Tag Archives: Thomas Edison

The LP – Side Two

In 1889 two competing recording formats emerged, the all-wax cylinder, used in Edison’s “Perfected Phonograph” and the Gramophone, the world’s first record player, patented by German-born US inventor, Emile Berliner. Both formats were able to reproduce about two minutes’ worth of professionally made pre-recorded songs, instrumentals, and monologues, and while the Phonograph allowed the owner to record their own music too, the Gramophone was louder.

Cylinders played at 120 revolutions per minute (rpm), later increasing to 200 rpm to improve volume and squeeze in more material, whereas Berliner’s hand-cranked seven-inch records made from vulcanised rubber operated at a statelier speed, between sixty and 75 rpm.

Despite its fragility, the introduction of shellac, a resin derived from female lac beetles, which allowed more grooves to be cut into the record, started to swing the pendulum in the gramophone’s favour, cemented by the launch of the Red Seal label in 1903 featuring ten-inch shellac records playing at 78 rpm. It was a format that was to serve music lovers for almost five decades. Cylinders were quietly dropped from around 1912, although Edison supported them until 1929.

Flexible plastic discs made from Polyvinyl chloride (PVC or vinyl) were sent to radio broadcasters in the 1930s as they were more robust and produced better, more consistent sounds than shellac records, but they were not commercially available, the aftermath of the Great Depression dampening down the appetite amongst companies and consumers alike for technological innovation. However, a combination of a shortage of shellac after the Second World War and the development of the microgroove system in 1947 by Peter Goldmark and his team at Columbia Records set the stage for the next revolution in record production.

In 1948 the engineers at Columbia had developed a twelve-inch long-playing record, spinning at 33 and 1/3 rpm and holding about twenty-three minutes’ worth of music on each side. The first demonstration disc, ML4001, featured Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor played by the Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra of New York (now known as the New York Philharmonic) under the baton of Bruno Walter. 

Other early offerings included 12-inch discs featuring Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and Greig’s Piano Concerto in A with Oscar Levant at the piano, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, favourites from Bizet’s Carmen, and ballet suites from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker and Khatchaturian’s Gayane. The collection was completed by two ten-inch records featuring a selection of Strauss waltzes and the music of Stephen Foster. Ten thousand of each of the albums were sent to Columbia’s distributors in readiness for the launch on June 21, 1948. The LP era had begun.

The Columbia Catalogue for 1949 waxed lyrical about its innovation, pointing out that their LP records played approximately six times more music than conventional shellac records allowing the listener to enjoy the world’s greatest music in one sitting, and that they were much more robust. “Each LP record”, it trilled, “consists of scores of microscopically fine grooves, precisely controlled channels capable of capturing the most subtle nuances or most magnificent fortissimi”. 

Columbia Records, though, did not have everything their own way, with RCA Victor introducing their own LP format shortly afterwards, just seven inches in diameter and revolving at 45 rpm. Over the next two years the companies battled it out in what was dubbed “The War of the Speeds”, but eventually the twelve-inch revolving at 33 and 1/3 rpm settled down to become the predominant format for albums and the seven-inch 45 rpm disc for singles and extended play records (EPs).

The advent of stereophonic recordings in the 1960s and the phasing out of mono sound in 1968 heralded the heyday of the vinyl, allowing contemporary musicians, arguably, to push the boundaries of musical creativity.

Vinyl might have been eclipsed by other formats, but its flame has been kept alive by many including Britain’s vinyl collecting community, of whom, a recent Royal Mint survey into collecting habits revealed, 32% live in Glasgow[1]. The format’s renaissance suggests that their faith was justified, and plans are underway, in the year that the vinyl LP celebrates its diamond anniversary, to hold the world’s first festival designed purely for vinyl enthusiasts in Haarlem in the Netherlands[2].

The vinyl revolution is not over.

[1] https://thevinylfactory.com/news/glasgow-uk-vinyl-collecting-capital/

[2] https://djmag.com/news/worlds-first-vinyl-focused-festival-launch-next-year

The LP – Side One

Ever since the release in Japan of Billy Joel’s 52nd Street on October 1, 1982, the first commercially available compact disc (CD), vinyl records have been locked in an existential struggle. Digital formats might offer a cleaner listening experience, be more convenient to store, and well-nigh indestructible, but for many audiophiles a vinyl record feels more tangible and “alive” and is better at picking up the subtle nuances that are often lost or muddied in compressed digital recordings. For the romantic each hiss, crackle, and scratch on a vinyl record evokes a memory.

In a surprising but welcome turn of fortunes, the sales of vinyl in the UK in 2022 exceeded those of CDs for the first time since 1988, a revival fuelled in part because some major artists, such as Taylor Swift and Harry Styles, have deliberately chosen to record in that format. It is timely too as 2023 marks the seventy-fifth anniversary of the long-playing record (LP).

Inspired by some drawings of the human auditory system, French printer of scientific works, Edouard-Leon Scott, worked on a device designed to capture the human voice mechanically. He succeeded in 1853 by replacing the tympanum with an elastic membrane in the shape of a horn and the ossicle with a series of levers which moved a stylus backwards and forwards across a glass or paper surface blackened by smoke from an oil lamp.

Although Scott received a patent for his “phonautograph” on March 25, 1857, it was not a commercial success as the sound, rendered into a series of squiggles, could not be played back. It was not until 2008 when a team from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory succeeded in converting a phonautograph he had recorded on April 9, 1860, into a digital audio file that the true extent of his achievements was appreciated. Scott was heard singing, very slowly, a twenty-second snatch of Au clair de la Lune, predating Thomas Edison’s recording of Mary had a Little Lamb by some seventeen years.

Although Scott went to his grave convinced that Edison had wrested some of the glory that was rightfully his, the American inventor took the concept of voice recording forward by devising a system that played back sounds that had been recorded by transferring it to an embossing point and then, initially, on to paraffin paper and later a spinning cylinder wrapped in tin foil.

Scientific American, in its edition of December 22, 1877, reported that Edison had visited their office and “placed a little machine on our desk, turned a crank, and the machine enquired as to our health, asked how we liked the phonograph, informed us that it was very well, and bid us a cordial good night”. Edison’s patent (No 200,521), awarded on February 19, 1878, specified a particular method, embossing, for capturing sound on cylinders covered with tin foil. It was to prove to be his favourite invention.

Quacks Pretend To Cure Other Men’s Disorders But Rarely Find A Cure For Their Own – Part Sixty Eight

Leo Minges and the Cartilage Company

I’m reasonably tall and as a consequence have not been prey to the inferiority complex and insecurities that are supposed to afflict our shorter brethren. Even if I was, I think I would resign myself to the height that nature bestowed upon me. But their shortness is such a psychological handicap for some that they would stop at nothing to gain those extra inches. And where there is a need, there is fertile ground for the purveyor of the art of quackery to exploit. One such was K Leo Minges.

A spate of adverts at the turn of the 20th century asked the pertinent if politically incorrect question; “Why remain short and stunted when you may learn free how to grow tall?” Reassuringly, the banner headlines went on to say, “No matter how short you are or what your age, you can increase your height.” Men and women under the age of fifty could expect to grow between two and five inches and those who had passed the magic age of half a century could still expect to increase their “height perceptibly” following Minges’ methodology.

The successful quack is never one to hide their light under a bushel and Minges was no exception to this adage. The advertising copy claimed that “Mr Minges is to short men and women what the great wizard, Edison, is to electricity,” no mean boast. Encouragingly, he “had gathered more information relative to bone, muscle and sinew than anyone else in existence.” Some people may do a spot of gardening for a hobby but for Minges this was all a bit too mundane. “Making people grow tall has been a hobby with Mr Minges for years,” the ad proclaims. One wonders how he got started. “The results he has accomplished,” it goes on, “are startling to a high degree” – well, a low degree would be no use, would it?

The advert then went out of its way to soothe any concerns. “There is no inconvenience, no drugs or medicines, no operation. Merely the application of a scientific principle in a perfectly hygienic and harmless way. Your most intimate friends need not know what your doing”, although they would, presumably, notice your increased stature. Sending your name and address to the Cartilage Company in Rochester, New York would secure you a copy of the instructional book, How to Grow Tall, a tall story if there ever was one.

If you were convinced by Minges’ expertise, track record and the words of wisdom to be found in the pages of his book, you could then buy his apparatus. It had the appearance of something from a medieval torturer’s tool kit or from the darker recesses of the world of sado-masochism. The user placed their feet in stirrups affixed to the floor and placed a harness on their head. A rope was then run via the harness to a pulley on the ceiling. Quite how you hid all this from your most intimate friends, God only knows.

Anyway, the user was invited to pull on the rope which would stretch their body. Quite how effective it was is anyone’s guess. Given the horrific dislocations regularly meted out by the torture rack, it is easy to imagine that over-enthusiastic use could lead to unforeseen injury.

It would be better to accept your height for what it is.

There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Sixty Nine


Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville (1817 – 1879)

It is always fascinating to hear yourself as others hear you. Often it is quite a shock – do I really sound like that? – but the usual way in which we hear our voice as it really is is by recording it on a tape recorder or a dictaphone and then playing it back. Of course, someone must have had the brain wave to capture the human voice and this is where the latest inductee of our illustrious Hall of Fame, Leon Scott, to abbreviate the mouthful that is his name, comes in.

Scott was born and lived in Paris and was a printer by trade. Perhaps unsurprisingly,, he took some interest in the documents, journals and books that he was printing. A particular speciality of his printing business was works of scientific interest and he was able to keep abreast with the latest developments. Having seen the development of rudimentary cameras which were able to capture images of the human form, he began to wonder whether a device could be built to record the human voice. Scott saw a particularly useful application in the ability to record a conversation verbatim, what we would now call stenography and by 1849 had published a number of papers on the subject.

