Thomas Edison National Historical Park: Phonograph Ranger Demo


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Every year, usually the first Saturday in June, the town of West Orange holds a street fair in conjunction with Edison National Historic Park to celebrate Edison Day. This is usually a fee-free day, with lots of demonstrations and talks given by volunteers and rangers.


I went up to the 3rd floor of the laboratory complex for a scheduled ranger talk. In the recording studio at the end of the hall the ranger talked about Edison’s invention of the phonograph.


Thomas Edison invented the phonograph in his Menlo Park laboratory in 1877. The prototype used a tinfoil covered cylinder with needles etching the vibrations into the foil.
Edison recited ‘Mary had a little lamb’ into his prototype. When he played back his words all present were astounded. The invention worked!


Under pressure from investors to get back to inventing the light bulb, Edison had to put his work on the phonograph aside. When it seemed that someone else was close to developing a marketable phonograph, Edison started working on it again.


He improved the cylinder from tinfoil to wax and then to an animal based material that was the precursor to plastic. Once on the market, Edison had to produce recorded cylinders for people to purchase. Artists came to the recording studio to produce cylinders.


However, Edison’s competitors moved from the cylinder to the record. Records could be more easily mass-produced and were less expensive. Eventually, Edison was forced out of the phonograph business.


After passing around some photos the ranger played a cylinder on Edison’s phonograph as a demonstration. Scroll down to the bottom to see the video.

Another of Edison’s many inventions

Edison NHP Posts:

Location: 211 Main St, West Orange, NJ 07052

Designation: National Historical Park

Date designation declared: 3/30/2009

Date of my visit: 8/18/2018

Telegraph Machine

15 thoughts on “Thomas Edison National Historical Park: Phonograph Ranger Demo

  1. When you walk through these buildings it’s like wandering through somebody’s garage or basement. But it’s not your father’s basement full of useless junk, it’s Thomas Edison’s. I’ve gone there quite a few times and always find something new.!

  2. We want to get there someday.
    By coincidence, we were recently at Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village where a docent demonstrated recording on one of Edison’s original cylinder machines; the aluminum foil they use to record on each now costs several thousand dollars a box, so they don’t do it often.

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