Invented by Thomas Edison in 1877, the phonograph was the first device in history created for the mechanical recording and reproduction of sound. It played back sound by reading hollow cylinders that had the audio recording engraved on the outside surface. On the very first successful recording ever made, Thomas Edison used a thin sheet of tin foil wrapped around a hand-cranked, grooved, metal cylinder. The tin foil was later replaced by wax as the recording medium for engraving and became known as the Edison wax cylinder.
Edison with a phonograph
One of the most incredible early recordings ever made on an Edison wax cylinder is of Johannes Brahms in 1889 performing his Hungarian Dance No. 1. Though the recording is very faint and obscured, you can hear Brahms talking in the beginning followed by his incredible piano playing.
The earliest surviving recording of music is an 1888 recording of Arthur Sullivan’s The Lost Chord. This famous recording was originally unveiled at a press conference in London to introduce the city to Thomas Edison’s latest invention. Upon hearing the phonograph play his piece, Arther Sullivan was “astonished and somewhat terrified” at the idea of recorded music and said that it was the “most wonderful thing that [he had] ever experienced.”
In 1890, a group of musicians in Russia gathered together to check out Thomas Edison’s phonograph and see what it was all about. This group included composers Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and Anton Rubinstein, pianist and conductor Vassily Safonov, singer Elizaveta Lavrovskaya, pianist Alexandra Hubert, and Julius Block, a wealthy businessman who hosted the gathering.
To test out the capabilities of the phonograph, the group of friends recorded themselves making nonsense noises and talking. Here is a transcript and translation of the recorded material:
Rubinstein: What a wonderful thing [the phonograph].
Lawrowskaja: A disgusting...how he dares slyly to name me.
Safonov: (Sings a scale)
Tchaikovsky: This trill could be better.
Tchaikovsky: Block is good, but Edison is even better.
Lawrowskaja: (sings) A-o, a-o.
Safonow: Peter Jurgenson in Moskau.
Tchaikovsky: Who just spoke? It seems to have been Safonow. (Whistles)