Of Phonographs, Light bulbs, and Motion-Picture Cameras

Gramophones, light bulbs, and cameras are some of the devices we use regularly. They light up our houses and provide entertainment by letting us capture the moments worth remembering. It has been more than a hundred years since Thomas Edison invented these. Effort and endless hours of experimentation were poured into the invention of these devices, and are testament to Edison’s character.

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Thomas Edison with his group. The phonograph on the table. Edison is seated in the center, Theo Wangemann is standing behind him.
Thomas Edison posing with the group who perfected the phonograph, 16 June 1888.

Last Updated on April 21, 2021

Thomas Edison (1847 – 1931) – Inventor

Thomas Alva Edison, born on February 11, 1847 in Ohio, was naturally curious and often wondered how things work.

He started off by selling newspapers and candies on train stations and in carriages until he was able to obtain a telegraphy job in Port Huron. He then went on to work on a vote recorder that was patented on June 1, 1869, which automatically tallied votes against movements presented by the Congress. Edison worked in several companies, all at the same time.

Once he had enough finances, Edison was able to open his first workshop in Newark, New Jersey. During this time, he developed several versions of the telegraph machine, filing patent applications as well. Edison had to deal with a lot of rejections on his inventions but he turned them into a source of motivation to pursue his interests.

In 1876, Edison opened up his new laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey, where all his magic started working. The following year, he worked on improving Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone. Since Edison was working on an existing design, Bell contested on the originality, notably when Edison also filed for a patent on the newly-developed telephone. Edison finally made a carbon-button telephone transmitter, which reduced distortion and made transition of voice over longer distances possible.

Experimentation on the telephone and the telegraph paved the way for Edison’s invention of the phonograph in 1877. Edison made a contraption, so messages from the telegraph and telephone could be sped up. He connected a diaphragm with a needlepoint that could etch marks on a paraffin paper.

Edison saw that when he spoke into the device, the sound vibrations made markings on the fast-moving wax paper. He was happy with the result but ever ambitious, he wanted his invention to speak or playback the recorded voices instead of just being embossed on a paper. He had to think of a way though to make this happen successfully, and since paraffin paper is too soft to be able to do this, he looked for something stiffer.

He replaced the paper with a metal cylinder wrapped in tinfoil, so recording and playback of sound would be made possible. Edison drew his innovation on a piece of paper, gave it to John Kruesi, his chief mechanic, and asked him to turn this particular device from blueprint to reality. Kruesi was able to produce it in a couple of days, but he and Edison’s team members were skeptical that it would work. Edison was confident though that it will function just as suspected, so he tried it out in front of his crew members.

Edison spoke into the device by reciting the nursery rhyme, Mary Had A Little Lamb, and much to everyone’s surprise, the phonograph indeed played back Edison’s words when he cranked the device by hand. Edison presented his invention to the Scientific American office in New York City on December 22, 1877, and earned widespread approval.

When the Edison Speaking Phonograph Company was established on January 24, 1878, the phonograph earned Edison approx. $10,000. Edison made several versions of the phonograph, including those that had musical cylinders. This was the kind of phonograph that has a coin slot similar to the jukeboxes we have now. In the olden times, people did not have music which they could enjoy anytime they wanted to. Either they enjoyed the music live, sang, or played instruments right on the occasion. Now, thanks to Edison and a lot of improvements by other inventors, we can listen to music over and over again through different kinds of recorders.

Edison’s next major invention was the incandescent light bulb. As with his other designs, Edison got the concept from other inventors, but his design proved to be the most practical and affordable. He wanted to create a light bulb that could be lit for an extended period of time without damaging its filament.

Edison and his team carried out lots of experiments with different materials on making the light bulb work successfully but were met by failure and frustration. Based on what he knew about the ideas of contemporary scientists, Edison had to look for a filament that was thin enough to fit in a bulb, but resistant enough to emit radiations within the spectrum of visible light.

This wasn’t the toughest task either. The biggest hurdle was, the filament either melted or completely burnt out when exposed to high voltages necessary for producing visible light!

He finally reached a breakthrough. He put a carbon fiber filament inside a glass tube and ensured that the air could not get inside and added a mechanical regulator for heat control. This time, Edison was successful and the filament lasted nearly 15 hours!

In 1879, he was able to achieve what he wanted: an incandescent light bulb that could emit light for days. Edison introduced his invention to the people and enabled people to light up thousands of homes before his death.

In 1887, Edison built his new laboratory in West Orange, New Jersey. With his recent success in creating the incandescent light bulb, Edison did not stop probing around. He created an electricity distribution system and provided electricity to all of New York.

Thomas Edison in his laboratory posing with his invention - the Light Bulb
Thomas Edison with his invented white light bulbs from 1883.

Edison met a photographer and a fellow lover of science, Edward Muybridge, who rapidly took a lot of photographs and put these on a disk and created a rudimentary film animation. Muybridge then asked Edison if he could use his phonograph to play sounds simultaneously with the animation. This gave Edison another idea and started illustrating another device based on Muybridge’s concept.

Edison sought the help of William Dickson, one of his assistants, to do photography for their project while he made the actual device. Their invention, formed in 1888, the “kinetograph,” was the first motion picture camera, which allowed a person to capture motion in regular intervals. These were different from the digital cameras we have now.

This also gave Edison a start on another endeavor, creating what he called a “kinetoscope,” where the motion captured by the kinetograph can be seen in an individual viewing device. The kinetoscope is a large box with a peephole that plays short films such as circus acts and staged fights. Edison later made kinetoscope lounges to cater to more people which were a lot like the video arcades we have now.

But, Edison did not just want plain films being played, so he decided to try working on advancement where sounds can be incorporated in the films. He created the “kinetophone,” a contraption where the kinetoscope and phonograph could work together, making this the first film projection that was introduced. People were entertained by these devices, but not for long; they did not consider them to be practical. Thus, Edison had to postpone the production for a while, but again, people wanted to try using these devices. It would be many years before the machines Edison worked on were fully developed and used.

The devices mentioned are but some of the inventions made and developed by Edison that changed and helped the world. We can imagine that had Edison not been able to put his inquisitiveness into reality; we would not be having this way of life now.

Edison worked hard and spent days and nights in his workroom sketching, creating, experimenting, and developing a lot of machines successfully. He did, however, also experience tons of setbacks, failures, and rejections, but his optimism helped him get through all of these. The dedication he gave to his work finally took a toll on his slowly deteriorating health, and he died on October 18, 1931. During his funeral, President Herbert Hoover and the entire country honored him by turning off all their lights for a minute.

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