What would Edison say?

October 14, 2022
 by Paul McGowan

If inventor Thomas Edison hopped in a way-forward time machine to see how his phonograph had been improved upon in the intervening 144 years, do you think he’d be surprised and delighted the turntable is still around?

Just as a pure thought experiment I am always fascinated by what people might have expected vs. what really happened. For example, given the nature of quantum physics where two objects light years apart can simultaneously connect, I would predict that within the next decade or two we will have discovered how to exceed the speed of light or, at a minimum, understand how to reverse mass/gravity restrictions.

But, back to Edison. My guess is he’d be a bit disappointed with the popularity of vinyl. He’d look at what has developed in digital technology and wonder why anyone would stick with his original invention.

But, that’s just a guess.

Thoughts?

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64 comments on “What would Edison say?”

  1. Edison would finally admit that he ripped-off Tesla, & he would be genuinely apologetic…but I digress.
    Edison would, no doubt, be far more interested in said time-machine than to give a crap about
    scratchy old, or scratchy new, dynamics depleted, vinyl, I’m sure…but again I digress.
    I think that once Edison heard & understood the ins & outs of digital music storage & reproduction that
    he would be highly amused at those who still futz around with vinyl.
    However, he might understand that sometimes there’s just no scientific logic to some audio-enthusiast’s (phile’s) preferences.

    Maybe just show him the NAGRA – ‘Reference Anniversary Turntable’ 😀

    https://nagraaudio.com/product/nagra-reference-anniversary–turntable/

    1. However Edison was focused on „master wax cylinder quality“ having not invented a method for producing copies. Would he have made digital copies (DSD of course)? And which digital format would he use for removing all this noise? The problem of many vinyl aficionados.

  2. Edison invented the phonograph as a young man and lived more than 50 years thereafter. Had he read the the Christmas 1930 issue of Gramophone, which he may well have done, he would have seen a review of The Expert Senior Gramophone. The reviewer started:

    “It is difficult to know what to say about this instrument save that you can hardly conceive that a much better reproduction will ever be achieved from an acoustic gramophone. This sounds like rash prophecy, and no doubt it is unwise to appear to set limits to progress. It is not so very long ago that this standard of reproduction would have been considered a vain dream. Only those who have experienced the struggle can fully appreciate how hardly-won is each step ahead: the law of diminishing returns applies here with a vengeance.”

    All that proves is that for at least 90 years people have been believing they’ve cracked it, never to be bettered, until someone does better.

    Back to Edison, the single biggest development since he died was full frequency sound, developed in the early 1940s, only a decade after he died. This extended the frequency response from about 8khz to 15khz, but as most people over 70 can’t hear much over 6khz, he wouldn’t notice. As a mechanical and electrical pioneer, he might have been equally interested in mechanical and electrical (digital) developments.

    Otherwise, Paul’s post suggests his TV is stuck on the Sci-Fi channel.

    1. I never have seen a paper from Edison requiring 2-channel or multi-channel audio! He was a mono guy in contrast to Alan Blumlein! 🙂 Thus I would be more interested in Blumlein’s opinion. 🙂

      1. Edison lived long enough to go to talking pictures and would have certainly appreciated the need for binaural sound, which Blumlein proposed in the year Edison died (1931) and made the first binaural film in 1935. Blumlein did a 2-channel orchestral recording around that time. Music does not require sound imaging anything like film does, as film requires voices to come from roughly the location of the actor image on the screen. It took decades for stereo audio to catch on and it is still not necessary to enjoy recorded music. Plenty of us still listen to mono recordings.

        Paul goes on a lot about imaging and soundstage, but it is not really necessary to have good imaging and soundstage to enjoy recorded music. A lot of BBC-type speakers do not image very well, but they do not sound boxy either. They produce more a wave of sound, which is very pleasant.

        1. I tend to agree with you on this point Steven.
          You know my experience with my Harbeths &
          me finding 3D soundstaging, etc. back in ’93.
          It was fun & fascinating to hear that sort of
          presentation, not to mention impressing other listeners.
          However, like all novelties, it wears off over time,
          especially with Rock ‘n Roll music.
          You don’t need pinpoint imaging & 3D soundstaging.

