JF Ptak Science Books
"The Phonograph", being an article in the April 18, 1878 issue of Nature, volume 17, No 442, pp 485-6 in the weekly issue of pp 481-500. This issue comes complete with the scarce outer wrappers and ads, comprising another 7pp. The issue has been removed from a larger bound volume, and shows that effect on the spine; that said the weekly is in crisp and bright condition. VG $150
Only months into the invention of the phonograph by Thomas Edison (at Menlo Park in December of 1877 and patented in January 1878) Alexander J. Ellis reviewed a version of it constructed in London by Mr. Stroh, and found it, well, wanting. Ellis (1814-1890) was a product of Eton, Cambridge, Trinity, and was a gifted mathematician, philologist, and a groundbreaking ethnomusicologist, and did see some limited utility of the machine to restricted areas of his research. In the short note he wrote for Nature in their April 18, 1878 issue, he mostly found that the phonograph was generally flawed in its reproductive capacity, and did not venture far from this interpretation so far as the possible applications of the machine was concerned, which seems iconically short-sighted from my perch here in the future. Even though Ellis recognized that "the effects produced are sometimes startling (as in cries, coughs, laughter, music), the philosophy of the process (making a permanent impression of a very complex compound vibration, and using it as a mould to reproduce that vibration is exceedingly attractive, but at present the instrument--at least the one that I saw..." he concludes that the status of the invention "...has not risen beyond a lecture illustration or a philosophical toy".
That said, Mr. Bell himself didn't see that much utility in the invention at the time, although with time it became his favorite invention, his "baby" so to speak. In 1878, though, the the use of the phonograph was pictured in exceptionally narrow terms.
Mr. Ellis was cautious enough though to qualify his statements in the April Nature issue by restricting his phonograph experience to the one constructed by Mr. Stroh. And then, a month later, Ellis returns to Nature with a new appreciation of the phonograph--this one constructed by the beautifully-named Fleeming Jenkin, which evidently was superior to the Stroh machine, as Ellis has a newer appreciation for the invention, though its future still seems limited to the study of phonetics and speech.
- "The phonograph as I have said resembles rather a worn print than a proof of the human voice. This means of course that the delicate upper partial on which all brilliancy depends are absent In some respects this is advantageous for the very elaborate inquiry which Prof Fleeming Jenkin has instituted for it enables him to catch the bold outlines en which genera depend without being at first bewildered by the delicate details which give specific differences. Our speech sounds are of course individual and what is recognised as the same speech sound varies in the same speaker within the limits of its genus almost every time it is used. We shall do much if we establish the genus. The extent of Prof Jenkin's researches as he contemplates them end the ease with which his initial experiments tracings and analyses have been conducted lead us to hope that we have at least got an instrument which will enable us to solve the elementary problems of phonetics that have hitherto almost baffled us although it is not suited as yet to fix those delicacies of utterance which were my own special object of investigation." (Nature, May 9, 1878.)
Mr. Ellis does rescind many of the negative things he had found in the phonograph in this new May letter, though he still seems not so happy with it, and can see thus far in two letters that see only a very limited history for the invention. At the very least though Mr. Ellis did say that the new machine constructed by Jenkin was definitely no longer merely a philosophical toy.