Feb 19th: Today we celebrate recorded music

After an autumn of tinkering and experimentation in New Jersey, one American man discovered a way to capture and replay sound. His name was Thomas Edison–yes, the inventor of the motion camera, the modern light bulb, and electric car battery–and on February 19th in 1878, he was awarded the patent for the phonograph. This may have been only one of 1,093 of his personal US patents, but it was one of the most consequential.

Talking machines

A December 1977 issue of the Scientific American wrote that, “Mr. Thomas A. Edison recently came into this office, placed a little machine on our desk, turned a crank, and the machine inquired as to our health, asked how we liked the phonograph, informed us that it was very well, and bid us a cordial good night.” In an age where we record and relive almost anything we do, replaying the human voice may seem unimpressive. But at the time, this was the first time you could “capture” a noise, distribute it, and replay it countless times as it sounded before, and this amazed, shocked, and terrified people all over the world.

The phonograph paved the way to the world we live in today, when many people spend much of their days with small buds inside our ears, enjoying a symphony for an audience of one. Before Edison’s invention, listening to music was almost always a social event, whether it was in church, an opera house, or with a gathering of family and friends. Now that a whole orchestra could sound out of a box in the living room, people began to listen to music in private.

Origins of pop

It also slowly transformed the writing of music, since a phonograph could only play pieces that were a maximum of a few minutes long. Long complex compositions were reduced to their most recognizable elements, and popular musicians placed newfound emphasis on simple, catchy melodies. This got us to the 2.5 minute pop songs that have dominated radio over the past decades.  


Radio changed the game once again, offering an improved listening experience and much greater variety of music, since the phonographs and record players were costly investments–especially if you wanted to collect more than a handful of records to listen to over and over again! A one-off investment in a radio meant listening to countless songs, not to mention live broadcasts, news announcements, and radio plays. If the phonograph helped distribute music to new audiences, radio introduced new pieces, styles, and musical ideas across the globe. It also led to the rise of pop stars and celebrity musicians now that one artist could reach millions.

Entering an age of magnetism

The next step was the invention of magnetic tape, which led to cassettes, boom boxes, and the walkman. With the arrival of the walkman, people could discreetly take their personal music concert with them anywhere in complete privacy. Or they could use a boombox to set up a public concert wherever they’d like.

The dawn of a digital revolution

The rise of personal computing in the 1990s brought digital music into the mainstream, resulting in the world that we live in today. This obliterated physical limits on the length of recordings, and the dawn of the internet unleashed an unprecedented exchange of music as sharing files across continents became virtually instantaneous. Sharing sites like Napster challenged the notion that music recordings should come with a price tag attached. Even if Napster was forcibly shuttered, its legacy is felt today when countless music files are uploaded and downloaded illegally every day, leaving the recording industry in tatters.

Perhaps these shocks to the recording industry are less surprising considering that Edison invented the first sound-recording device only 139 years ago. What began with a crank powered tin-foil covered cylinder playing simple voice recordings built an entire new industry, so that now we can walk around with a digital library with access to millions of songs within little phones in our pockets.