          1. Last night I listened again to the 2018 remaster of “ Animals “. Which is one of my favorite PF albums. Listening to the keyboard intro on track 4 ( sheep ) the sound was coming from beyond the walls on both sides of the room which is about 14 feet. The speakers are 7 feet apart. I had turned off all the lights and could only see the el34’s glowing in the dark from my monos. It makes you want to go outside and stop people riding by , and make them listen.

        2. [SntbcwS:…but it is not really necessary to have good imaging and soundstage to enjoy recorded music.]

          Absolutely Agree! I Enjoy my music played while traveling, sitting at my PC desk and even when the spouse’s art room is filled with her boom-box tunes, music’s emotional connection can still be made!

          However, when I want a deeper personal musical experience, there is nothing like my listening room’s sweet spot, with holographic imaging and soundstage presentation that is, “mind-blowing” (what Paul alludes to). I’ve no doubt that with today’s well setup audiophile 2-channel systems (analog or digital), Thomas Edison or Tesla would say what I often do, “HO..SH.., I’m In the concert hall”!!

        3. Indeed! Unfortunately the vast majority of the audio companies has stuck in these crude design concepts of early stereo and has not adopted more advanced and refined concepts (see: ambiophonics) based on actual findings in psycho acoustics. Blumlein would be thrilled hearing ambiophonics systems as developed by Ralph Glasgal or Prof. Edgar Choueiri, Princeton ( BACCH SP2).

    2. Stuck on the sci-fi channel indeed. But better than the QVC channel. “But wait there’s more….”

      Quantum discovery in a decade or two?! Anything is possible Paul not probable.

      Now laser phonographs would surely captivate the attention of Edison

    3. I believe that Edison, after reading the Gramophone article would have chuckled… He wasn’t a quitter and would have probably gotten to work on improving his original masterpiece.

  3. I think Edison would be incredibly proud, maybe a little smug even, that his invention, albeit greatly refined, is still in use today. However, I think he’d be shocked by the price of vinyl.

    1. Edison’s invention was a cylinder, not a disc, and it was intended for recording as much as playback. The record disc was invented in Germany in the 1890s when recorded music was becoming popular. It was cheaper to make and did not need to be used for recording. It was not vinyl, it was shellac.

      So were Edison to see a modern record player, his reaction would probably be: “why didn’t I invent that?”

      1. There you go Steven. How many tries at the lightbulb did Edison make before he was successful?… I believe it was approximately 10,000. This guy was no quitter.

      2. Well yes, but don’t let the facts spoil the story.
        Regarding the price of vinyl there’s no doubt many valid reasons available but I was thinking back to when CDs were introduced. An LP was about £5 while CDs were £10. We were told this increased cost was due to technological development and the clinical conditions required for manufacturing. It wasn’t so many years after that they were being given away free with newspapers. It doesn’t quite add up to me.

  4. That the ex-phonograph record is still around and competitive (some might say even more than that) is more or less a scandal, I’m quite sure Edison would look on cars and planes and wouldn’t believe, music is still heard by the stylus and the latest digital technology still has to justify its sound quality outcome against the slightly improved phonograph.

    But then he’d probably look at the nation and the world and find that there are other more important things that should have changed 😉

  5. First, if you take into account the total amount of music listened to globally, considering sound bars, iPhones, streaming, etc. and evaluate how much of global music listening is vinyl, it has to be so insignificant a percentage that you would have to take the calculation out to 6 or 7 decimal places. The rest is all digital.

    Second, the phono of today, while in principle is the same is far more technically advance with moving magnet/coil cartridges, advanced electronics, carbon fiber tone arms, whisper quiet motors, advanced machining, etc. I think, in this respect, he would have been fascinated to see the sonic potential of his simple invention.

  6. Yep, ‘ole BF would surely shake his head in disapproval about the modern day version of his invention until he listened and compared it to digital and then he’d say, “I get it” and would want to hear more vinyl.

  7. I’m not sure TE would have anything but a passing interest in the modern day phonograph and it’s sound quality. There’s probably many other items / societal changes he’d have a much bigger interest in.

    Only audiophiles would assume the phonograph was the achievement he’d be most proud of and couldn’t wait to see in the future.

      1. Tesla’s imagination was beyond comprehension. They were both geniuses but I think Tesla should have got the nod over Edison when it came to electric power distribution.

        I wonder where music reproduction would be now if we had a DC source of power.

