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Edison Tin Foil Phonograph Demonstration


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Neilvanstem

I'm amazed today!!! I had never seen a machine of this type let alone see something recorded and hear it played back. Just wonderful and like I said I'm amazed. Thanks so much for showing us this. 

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Tinfoilphono

That's a video I made 12 years ago and originally posted on Youtube. I really wanted to show just what these machines are capable of. It drives me crazy when I see demonstrations where people shout as loud as they can into the recording horn, and then hear a playback that is barely audible. If you've ever been to Greenfield Village at the Ford Museum, or seen any videos of demonstrations there, you've no doubt experienced exactly that. They use an original 'Bergmann' exhibition tinfoil phonograph, very similar to my brass replica, to do public demonstrations in the reconstructed Menlo Park lab throughout the day. The results are typically awful, but hundreds of people walk away every day believing that is normal. It's not. The large exhibition machines were made to be demonstrated before huge crowds of people in auditoriums. They couldn't possibly succeed if all that came out during playback was a whisper. The truth is that these were audible even in the back of the hall.

 

I demonstrated this reality back in 2008 at Stanford University, when FirstSounds.org announced the recovery of the oldest vocal recording known to exist -- a phonautogram by Léon Scott de Martinville recorded in 1860, and recovered with modern laser technology. As part of the presentation I recreated, as best I could, what a public exhibition might have looked like in 1878. This was presented at the annual ARSC convention, so everyone in the audience (about 200 people) was extremely knowledgeable about sound recording. Afterward, I had literally dozens of people come up to me and express amazement at how loud and clear the recordings were. Even those who had seen tinfoil phonographs before had never heard one work so well. (You can see it here:

 

 

For sure, smaller machines are less capable of this level of clarity, and machines without flywheels are a lot harder to rotate evenly. But I have posted demonstrations with small tinfoil phonographs and the results are still quite impressive. The key is that all tinfoil phonographs must be adjusted absolutely correctly.  Even a slight misalignment can ruin the performance. For such sturdy machines, they are surprisingly delicate and require frequent readjustments.

 

That is a big part of the problem at the Ford Museum. During annual visits to the museum I worked with the Senior Conservator there for over 25 years, until she retired. She was responsible for the machine, and she was very good at tweaking it. I worked on that machine many times and got outstanding playback. But those adjustments never held for long. A huge part of the problem there is temperature. The Menlo Park lab is not air conditioned and it gets very hot in the summer as the day goes on. Different metals  expand or contract differently in heat or cold, so fine adjustments (especially the depth of the stylus in the groove) would shift simply due to temperature. Add to that the fact that docents couldn't seem to resist making their own tweaks, despite being emphatically ordered not to. The result is that a wonderful machine ends up giving a totally wrong impression of what these really sounded like.

 

One other key point: these sound vastly better with real tinfoil. Modern aluminum foil doesn't cut it.

 

 

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