Ohio History Journal

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Miss Newcomb and the Talking Machine

Miss Newcomb and the Talking Machine






ON THE MORNING OF MAY 25, 1878, the girls of the female

seminary at Painesville, Ohio, interrupted their normal school rou-

tine to bark, mew, crow, and tell Mother Goose rhymes to a most

unusual auditor--a strange looking machine which listened pati-

ently to all their confidences and then performed the amazing

feat of repeating them all back again to the intrigued listeners.

For the first time in their lives the girls were witnessing the record-

ing and reproduction of the human voice.

Less than a year earlier Thomas A. Edison, a promising young

inventor from the seminary students' own state of Ohio, had con-

structed the world's first phonograph.1 While working on a high-

speed telegraph transmitter in his laboratory at West Orange, New

Jersey, Edison obtained results which upon further exploration and

development led him to construct a recording machine. In his first

experimentation he used paraffin paper tape to register the sound.

This method failed to produce a clear recording and was replaced

after some weeks by the tin-foil cylinder phonograph, which was

the type of machine seen by the seminary girls.

It was probably in November or December of 1877 when Edison,

using the tin-foil type machine, first recorded a recognizable re-

production of his voice,2 reciting on this historic occasion the

nursery rhyme, "Mary Had a Little Lamb"--a most prosaic begin-

ning indeed for the world's first venture into recording! The gov-


* Robert M. Warner is assistant curator at the Michigan Historical Collections of

the University of Michigan.

1 The factual information about the first phonograph and its exhibition was

obtained from Roland Gelatt's The Fabulous Phonograph: From Tin Foil to High

Fidelity (New York, 1955), 17-27.

2 The "official date" is given as August 12, 1877, but Gelatt believes this date

"highly questionable," suggesting November or December, 1877, as being closer

to the truth. Ibid., 22.