        1. Tesla won in the end.
          Edison had an idea for a hydrogen oxygen fuel cell along with a way to eliminate the slums of his day.

          Another example… business and politics, ruthlessness and money all came into play.

          The technology be exists now. Take a F150 or Tesla battery chassis and a static inverter to generate the clean AC needed for tune’s generation.

          Just beware of floods and fires. 🙂

          1. OMG Mike… hard to digest all of that info in one comment.

            I was driving in flooded areas in North Miami yesterday afternoon. There are areas in Miami currently that constantly flood after a 30 minute downpour. The fires and floods are incredibly troubling.

  8. “we will have discovered how to exceed the speed of light or, at a minimum, understand how to reverse mass/gravity restrictions” ? ….. very ambitious, but not a chance 🙂

    1. “Beam me up Scotty… There’s no sign of intelligent life on Earth.”

      How about “You fool, you idiot… Don’t you know I could’ve killed you with one Karate Chop?“

  9. Paul, Your post today took me back about 50 years to my undergraduate days. Myself and a couple of other physics majors were fascinated by a thought experiment involving a pole vaulter who could run at speeds close to the speed of light ( c ). ( Yes, I am a true nerd. )

    As to us traveling at the speed of light, there is a section of Einstein’s Special Relativity work that addresses causality and prohibition of motion faster than light that shows why anything with mass can never travel faster than the speed of light. I will not bore you with trying to explain this because I would have study a month or so to relearn it.

    As to the quantum entanglement effects that you mentioned ( the latest Noble Prize for Physics ) I offer up the following:

    Consider this though experiment. If our Sun suddenly ( in less than a femtosecond ) vanished it would take about 8 minutes for the light of the Sun to go dark here on Earth, however, in that very instant that the Sun disappeared the Earth would fly out of its orbit around the Sun into outer space.

    Trying to explain how light ( a form of electromagnetic ( E&M ) energy ) travels at a well defined defined speed ( c ) yet force fields are instantaneous is what is called the Grand Unification Theory. A single theory that can explain the four known forces in the universe ( Gravity, E&M, the Weak Force and the Strong Force ). A classmate of mine went on to become a theoretical physicist and this is what his research is on. All I can say is he is the smartest dude I have ever personally known.

    I have always believed that the more you learn the more you realize how little you know.

    1. Actually, gravity manifests itself no faster than the speed of light. Hence we have “watched” large scale events involving neutron stars merge and even black holes by measuring the gravity waves those events create, even though those events happened perhaps thousands of years ago. So “gravity” is not “instant” at all. If the sun instantly disappeared our orbit wouldn’t begin to change for 8 1/2 minutes.

        1. Hey, no problem at all. That often happens when we try to simplify things. I’m an engineer, not a physicist, but I have a friend who got his doctorate in astronomy and is well-versed in quantum physics as well. He speaks over my head sometimes, but I can usually get the gist of it – and magazines like Astronomy and Sky & Telescope have helped over the years…”Music of the Spheres” as thought of by Pythagoras might not be “real”, but we sure can enjoy it anyway…Turn it up!

  10. It is well known fact that even at a young age, Thomas Edison has lost most of his hearing. At the time of his death he was almost completely deaf.

    So it is very likely that after listening to modern digital audio Thomas Edison would’ve said “not much of an improvement from my original”.

    Therefore before Paul’s thought experiment should be performed, it would be best to fit poor Tom with a modern hearing aid.
    🙂

    1. I live 1/4 mile over the hill from the Hollywood Bowl. The only sound that reaches me is the very low bass. The rest of the frequencies die out in the atmosphere. Very annoying. I have suggested to the Bowl they need to install a subwoofer array at the Bowl boundary that fires LF bass 180-degrees out of phase with the primary array, to cancel out the LF that is being transmitted into the neighborhood.

  11. I think he would be happy that his invention was refined and still after all this time, produces amazing sound quality, only surpassed by DSD, which itself was only truly refined a few years ago (and as Paul notes, still needs refining in how to mix and master it).

    Similarly, I have to wonder what Sergei Pavlovich Korolev would have thought about the Russians still using a variant of the same rocket he used to launch Sputnik 1? Would he have been flattered that it had stood the test of time over 66 long years (and over 2000 launches) or would he have been appalled that it was still being used?

