What is a “Talking Machine,” and What Happened to Them?

The Talking Machine was first patented in 1901 and is more commonly known as a record player. Before the digitization of music to CD and other digital formats, playback of recorded music on disks was done using a talking machine. Early disks were made of wax and electroplated so the audio could be repeatedly played back without any loss of sound or quality. Later, vinyl disks were created to replace the wax disks which quickly wore out.

The actual inventor of the Talking Machine was Thomas Edison, the man most people think about when talking about early inventions. His Talking Machine, created in 1877, consisted of three major parts: the horn shaped “speaker,” the medium it was to be recorded on (paper was amazingly used in Edison’s early experiments), and the needle used to transfer the vibrations made by the source sound to the recording medium. After several experiments and some modifications to the original equipment, a successful recording was made. However, Edison did not see the promise of his invention beyond limited business office use, so no attempts were made to pursue the invention as a commercial idea.

Once the Talking Machine became commercialized by the Victrola Talking Machine Company 25 years later, improvements were made both in the recording and playback technologies. The idea of a microphone was yet to come in 1901, but it is important to note that radio did not exist at this point in time either. Audio recordings played back on a Victrola Talking Machine was the only means of listening to music other than by attending a music concert. Its popularity soared, and Edison would not live to see the tremendous impact his invention played in the history of audio recording and playback.

The original Talking Machines can be found at auction houses or museums, but are primarily collector’s items. The machine itself is not the main issue but the disks that can be played on the machine are largely extinct. As with later versions of the phonograph, the needles used for playback wore out and wore out the medium that the sound was recorded on.

What can be missed in this history is that the very idea of recorded sound was intended as a storage medium, not primarily as a means to play back the recordings. This is what Edison seemed to miss in his thinking, but one we have been accustomed to for the majority of our lives.