How important is it to be first?
My wife and I recently returned from a trip to the East Coast and England (old England, the first one, not “New England”). While on the East Coast, we decided to stop off at the Thomas Edison National Historical Park in West Orange which houses Edison’s laboratory complex where he developed numerous inventions including his filament light bulb for which he tested thousands of materials, the motion picture camera, and of course, the phonograph. He is appropriately often described as America’s greatest inventor.
The site houses his chemical laboratory where he created chemicals for developing photographs, massive machine halls, his extensive research library which contained a solid cube foot of copper, a replica of the Black Maria (“the world’s first motion picture studio”), a music room with numerous phonographs and gramophones with a room off to the side housing all the different shapes of horns they tested, a massive collection of still and motion picture cameras, and some early sound effect props. They also had some beautifully creaky stairs I just had to record!
It was all a bit much!
The more I learned about Edison, his life and his accomplishments, the more I revered him. I tried to think of a modern-day equal, but even if you were to combine the achievements of luminaries such as Gates, Jobs and Musk, I feel it can’t possibly best the significance and ingenuity (both in practical invention and business) of the accomplishments and amazing efforts throughout his entire life that Edison made.
Despite all this, perhaps the most revelatory piece of information I learned that day actually didn’t concern Edison, at least not directly. It challenged something I had believed to be true for some time; that Edison was the first person to record sound. He was not.
Misattributed inventions aren’t uncommon, and many involve Edison. As we learned, he often took existing inventions, reverse engineered them, improved upon the concept by means of a different method before then making a commercial success of it. But in the case of recorded sound, someone beat Edison not by days or months, but by twenty years!
Here we have Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinsville, the first person to record sound in 1857 with his phonautograph.
Here we have Thomas Alva Edison, the first person to record and reproduce sound in 1877 with his phonograph.
You see while Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinsville was the first to record sound, he didn’t have any way to play it back. That wasn’t even his goal. He was actually attempting to create a form of recorded sound that could essentially be visually read and understood by the eye, just by looking at the result. It’s only in the last decade that experts have been able to take the recordings made by the phonautograph, and using computers, reproduce them.
Edison meanwhile (without any apparent knowledge of Scott or the phonautograph) realized it was in the ability to reproduce recordings that such an invention could find value. His efforts would give birth to Edison Records and a whole new industry.
I left the Thomas Edison National Historical Park with the appreciation that sometimes it isn’t enough to simply be the first to create something. That if you want people to care about what you make and for it to have a lasting impact, it has to have meaning, a use, a story, else it will be forgotten.
Here are the items themselves at the Thomas Edison National Historical Park. On the left is Scott’s phonautograph, created in 1857. On the right is Edison’s first phonograph, created a whole twenty years later in 1877. They sure don’t make ’em like they used to, and I for one am thankful for that!
NPR produced a short piece about this very story which you can check out here: At The Dawn Of Recorded Sound, No One Cared
And if you’re passing though New Jersey, I highly recommend a visit to the Thomas Edison National Historical Park.
Here’s a few more links:
And a couple of related NPR stories:
“To invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk”