell), is not so well known.

But material collected through the years by the U. S. National Museum of
the Smithsonian Institution now makes clear how Bell and two associates
took Edison's tinfoil machine and made it reproduce sound from wax
instead of tinfoil. They began their work in Washington, D. C., in 1879,
and continued until granted basic patents in 1886 for recording in wax.

Preserved at the Smithsonian are some 20 pieces of experimental
apparatus, including a number of complete machines. Their first
experimental machine was sealed in a box and deposited in the
Smithsonian archives in 1881. The others were delivered by Alexander
Graham Bell to the National Museum in two lots in 1915 and 1922. Bell
was an old man by this time, busy with his aeronautical experiments in
Nova Scotia.

It was not until 1947, however, that the Museum received the key to the
experimental "Graphophones," as they were called to differentiate them
from the Edison machine. In that year Mrs. Laura F. Tainter donated to
the Museum 10 bound notebooks, along with Tainter's unpublished
autobiography.[1] This material describes in detail the strange machines
and even stranger experiments which led in 1886 to a greatly improved

Thomas A. Edison had invented the phonograph in 1877. But the fame
bestowed on Edison for this startling invention (sometimes called his
most original) was not due to its efficiency. Recording with the tinfoil
phonograph is too difficult to be practical. The tinfoil tears easily,
and even when the stylus is properly adjusted, the reproduction is
distorted and squeaky, and good for only a few playbacks. Nevertheless
young Edison, the "wizard" as he was called, had hit upon a secret of
which men had dreamed for centuries.[2] Immediately after this
discovery, however, he did not improve it, allegedly because of an
agreement to spend the next five years developing the New York City
electric light and power system.

[Illustration: Figure 1.--CHARLES SUMNER TAINTER (1854-1940) from a
photograph taken in San Diego, California, 1919. (_Smithsonian photo

Meanwhile Bell, always a scientist and experimenter at heart, after his
invention of the telephone in 1876 was looking for new worlds to
conquer. If we accept Tainter's version of the story, it was through
Gardiner Green Hubbard that Bell took up the phonograph challenge. Bell
had married Hubbard's daughter Mabel in 1879. Hubbard was then president
of the Edison Speaking Phonograph Co., and his organization, which had
purchased the Edison patent, was having trouble with its finances
because people did not like to buy a machine which seldom worked well
and proved difficult for an unskilled person to operate.

In 1879 Hubbard got Bell interested in improving the machine, and it was
agreed that a laboratory should be set up in Washington. Experiments
were also to be conducted on the transmission of sound by light, and
this resulted in the selenium-cell Photophone, patented in 1881. Both
the Hubbards and the Bells decided to move to the Capital. While Bell
took his bride to Europe for an extended honeymoon, his associate
Charles Sumner Tainter, a young instrument maker, was sent on to
Washington from Cambridge, Massachusetts, to start the laboratory.[3]
Bell's cousin, Chichester Bell, who had been teaching college chemistry
in London, agreed to come as the third associate. During his stay in
Europe Bell received the 50,000-franc ($10,000) Volta prize, and it was
with this money that the Washington project, the Volta Laboratory
Association,[4] was financed.

[Illustration: Figure 2.--PHOTOGRAPHING SOUND IN 1884. A rare photograph
taken at Volta Laboratory, Washington, D. C., by J. Harris Rogers, a
friend of Bell and Tainter (_Smithsonian photo 44312-E_).

A description of the procedure used is found on page 67, of Tainter's
unpublished autobiography (see footnote 1). There, Tainter quotes
Chichester Bell as follows:

"A jet of bichromate of potash solution, vibrated by the voice, was
directed against a glass plate immediately in front of a slit, on which
light was concentrated by means of a lens. The jet was so arranged that
the light on its way to the slit had to pass through the nappe and as
the thickness of this was constantly changing, the illumination of the
slit was also varied. By means of a lens ... an image of this slit was
thrown upon a rotating gelatine-bromide plate, on which accordingly a
record of the voice vibrations was obtained."]

Tainter's story, in his autobiography, of the establishment of the
laboratory, shows its comparative simplicity:

I therefore wound up my business affairs in Cambridge, packed up all of
my tools and machines, and ... went to Washington, and after much
search, rented a vacant house on L Street, between 13th and 14th
Streets, and fitted it up for our purpose.[5]... The Smithsonian
Institution sent us over a mail sack of scientific books from the
library of the Institution, to consult, and primed with all we could
learn ... we went to work.[6]... We were like the explorers in an
entirely unknown land, where one has to select the path that seems to be
most likely to get you to your destination, with no knowledge of what is

In conducting our work we had first to design an experimental apparatus,
then hunt about, often in Philadelphia and New York, for the materials
with which to construct it, which were usually hard to find, and finally
build the models we needed, ourselves.[7]

[Illustration: Figure 3.--PAGE FROM NOTEBOOK of Charles Sumner Tainter,
describing an experiment in sound recording. The Tainter notebooks,
preserved in the U. S. National Museum, describe experiments at the
Volta Laboratory, in the 1880's. The Graphophone patents of 1886, were
the result of this research. (_Smithsonian photo 44312_.)]

The experimental machines built at the Volta Laboratory include both
disc and cylinder types, and an interesting "tape" recorder. The records
used with the machines and now in the collections of the U. S. National
Museum, are believed to be the oldest reproducible records preserved
anywhere in the world. While some are scratched and cracked, others are
still in good condition.

By 1881 the Volta associates had succeeded in improving an Edison
tinfoil machine to some extent. Wax was put in the grooves of the heavy
iron cylinder, and no tinfoil was used. Rather than apply for a patent
at that time, however, they deposited the machine in a sealed box at the
Smithsonian, and specified that it was not to be opened without the
consent of two of the three men. In 1937 Tainter (fig. 1) was the only
one still living, so the box was opened with his permission.

For the occasion, the heirs of Alexander Graham Bell gathered in
Washington, but Tainter was too old and too ill to come from San Diego.

The sound vibrations had been indented in the wax which had been applied
to the Edison phonograph. The following is the text of the recording:
"There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamed of
in your philosophy. I am a graphophone and my mother was a phonograph."
Remarked Mrs. Gilbert Grosvenor,[8] Bell's daughter, when the box was
opened in 1937, "That is just the sort of thing father would have said.
He was always quoting from the classics."

[Figure 4.--PATENT DRAWINGS from U. S. patent 341214, granted May 4,
1886, to Chichester Bell and C. S. Tainter.]

The method of reproduction used on the machine, however, is even more
interesting than the quotation. Rather than a stylus and diaphragm, a
jet of air under high pressure was used.

"This evening about 7 P. M.," Tainter noted on July 7, 1881, "The
apparatus being ready the valve upon the top of the air cylinder was
opened slightly until a pressure of about 100 lbs. was indicated by the
gage. The phonograph cylinder was then rotated, and the sounds produced
by the escaping air could be heard, and the words understood a distance
of at least 8 feet from the phonograph." The point of the jet is glass,
and could be directed at a single groove.

[Illustration: Figure 5.--EXPERIMENTAL GRAPHOPHONE photographed in 1884
at the Volta Laboratory. This is similar to one preserved at the
Smithsonian Institution. (_Smithsonian photo 44312-D._)]

The other experimental Graphophones indicate an amazing range of
experimentation. While the method of cutting a record on wax was the one
later exploited commercially, everything else seems to have been tried
at least once.

The following was noted on Wednesday, March 20, 1881: "A fountain pen is
attached to a diaphragm so as to be vibrated in a plane parallel to the
axis of a cylinder--The ink used in this pen to contain iron in a finely
divided state, and the pen caused to trace a spiral line around the
cylinder as it turned. The cylinder to be covered with a sheet of paper
upon which the record is made.... This ink ... can be rendered magnetic
by means of a permanent magnet. The sounds were to be reproduced by
simply substituting a magnet for the fountain pen...."

The result of these ideas for magnetic reproduction resulted in patent
341287, granted on May 4, 1886; it deals solely with "the reproduction,
through the action of magnetism, of sounds by means of records in solid

[Illustration: Figure 6.--ANOTHER EXPERIMENTAL GRAPHOPHONE, photographed
at the Volta Laboratory in 1884. (_Smithsonian photo 44312-F._)]

The air jet used in reproducing has already been described. Other jets,
of molten metal, wax, and water, were also tried. On Saturday, May 19,
1883, Tainter wrote (see fig. 3):

     Made the following experiment today:

     The cylinder of the Edison phonograph was covered with the coating
     of paraffine-wax and then turned off true and smooth.

     A cutting style A., secured to the end of a lever B was then
     adjusted over the cylinder, as shown. Lever B was pivoted at the
     points C-D, and the only pressure exerted to force the style into
     the wax was due to the weight of the parts.

     Upon the top of A was fixed a small brass disk, and immediately
     over it a sensitive water jet adjusted, so that the stream of water
     at its sensitive part fell upon the center of the brass disk.

     The Phonograph cylinder E, was rotated while words and sounds were
     shouted to the support to which the water jet was attached, and a
     record that was quite visible to the unaided eye was the result.

The tape recorder, an unusual instrument which recorded mechanically on
a 3/16-inch strip of wax-covered paper, is one of the machines described
and illustrated in U. S. patent 341214, dated May 4, 1886 (see fig. 4).
The strip was coated by dipping it in a solution of beeswax and
paraffine (one part white beeswax, two parts paraffine, by weight), then
scraping one side clean and allowing the other side to harden.


The machine of sturdy wood and metal construction, is hand powered by
means of a knob fastened to the fly wheel. From the fly-wheel shaft
power is transferred by a small friction wheel to a vertical shaft. At
the bottom of this shaft a V-pulley transfers motion by belts to
corresponding V-pulleys beneath the horizontal reels.

The wax strip passes from one 8-inch reel around the periphery of a
pulley (with guide flanges) mounted above the V-pulleys on the main
vertical shaft, where it comes in contact with the recording or
reproducing stylus. It is then taken up on the other reel.

The sharp recording stylus, actuated by a vibrating mica diaphragm, cuts
the wax from the strip. In reproducing, a dull, loosely mounted stylus,
attached to a rubber diaphragm, carried sounds through an ear tube to
the listener.

Both recording and reproducing heads, mounted alternately on the same
two posts, could be adjusted vertically so that several records could be
cut on the same 3/16-inch strip.

While this machine was never developed commercially, it is an
interesting ancestor of the modern tape recorder, which it resembles
somewhat in design. How practical it was or just why it was built we do
not know. The tape is now brittle, the heavy paper reels warped, and the
reproducing head missing. Otherwise, with some reconditioning, it could
be put into working condition.

Most of the disc machines designed by the Volta associates had the disc
mounted vertically (see figs. 5 and 6). The explanation is that in the
early experiments, the turntable, with disc, was mounted on the shop
lathe, along with the recording and reproducing heads. Later, when the
complete models were built, most of them featured vertical turntables.

The experimental Graphophone built from these plans is in the U. S.
National Museum (_cat. no. 287665_).]

An interesting exception has a horizontal 7-inch turntable (see figs. 7
and 8). This machine, although made in 1886, is a duplicate of one made
earlier but taken to Europe by Chichester Bell. Tainter was granted U.
S. patent 385886 for it on July 10, 1888.

The playing arm is rigid, except for a pivoted vertical motion of 90
degrees to allow removal of the record or a return to starting position.
While recording or playing, the record not only rotated, but moved
laterally under the stylus, which thus described a spiral, recording 150
grooves to the inch.

The Bell and Tainter records, preserved at the Smithsonian, are both of
the lateral cut and "hill-and-dale" types. Edison for many years used
the "hill-and-dale" method with both cylinder and disc records, and
Emile Berliner is credited with the invention of the lateral cut
Gramophone record in 1887. The Volta associates, however, had been
experimenting with both types, as early as 1881, as is shown by the
following quotation from Tainter:[9]

     The record on the electro-type in the Smithsonian package is of the
     other form, where the vibrations are impressed _parallel_ to the
     surface of the recording material, as was done in the old Scott
     Phonautograph of 1857, thus forming a groove of uniform depth, but
     of wavy character, in which the _sides_ of the groove act upon the
     tracing point instead of the bottom, as is the case in the vertical
     type. This form we named the zig-zag form, and referred to it in
     that way in our notes. Its important advantage in guiding the
     reproducing needle I first called attention to in the note on p.
     9-Vol 1-Home Notes on March 29-1881, and endeavored to use it in my
     early work, but encountered so much difficulty in getting a form of
     reproducer that would work with the soft wax records without
     tearing the groove, we used the hill and valley type of record more
     often than the other.

In 1885, when the Volta associates were sure that they had a number of
practical inventions, they filed applications for patents. They also
began to look around for investors. After giving several demonstrations
in Washington, they gained the necessary support, and the American
Graphophone Co. was organized to manufacture and sell the machines. The
Volta Graphophone Co. was formed to control the patents.

The Howe sewing machine factory at Bridgeport, Connecticut, became the
American Graphophone plant; Tainter went there to supervise the
manufacturing, and continued his inventive work for many years. This
Bridgeport plant is still in use today by a successor firm, the
Dictaphone Corporation.

The work of the Volta associates laid the foundation for the successful
use of the dictating machine in business, for their wax recording
process was practical and their machines sturdy. But it was to take
several more years and the renewed work of Edison and further
developments by Berliner and many others, before the talking machine
industry really got under way and became a major factor in home


  Number_   _Year_        _Patent_                 _Inventors_
  229495     1880    Telephone call register      C. S. Tainter
  235496     1880    Photophone transmitter       A. G. Bell,
                                                    C. S. Tainter
  235497     1880    Selenium cells               A. G. Bell,
                                                    C. S. Tainter
  235590     1800    Selenium cells               C. S. Tainter
  241909     1881    Photophonic receiver         A. G. Bell,
                                                    C. S. Tainter
  243657     1881    Telephone transmitter        C. S. Tainter
  289725     1883    Electric conductor           C. S. Tainter
  336081     1886    Transmitter for electric     C. A. Bell
                       telephone lines
  336082     1886    Jet microphone for           C. A. Bell
                       transmitting sounds
                       by means of jets
  336083     1886    Telephone transmitter        C. A. Bell
  336173     1886    Telephone transmitter        C. S. Tainter
  341212     1886    Reproducing sounds           A. G. Bell,
                       from phonograph              C. A. Bell,
                       records                      C. S. Tainter
  341213     1886    Reproducing and              A. G. Bell,
                       recording sounds by          C. A. Bell,
                       radiant energy               C. S. Tainter
  341214     1886    Recording and reproducing    C. A. Bell,
                       speech and other sounds     C. S. Tainter
  341287     1886    Recording and reproducing    C. S. Tainter
  341288     1886    Apparatus for recording      C. S. Tainter
                       and reproducing sounds
  374133     1887    Paper cylinder for           C. S. Tainter
                      graphophonic records
  375579     1887    Apparatus for recording      C. S. Tainter
                      and reproducing speech
                      and other sounds
  380535     1888    Graphophone                  C. S. Tainter
  385886     1888    Graphophone                  C. S. Tainter
  385887     1888    Graphophonic tablet          C. S. Tainter
  388462     1888    Machine for making           C. S. Tainter
                       paper tubes
  392763     1888    Mounting for diaphragms      C. S. Tainter
                       for acoustical
  393190     1888    Tablet for use in            C. S. Tainter
  393191     1888    Support for graphophonic     C. S. Tainter
  416969     1889    Speed regulator              C. S. Tainter
  421450     1890    Graphophone tablet           C. S. Tainter
  428646     1890    Machine for the manufacture  C. S. Tainter
                       of wax coated tablets for
  506348    1893    Coin controlled graphophone   C. S. Tainter
  510656    1893    Reproducer for graphophones   C. S. Tainter
  670442    1901    Graphophone record            C. S. Tainter
                       duplicating machine
  730986    1903    Graphophone                   C. S. Tainter


Books (10) containing the home notes, volumes 1 to 8 and 11 and 12,
    inclusive, March 1881-November 1883. (Vols, 9, 10, and 13 were burned
    in a laboratory fire, September 1897.)

Binder containing drawings and notes for multiple record duplicator,
    October 8, 1897-1908, and miscellaneous inquiries, log, telegraph
    recorder, diet, home plans.

Binder containing printed specifications of patents, S. Tainter, A. G.
    Bell, and C. A. Bell, June 29, 1880 to June 16, 1903.

Medal, Exposition Internationale d'Electricite, Paris, 1881, marked

Medal, Panama-Pacific Exposition, San Francisco, 1915, Medal of Award.

Seven purple lapel rosettes (?), one with ribbon and palms, in boxes
    marked "1890." Notes in newspaper clipping.

Records of testimony of C. S. Tainter in various suits involving the
    phonograph: Volta Graphophone Co. _vs._ Columbia Phonograph Co.,
    no. 14533, Supreme Court of the District of Columbia, dated January 13,
    1894; American Graphophone Co. _vs._ U. S. Phonograph Co., U. S.
    Circuit Court, New Jersey, dated May 14, 1895; American Graphophone Co.
    _vs._ Edw. H. Amet, U. S. Circuit Court, Northern District, Illinois,
    in equity, dated February 14, 1896; American Graphophone Co. _vs._
    U. S. Phonograph Co., _et al._, U. S. Circuit Court, New Jersey, in
    equity, no date; American Graphophone Co. _vs._ Leeds _et al._, U. S.
    Circuit Court, Two District, New York, N. Y., no date; testimony marked
    "Questions asked in Edison Co. suits" (duplicate copies) no date, no


Typed manuscript--"Memoirs of Charles Sumner Tainter" (plus many
    photostats of notes and articles) 4-1/2 inches thick, pp. 1-71 to
    about 1878, pp. 1 to 104 to factory at Bridgeport, some pages missing.

