by Drew Martin
The iconic feature of the most highly designed Edison cylinder phonographs is the speaker horn that rises like smoke from the mechanical box, like a manifestation of sound itself, but the most fascinating part of the device is the cylinder itself. Yesterday I saw such an Edison product with a decagonally flared speaker, which was playing an acrylic cylinder (he also used wax). Despite some scratchy popping sounds it was amazing to hear how close he was able to approximate the human voice and musical instruments with a setup that is actually quite low-tech, and from more than a century ago. The phonograph used the speaker as the microphone, and a special inscription needle to etch the funneled noises into the cylinder material. To listen, the needle uses a playback tip, which transfers the etchings into audible voice and music that are amplified by the speaker horn. The phonograph I saw yesterday at a local science fair was part of the collection of the Museum of Interesting Things: A traveling, interactive demonstration and exhibition of antiques and inventions.