Writing Out Loud:
Wizard of Menlo Park’s Invention Remains Music to the Ears 143 Years Later

By George Stahl

An American inventor introduced a contraption to the world 143 years ago that would be instrumental in changing human history.

This simple machine was the start of a revolution that would both unite people and divide them. It would help create a gap between parents and children, generation after generation.

In 1877, Thomas Edison developed his then-latest invention, the phonograph. Designed originally as a device to help further fund his other projects, it was supposed to be a novel invention at best. A fad that probably would not last out the decade.

Edison fooled around with the idea to record music on his device that could be played back over and over again. Owners of amusement parks and arcades saw this as something they could use as a drop-in-the-slot moneymaker.

Over time, Edison used his phonograph to raise money for his idea of an electric light. His strategy paid off, but the phonograph started to gain its own momentum, so he turned back to improving its capabilities. Thus, was born, “Edison Records,” and the rest, as we used to say, is history.

The crude device took on quick changes–adjustments were made, parts were improved, and soon it was available for use in the home. People could not only listen to recordings, but they could actually make their own.

Others began recording music and selling the cylinders it was recorded on.
Then it happened.

Ten years after Edison introduced his phonograph, German immigrant Emile Berliner, working in Washington D.C., came up with a flat disc made of glass with grooves etched into it in order to record sound. The phonograph soon became the record player. Then the eight tracks, then the cassette player, then the CD, and now, it’s iHeart radio or SiriusXM radio, or downloads on your iPhone.

Edison has come a long way baby! Tom did not make this journey alone either. He brought with him a plethora of musical entertainers and their songs.

Before Edison’s phonograph, there was the gramophone. People would sit
around their living rooms after supper and listen to the latest compositions if they were fortunate enough to have the money to buy a glass recording from the local general store, and these were definitely live performances.

Marching bands, symphony orchestras, and even recorded sermons and lectures — it was social media of the 1880s.

The gramophone enjoyed the title of the first home entertainment unit until Guglielmo Marconi’s radio hit living rooms in 1920, 25 years after it was invented.

Edison’s music machine, in one form or another, under one name or another, was with the American people through many of the prosperous and also most challenging times in the country’s history and through the tenancy of six seated presidents. In those 18 years, the device served as a distraction, entertainment, and a way for the average person to stay connected to the rest of the country.

One of the president’s Edison spoke to about his invention, Rutherford
B. Hayes, was so fascinated by it, he actually saw it as a way for the
American government to change for the better. If you recorded what you said, people would have to believe you.

Over 140 years ago, Edison said in an interview about his phonograph,
“Books may be read by the charitably inclined professional reader, or by such readers especially employed for that purpose, and the record(ing) of such book used in the asylums of the blind, hospitals, the sick-chamber, or even with great profit and amusement by the lady or gentleman whose eyes and hands may be otherwise employed; or, again, because of the greater
enjoyment to be had from a book when read by an elocutionist than when read by an average reader.”

As Edison predicted, 44 years later the first audiobooks were made.
Even though Edison set aside his phonograph for a time after the radio was made available, it never left the American household. Then, in the early 1940s records began making their appearances on radio shows.

The two media had collided. Records on the radio became a hit with the public and have been evolving and informing and entertaining us ever
since.

Today, they are on CDs, DVDs and the internet. They are not only used to amuse and distract, but they have become a major part of the education of our children. In recent months with COVID-19 shutdowns, they have become a necessity for their future.

Over their lifetimes, Edison and Marconi never could have foreseen the importance of their inventions, especially when used in such a unique partnership.

The Wizard of Menlo Park and Marconi changed the world of music on
their own, but they helped mold it, together — Edison and his recordings and Marconi and his transmissions.

Neither would have ever known that their work would lead to a multibillion-dollar industry and a much-needed distraction for the world in 2020.

The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect those of the Sun. George Stahl can be reached at stahl_george@yahoo.com