The Phonograph and Its Future

Probability: Family Record


"Family Record: -- For the purpose of preserving the sayings, the voices, and the last words of the dying member of the family -- as of great men--the phonograph will unquestionably outrank the photograph.


An 1888 article "The Perfected Phonograph" in Scientific American summarized the profound impact the phonograph would have for future generations because of its wonder of perserving the human voice.

"This century will be memorable above others because it is that which first preserved articulate speech for after time. All poetry, of every age, is full of the yearning, one of the deepest in human nature, for the voice whose gentle greeting could be heard no more, and yet this tender sentiment will be gratified, and each elusive tone and accent now has conferred on it a perpetuity that is not an attribute of even the graven stone or brass."



Scientific American, May 26, 1888


Any voice captured for posterity could be meaningful to their descendents. But it's the voices of poets and of "great men" that draws special attention. Punch magazine in 1878 had already predicted poetry being heard by the public with "fair female phonographers playing our best poets in their own original voices!"

"A Suggestion" by George Du Maurier, Punch, April 20, 1878.


It would be Robert Browning in 1889 who would be the first of the "best poets" to make a phonograph recording.


Robert Browning, April 1889

In April 1889, only a few months before he died, Robert Browning became the first major literary figure to commit his voice to wax.

See "The Sound of a Voice That is Still": Browning's Edison Cylinder by Michael Hancher and Jerrold Moore for details about the recording and its subsequent history. (3)

"The Sound of a Voice That Is Still" by Dan Piepenbring provides a related lithograph, details about the original recording, the first anniversary of Browning's death, and a link to hear Browning's recorded voice. (4)

“LISTENING TO THE MASTER’S VOICE,” Black and White, February 14, 1891 (Courtesy of The Paris Review) (4)

The lithograph which documents the listening to Browning's voice on December 31, 1890, was based on the event of members of the Browning Society gathering for the first anniversary of Browning's funeral. The Phonograph used to listen to Browning's voice was an Edison Class M Phonograph with five (?) listening tubes.(3)


Here's how the Browning recording event was reported by The Phonogram p. 41, February 1891.


Alfred Lord Tennyson: In 1890, "one of Edison's assistants" carried a phonograph all the way to the poet's home on the Isle of Wight to capture him reading excerpts from The Princess (1847) and "The Charge of the Light Brigade" (1854). John Picker, author of Victorian Soundscapes (1), writes the following:

"Who would have imagined that the eighty-year-old Tennyson would warm to the new technology? But he did, and recordings preserve his thanking the assistant for showing him( in a mock American accent) "Edison's my-rack-uhlis invention." He arranged to keep the machine and went on to record about a dozen poems in full or part, periodically replaying them for himself and his guests during the last two years of his life."

The wax cylinder recording of Tennyson is available on-line, however, the following link goes to a somewhat eerie animation made by Jim Clark 'showing' and hearing Tennyson recite "The Charge of the Light Brigade." (2)



Voices of the Dead, The Phonoscope, November 15, 1896 (listening to Gladstone and Bismarck - "Death has lost some of its sting since we are able to forever retain the voices of the dead."



The Phonograph Album, The Phonogram, February 1891

"Collecting recitations or singing from popular artists of the stage."


Ten years after his "The Phonograph and its Future" article, Edison wrote another article titled "The Perfected Phonograph" which updated some of his predicted uses (all of which he said were now ready to be carried out) with additional examples: "...what a priceless possession it would have been to us, could we have Gen. Grant's memorable words, "Let us have peace," inscribed on the phonograph for perpetual reproduction in his own intonations! - The Perfected Phonograph," by Thomas A. Edison. North American Review, No. 379, June 1888

Likewise, in the early 1890's the phonograph industry continued to promote the value of the preservation of words in the spirit of Edison's original prediction in 1878 when Edison wrote regarding the family record that "the phonograph will unquestionably outrank the photograph."

The Phonogram, November 1892


Young Smith of the 71st New York, killed in Spanish-American War but his voice lives on.

The Phonoscope, November 1899


Man sings at his own funeral and hereafter will be heard each anniversary of his death.

The Edison Phonograph Monthly, April 1905



Making Your Own Record

An early advertising theme of phonographs was its ability to record ones own voice, "make records of the voices of your friends and reproduce them instantly." "It repeats your voice; your friend's voice; songs sung to it or stories told to it." "A simple machine;" "A child can run it."

"make records of the voices of your friends and reproduce them instantly..." Munsey's Magazine, May 1897


"Records your voice faithfully and reproduces it at once." Munsey's Magazine, October 1897


Record Your Own Song -- Your Friends' Voices.

Munsey's Magazine, 1898


'it repeats your voice; your friend's voice; songs sung to it or stories told to it."

The Graphophone - Columbia Phonograph Company, c.1900


An article in the September 1921 issue of Photoplay ("The World's Leading Moving Picture Magazine") reported George Clemenceau "has refused to have his voice perpetuated on the phonograph." Because of this it is being discussed that a law may be passed in France that such recordings be 'compulsory' "for every significant national character to send his voice down the ages..."

Compulsory Immortality - Although the law may not be passed it was noted that the future will probably be one of pictorial histories and voices captured for the ages.


Photoplay, September 1921.


Family Record. - "For the purpose of preserving the sayings, the voices...of the family."

Recordio by Wilcox-Gay "The voice of memory" Better Homes & Gardens, September 1947


Recordio by Wilcox-Gay "cherished hours...forever yours" Better Homes & Gardens, May 1946


Recordio by Wilcox-Gay "Christmas lives forever in the hearts of children" 1947


Put your family album on TV and "make your slides talkies if you prerecord your voice on the built-in cassette tape recorder." Sounds like magic but no hokus-pokus involved. Sylvania, 1968 ad


"Laughs. Talks. inexhaustible amusement." Edison Phonograph, Munsey's,1898

"giggles and chuckles. And a whole lot of other good time sounds. It is girl talk and whispers." Sony tape recorders, Life, 1969



"...your child's first word. The very first...Forever." Sony tape recorders, Life, 1969

"FAMILY RECORD...for the purpose of preserving..."

"The Family Scrapbook of the eighties!" --The VCR

Garry Trudeau, 1982

"FAMILY RECORD...for the purpose of preserving..."

"The Family Scrapbook of the 21st Century!" --The Smartphone and Selfies 2013 - I Forgot My Phone

Watch this 2 minute video and think about the cultural impact of recording sound and the smartphone's connection to the Phonograph as a preserver of sound and the moment






Published on Aug 22, 2013

Written by/Starring Charlene deGuzman, Directed by Miles Crawford