Box--containing handwritten notes for "memoirs" includes copies of text
    of above (less photostats); copies of short biography; agreement
    creating American Graphophone Co.; letter of election to life
    membership in the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Binder--exhibits of Tainter drawings in American Graphophone Co. _vs._
    Edison Phonograph Works., vol. 1, U. S. Circuit Court, New Jersey.

Folder--clippings and photostats relating to the machines deposited in

Certificate of appointment "Officer de l'Instruction publique," France,
    October 31, 1889, for exhibition of Graphophone, Exposition
    Universelle, 1889.

Framed photo of Berliner & Tainter, 1919.

Photo of Tainter, 1919.

Separate package containing gold medal, certificate, Panama-Pacific
    Exposition, San Francisco, 1915; gold medal, certificate, Exposition
    Internationale Electricite, Paris, 1881.


[1] Charles Sumner Tainter (1854-1940), "The talking machine and some
little known facts in connection with its early development,"
unpublished manuscript in the collections of the U. S. National Museum.

[2] One of the most interesting prophecies was written in 1656 by Cyrano
de Bergerac, in his _Comic history of the states and empires of the

"'I began to study closely my books and their covers which impressed me
for their richness. One was decorated with a single diamond, more
brilliant by far than ours. The second seemed but a single pearl cleft
in twain.

"'When I opened the covers, I found inside something made of metal, not
unlike our clocks, full of mysterious little springs and almost
invisible mechanisms. 'Tis a book, 'tis true, but a miraculous book,
which has no pages or letters. Indeed, 'tis a book which to enjoy the
eyes are useless; only ears suffice. When a man desires to read, then,
he surrounds this contrivance with many small tendons of every kind,
then he places the needle on the chapter to be heard and, at the same
time, there come, as from the mouth of a man or from an instrument of
music, all those clear and separate sounds which make up the Lunarians'
tongue.'" (See A. Coeuroy and G. Clarence, _Le phonographe_, Paris,
1929, p. 9, 10.)

[3] Tainter retained a lifelong admiration for Alexander Graham Bell.
This is Tainter's description of their first meeting in Cambridge: "...
one day I received a visit from a very distinguished looking gentleman
with jet black hair and beard, who announced himself as Mr. A. Graham
Bell. His charm of manner and conversation attracted me greatly...."
Tainter, _op. cit._ (footnote 1), p. 2.

[4] A. G. Bell apparently spent little time in the Volta Laboratory. The
Dr. Bell referred to in Tainter's notebooks is Chichester A. Bell. The
basic graphophone patent (U. S. patent 341214) was issued to C. A. Bell
and Tainter. The Tainter material reveals A. G. Bell as the man who
suggested the basic lines of research (and furnished the money), and
then allowed his associates to get the credit for many of the inventions
that resulted.

[5] Tainter, _op. cit._ (footnote 1), p. 3.

[6] _Ibid._, p. 5.

[7] _Ibid._, p. 30.

[8] As quoted by _The Washington Herald_, October 28, 1937.

[9] Tainter, _op. cit._ (footnote 1), pp. 28, 29.

[10] The basic distinction between the first Edison patent, and the Bell
and Tainter patent of 1886 was the method of recording. Edison's method
was to _indent_ the sound waves on a piece of tin-foil (wax was included
as a recording material in his English patent); the Bell and Tainter
improvement called for _cutting_ or "_engraving_" the sound waves into a
wax record, with a sharp recording stylus.

The strength of Bell and Tainter patent is indicated by the following
excerpt from a letter written by a Washington patent attorney, S. T.
Cameron, who was a member of the law firm which carried on litigation
for the American Graphophone Co. The letter is dated December 8, 1914,
and is addressed to George C. Maynard, Curator of Mechanical Technology,
U. S. National Museum: "Subsequent to the issuance of the Bell and
Tainter patent No. 341214, Edison announced that he would shortly
produce his 'new phonograph' which, when it appeared, was in fact
nothing but the Bell and Tainter record set forth in their patent
341214, being a record cut or engraved in wax or wax-like material,
although Edison always insisted on calling this record an 'indented'
record, doubtless because his original tin-foil record was an 'indented'
record. Edison was compelled to acknowledge that his 'new phonograph'
was an infringement of the Bell and Tainter patent 341214, and took out
a license under the Bell and Tainter patent and made his records under
that patent as the result of that license."

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