The impetus for my project is my fascination with the significance of the late nineteenth century and the monumental media technologies that developed around the same time– particularly the phonograph. The phonograph and other 1900 sound technologies feature prominently in some of the theory that has been informing my scholarship recently, but rather than explore this key invention through the intellectual processes to which I’m accustomed, I wanted to become familiar with the phonograph in ways that feel foreign and uncharacteristically (for me) hands on.
My goal is to recreate the experience of Edison capturing his voice for the first time, by constructing a replica of his original tin foil phonograph. This device is drastically different from the one that would find its way into thousands of American homes ten years later. The mass-marketed Edison phonograph that is more recognizable is fitted with electronic mechanisms and that large, iconic horn that directs the sound. The earlier model, which is known for being the first device to capture and play back an audio recording, is relatively simple and composed of only a few basic moving parts. After doing some research and realizing how hard it might be to find actual instructions for assembling this device on the internet (even though lots of folks have attempted this experiment, they seem more inclined to publish the results rather than the details of their process), I was able to use a couple youtube videos to piece together an idea of what I needed. (There is obviously something wonderfully ironic and media archeaological about the fact that my recreation of this nineteenth century device required the use of a myriad of twenty-first century resources). Before long I had the following blueprint:
As you can see, it isn’t very complicated. But for a guy who can hardly be called Mr. Fix-it, this presented a variety of problems for me. For now, I’ll fast-forward through my trip to the hardware store and my first round of tinkering which leaves me with the following work-in-progress:
Obviously the essential missing part is the mouthpiece, which I believe is going to give me some trouble. The mouthpiece, or receiver, has to be adjustable, in terms of distancing it perfectly from the cylinder so that it just barely marks the foil. These specifications and the constant tinkering that they will require are still on the horizon, although I hope to get to that stage soon.
As for the big question, will I successfully experience the sound of my own voice being played back on a machine I constructed? To be honest, I doubt it, but here’s hoping.