Inside the Collection

An Early Edison Tinfoil Sound Recording Machine

Edison Tinfoil Phonograph, gravity fed model
Collection; Powerhouse Museum

Edison Tinfoil Phonograph, gravity fed model, made by the London Stereoscopic Company (attributed), 1878-1888, H3168

This tin foil sound recording and play back machine [H3168] has been in the collection since 1915. For many years it was presumed to be a model of the original machine designed by Thomas Edison but in fact its story is far more interesting.

Edison designed the first recording machine in 1877 but soon after small number of commercial phonograph machines were made in England based on Edison’s design. While early Edison machines were hand cranked these utilised a falling weight to turn the cylinder. This style of machine appears to have originated in London’s General Post Office after Mr. W. H. Preece, Engineer-in-Chief at the General Post Office. arranged for a tinfoil machine to be made by Augustus Stroh a colleague of his. This was done under the guidance of Henry Edmunds, a British engineer who had seen Edison’s original and had written an article on it for The Times 17 January 1878.

Stroh’s machine was demonstrated at the Royal Institution on 1 February 1878 and when the London Stereoscopic Company recieved a license to make machines based on Edison’s patent the incorporated Stoh’s and their own design features making distinctly British models. By 1886 the company was offering three models, including one driven by a falling weight, and one which was spring driven. After an email correspondence with Rene Rondeau, a specialist in tin foil machines, we believe this is one of the London Stereoscopic Company’s spring driven models with an air controlled governor attached to the spinning axel.

Tinfoil Phonograph, detail of governor
Collection; Powerhouse Museum

 Tinfoil Phonograph, detail of governor, H3168

Edison’s tin foil machine never achieved great commercial success as they were expensive and the delicate nature of the foil surface made them fragile. Instead it was another sound recording machine designed by Alexander Graham Bell and Charles Sumner Tainter, called the ‘graphophone’, which established a popular standard for the sound recording industry. As a result tin foil machines like the ones designed and made by the London Stereoscopic Company fell into disuse although they remain rare examples of the early days of sound recording.

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