Technology Behind the Telephone Was Originally Intended to Aid Transcribing Telegraph Messages

(p. C5) Thomas Alva Edison’s self-proclaimed greatest invention, the phonograph, won him overnight fame.  . . .

In February 1877, the same month that saw Edison turn 30 and show his first streaks of silver hair, he and his fellow inventor Charles Batchelor began a new series of experiments on what they called, variously, the “telephonic telegraph,” the “speaking telegraph” and the “talking telephone.” This confusion of names would last as long as Americans took to adjust to the startling notion that an electrically transmitted message did not necessarily have to be transcribed.

It was beyond even Alexander Graham Bell’s imagination that people might one day use the telephone just to chat. As far as Edison was concerned, Bell’s invention was a device to speed up the process of turning words into pulsations of current, then turning the pulsations back into words at the other end—words intended to be heard only by a receiving operator, who would then (as Edison had done thousands of times as a youth) copy out the message for delivery. Hence the telephone really was, for all its crackly noise, telegraphic in function.

. . .

“Kruesi—make this,” Edison recalled saying to John Kruesi, his Swiss-born master machinist, giving him a drawing of a mounted, foil-wrapped cylinder, with a handle on one side to turn it, and a vibrant mouthpiece projecting a stylus that just touched the surface of the wrap. “I told him I was going to record talking, and then have the machine talk back,” Edison wrote. “He thought it absurd. However, it was finished, the foil was put on; I then shouted Mary had a little lamb, etc. I adjusted the reproducer, and the machine reproduced it perfectly….I never was so taken aback in my life.”

What awed Edison beyond any other thought was that the moment did not have to be a moment; it could be a century, if the foil and the stylus were preserved; and then in 1977, if some unborn person turned this same handle, the voice of a man long dead would speak to him. No wonder that Kruesi, listening with incredulity to the thing he had made talking with Edison’s voice, exclaimed, “Mein Gott im Himmel!” (My God in heaven).

All those who heard the miraculous machine in the ensuing months, from the president of the U.S. on down, reacted with equal disbelief. Since the dawn of humanity, religions had asserted that the human soul would live on after the body rotted away. The human voice was a thing almost as insubstantial as the soul, but it was a product of the body and therefore must die too—in fact, did die, evaporating like breath the moment each word, each phoneme was sounded. Even the notes of inanimate things—the tree falling in the wood, thunder rumbling, ice cracking—sounded once only, except if they were duplicated in echoes that themselves rapidly faded.

But here now were echoes made hard, resounding as often as anyone wanted to hear them again.

For the full essay, see:

Edmund Morris. “The Making of Thomas Edison’s Miraculous Machine.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, October 19, 2019): C5.

(Note: ellipses at the end or in between paragraphs, added; ellipsis internal to a paragraph, in original.)

(Note: the online version of the essay has the date October 17, 2019, and has the same title as the print version.)

The essay quoted above is adapted from Morris’s book:

Morris, Edmund. Edison. New York: Random House, 2019.

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