My Edison Moment

Sunday, April 20th, 2014 by sdileonardi


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.


3 comments on “My Edison Moment

  1. Lori Emerson says:

    Sean, I’m so in awe of what you’ve decided to do for your project – and it looks like you’re really making progress. One suggestion or idea: I just discovered that the American Music Research Center in the libraries actually has old cylinders and cylinder plays? or something like that – I thought you’d want to be in touch with them. The archivist to be in touch with there is Eric Harbeson. Also, I’m looking forward to reading or hearing more about the critical aspect of your project – what are you going to learn from this? How’s it going to be related to what we’ve read in class and/or how is it going to extend the conversation or inform it? Hope that makes sense—

  2. Sean, as you know, this is an incredible project, in my opinion. Like Lori, I’m wondering where the theory enters. Of course, you’re taking up the “under the hood” vein of media archaeology. Could you apply a Kittlerian perspective and investigate the ways in which the medium of the phonograph determines or perhaps disciplines sound? Since you’re literally reverse-engineering your project, you might have an interesting point of view of how the machine regulates or arranges sound. Perhaps if you find these determinations, you could even exploit them and turn the machine on itself. Anyway, here you have my musings. Let’s talk more in person as you get closer to completion.

  3. Sean, this sounds amazing. I am so impresssed and excited to see your success!

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