Friday, March 18, 2011

The Internet and Thomas Edison's pen

A little time-travel arm-chair adventure story, made possible by long-ago genius and modern-day technology.
For various reasons having to do with (my) fiction (endeavors), I was on the hunt for information about  the state of the phonograph in 1880.
It all began (a while ago... in terms of months that is, not years or decades) when I stumbled across the fact that the phonograph was invented in 1877 (factoid in the book The Writer's Guide to Everyday Life in the 1800s, which noted that the gas engine and carbon microphone were invented that year as well).
Very cool, I thought. I am particularly interested in the state of music and what was happening in the 1800s (before 1880).
As I came closer to writing what I thought of as "the scene" involving said phonograph, I began to wonder: What did this device look like? I know Thomas Edison invented it. Were there phonographs out and about? Was it a common machine? What did it play? The book didn't have any more information, so ...
I let loose the dogs of research...
Right away, I found a nifty photo on Wikipedia—Thomas Edison with his invention (photo taken in 1878)
In the same entry, I found an image of an Edison cylinder phonograph, taken in 1898:

Okay, so one is a tad too early, the other is quite a bit too late. So, what was the state of affairs in 1880? I began widening my search. Found some nifty stuff. Didn't bookmark it all, but here's a more "in depth" look at the 1877 machine, in Mix magazine (online) on the Edison Cylinder Recorder.
Somewhere along the line, I stumbled onto a reference of an Edison Phonograph patent dated may 18, 1880. Good enough for me...
A quick virtual trip to the US Patent and Trademark Office site, and lo and behold, I download a copy of Edison's 1880 patent (one page shown below):
At this point, late at night, I sat back in my comfy chair in my home office, and thought about what had just occurred. In 2011, from my laptop, in the comfort of my home, I had just snagged an electronic copy of a patent of one of Edison's most important inventions—130 years after his pen-and-ink copy (complete with his signature) was given the nod. I could examine the drawings and read the text and see his hand upon the page.
Truly amazing.
And I think Thomas Edison would have approved...


  1. Wow, I remember writing my first book in 1995 (Not all that long ago!), and having to spend hours at our local library trying to track down magazine articles (always lost...) and books (always at another branch...). Now, there is Google and all the rest. I'm barely techno-functional, and find my joy and delight in nature, but I gotta say that the internet brings me inner peace when it comes to research!

  2. Amen to that, Susan! :-) Remember the old wooden card catalogs in libraries? I loved shuffling through the cards—you never knew if one card forward or back might yield some serendipitous treasure!
    But there's something to be said about having the world at your fingertips, while you're still in your pajamas...

  3. Ah, yes! Pajama research! Nothing better!