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A Nobel Prize winner and the Phonograph


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Santiago Ramon y Cajal won the 1906 Nobel Prize for his discoveries about the nervous system.  His drawings of neurons are admired more than a century later not only for their scientific content but also for their artistic beauty (“The beautiful brain, The drawings of Santiago Ramon y Cajal" 2017 Abrams NY).  Ramon y Cajal was also interested in photography, and published in 1912, one of the first books on color photography.  In the 1890's, he heard Edison’s early phonograph with Bettini’s microreproducer, and he sought a way to improve its reproduction of sound.


As he wrote in his autobiography (“Recollections of my life”, translated by E. Horne Craigie, pp. 499-503), a problem with the early phonograph was its weak volume.  Bringing the recording horn closer to the singer produced screechy sounds.  Ramon y Cajal analyzed the problem and concluded that the weak volume vs screechiness was intrinsic to the hill-and-dale method of recording. He decided to invent a way to record based on a wavy line on a surface rather than based on the depth of the groove. He reports:


“I began by engraving on metal or crystal covered with a coat of wax and went on afterwards to obtain an electroplate, from which I took impressions in gelatin or celloidin.  The movement of the reproducing diaphragm, which was set, naturally at right angles to the disc with the impression, was brought about … by a clockwork mechanism …” (p. 502)


Unfortunately, his poorly constructed apparatus did not work, and he shelved it.  His attempt occurred in the mid-1890’s, and he was unaware of Berliner’s patents and the gramophone.  This was in part because Spain was a scientific and technological backwater at the time, and Ramon y Cajal was unfamiliar with the activities and patents of inventors in sound recording.  He later saw a gramophone and realized that although he was late to the game, his thoughts had been valid.   

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It's interesting to note how often two or more people come to a similar scientific conclusions nearly simultaneously.  Bell and Gray, Edison and Swan, Aylesworth and Baekeland...  It's probable that these people are inspired by the same developments of others, which sets their minds off in a new (but not unique) direction.  Whoever arrives first gets the recognition.


George P.

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Cajal wrote, that the Edison phonograph "and its variants" (Graphophone, Bettini reproducer) was exhibited in 1895 and 1896 in Madrid. Did he specify which "variant" he saw and when he started his experiments? 


Duplicity of events: it was the Graphophone that inspired Emile Berliner. However, that was already in 1886.  

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