Proof-reading a physics textbook around 1853 he came across a series of drawings of the human auditory system and he wondered whether that could be recreated mechanically. His design replaced the tympanum with an elastic membrane in the shape of a horn and the ossicle with a series of levers which would move a stylus back and forth across a glass or paper surface blackened by smoke from an oil lamp. The object of the exercise was to capture the sound of the human voice in a way that could be deciphered rather than played back.


Calling his device a phonautograph, Scott sent a version of its design to the French Academy on 25th March 1857 and received a French patent for his troubles. But there is one thing coming up with an idea and another making some money out of it, the significant drawback to his design being that whilst it reproduced sound as a series of squiggles it did not allow the recordist to play it back. So what sales Scott made were limited to the scientific community, principally to allow them to investigate the qualities and properties of sound. Laudable, for sure, but sales were insufficient to make a difference to his lifestyle and Scott saw out his days a librarian and bookseller.

And there it may have rested. But in 2008 a group of scientists the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory got hold of one of Scott’s phonoautographs and succeeded in converting the series of squiggles made on 9th April 1860 into a digital audio file. On playing it they heard a 20 second snatch of Scott singing, very slowly, part of Au clair de la lune, an audio recording pre-dating Thomas Edison’s recording of Mary Had a little lamb, by some 17 years.

Edison received a patent for his phonogram in 1877 and Scott went to his grave convinced that the American had wrested some of the glory that was rightfully his. For laying the foundations for recording the human voice, Leon, you are a worthy inductee into our Hall of Fame.


If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone which is now available on Amazon in Kindle format and paperback. For details follow the link https://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=fifty+clever+bastards

There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Fifty Four


Louis le Prince (1841 – 1890)

The latest inductee into our illustrious Hall of Fame is Metz born Louis le Prince, the forgotten founding father of what is now the multi-billion dollar film business.

Our hero in his youth spent time in the studio of his father’s friend, Louis Daguerre, from whom he received lessons in rudimentary photography and chemistry. He went on to take a post-graduate degree in chemistry at Leipzig University. Moving to Leeds in 1866 to join a firm of brass founders called Whiteley’s and marrying his boss’ daughter, Elizabeth, le Prince and his wife earned some renown for fixing photographs on to metal and pottery and some examples of their work, including portraits of Queen Victoria and William Gladstone were sealed in a time capsule and placed in the foundations of Cleopatra’s Needle on the banks of the Thames.

Moving to the United States, le Prince pursued his interest in developing a camera capable of shooting moving pictures. In 1888 he was granted a dual-patent on a device which contained 16 lenses and was capable of taking moving pictures and projecting the results. It was not altogether successful, though, because each lens captured the image from a slightly different angle and the result was rather jumpy.

Undeterred, le Prince returned to Leeds and built a single lens camera which on 14th October 1888 he used to film the world’s first motion picture, now known as the Roundhay Garden Scene and then went on to record scenes of trams, horse-drawn vehicles and pedestrians crossing Leeds bridge. A blue plaque today marks the spot where he had set up his camera. The films were soon shown at what would be the world’s first picture show, in Leeds.

But, as is the way with our inductees, le Prince was never able to enjoy his success. In September 1890 he was due to travel to the States to give a public demonstration of his invention and decided, whilst in France, to visit his brother in Dijon. He boarded the train but was not there when it arrived in Paris, nor was his luggage. He was never seen again and was officially declared dead in 1897. A search of Parisian police archives in 2003 revealed a picture of a drowned man dating to 1890 which looked uncannily like le Prince.

Inevitably, there are a number of theories as to what happened to him. One theory, espoused by his grandson, was that the business was in financial difficulties but, au contraire, it seemed that it was profitable and le Prince had high hopes for his camera. Another is that he eloped because he was gay and feared being outed. Another theory is that he was murdered by his brother, who was the last person to see him alive.

The most intriguing theory, though, involves the Steve Jobs of his time, Thomas Edison. Perhaps le Prince was assassinated? Not long after le Prince’s disappearance, Edison tried to assert his claim that he had invented cinematography and thus was entitled to reap the rewards of the invention. This claim was disputed in the American courts by the American Mutoscopy Company. Le Prince’s son, Adolphe, was due to be called as a witness to demonstrate his father’s two cameras but was never called and the case was decided in Edison’s favour, a decision which was overturned a year later.

But the damage had been done. Edison was able to pass himself off as the inventor of cinematography and le Prince’s contribution was not officially recognised until 1930. Adolphe, too, died in mysterious circumstances in 1892, having been found dead on a duck shoot.

Louis, for your contribution to cinematography, you are a worthy inductee.


If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone which is now available on Amazon in Kindle format and paperback. For details follow the link https://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=fifty+clever+bastards