    It is funny to imagine a time travelling Edison walking into an audio store and instantly recognizing a turntable, a preamp, an amplifier, and speakers. Stereo might have baffled him for a few minutes, but then brought a smile to his face.

  12. If Edison survives a heart attack after seeing a phono cartridge costs more then his house and the most expensive turntable costs more than the state of New Jersey in his day he would probably kidnap @tedsmith and bring him back in time and we would all be streaming DSD and the turntable would be extinct with dinosaurs.

    1. Edison had a reputation as a ruthless businessman. If he had gone forward in time, seen the prices as you suggest and then gone back, he might well of used the profits from his enterprises to buy the whole state of New Jersey and become a real estate baron.

  13. With a reply to many discussing the physics of light (above), you might want to check out the work of Klaus Scharnhorst, who proposed that the speed of light between two very closely spaced plates can exceed the constant c. That’s very interesting as c is defined to be the speed of light in a vacuum and since we are on earth, which is decidedly not a vacuum (unless discussing politicians), anything we observe is likely to be slower. This work became known as the Scharnhorst Effect. As an exercise to the reader, check out the speed of light in a fiber optic cable. You’ll be shocked, but it won’t be by EMF. c is not a constant at all but varies by the transmission media.

    Scharnhorst was also the first to demonstrate the existence of wormhole travel, which requires speed in excess of c. Unfortunately, one of his grad students pointed out that he had an errant sign in his proof, negating the theory. Oops. I had high hopes for wormholes. Always check your work before passing in the exam paper or subjecting it to Paul’s hearing.

    1. Just watched a movie starring Ryan Reynolds that had to do with time travel in space by reaching speeds where a wormhole would open and allow him to travel back in time but his calculations were slightly off and he wound up two years earlier that his expectations wich made for a good adventure storey.

      1. What pushed me over the edge was reading Frank Herbert’s Dune (book, not movie). For some reason, I’m been on a wormhole jag ever since. If you enjoy reading some of the scientific facts behind the science fiction, the personalities of the physicists and mathematicians make for some interesting light reading.

        A great number of people have contributed the physics and mathematics behind wormhole travel. Most of it has been swept under the rug. However, some influences our understanding of the physical world even today. Who would ever forget Lorenz?

        For example, have you ever heard of a mathematician named Hermann MinkowskI? He developed a four dimensional system of space and time known as Minkowski Space Time. I’ll bet the answer is no for most people. However, he had a student who was inspired by his work and took it to a new level, developing two theories I’ll bet almost everyone knows the name of. That student was none other than Albert Einstein and the theories became known as relativity and special relativity. Isn’t science fun?

        1. The only pure mathematician that I know just passed away. His name was Saul Kripke and he was the most sought after professor of mathematics and philosophy at Princeton. He held Einstein’s office desk and chair. I don’t think he was involved with this type of math at all.
          After he passed I found the answer to the question I was looking for for many years. I was a big fan of The Big Bang Theory and there was a character named Kripke, and yes the creators of the show named this character after Saul.

  14. I would agree with you Paul if everyone was releasing digital products with the same fidelity as you are, but sadly that is not the case. Moreover, the digital Eighties and Nineties generally leave much to be desired. A quality turntable, coupled with a superior cartridge by Ortofon for example, and as in my case, a quality dedicated vacuum tube pre-amp for the turntable, to interface to the pre-amp stage of my HiFi, makes certain music a joy appreciate. Taking the time to care for the vinyl itself is also a must.

      1. No, and I have been asked that before. I had a shop in Del Mar Ca. where I repaired Electronics during the day and manufactured bespoke bookshelf speakers and subwoofers from my home after hours and weekends, selling them as one-off’s, to local independent stereo stores in the surrounding communities under the Beveridge Acoustic Labs name. I used primarily Seas drivers and designed and built the crossovers and enclosures myself. I did hear a pair of the S2 Beveridge speaker system once, but the seven grand price tag at the time seemed steep for the somewhat brittle sound, but that may have been due to set-up. I always wanted to travel and meet the owner and find out if we were somehow related, but military service kept me busy.

        1. Close but no cigar… Thanks for your reply. Your background seems really interesting and you lived in a beautiful area. Hope you’re still in California.

  15. What I find most interesting is that the old, tired analog turntable systems continue to find more information in those old grooves and reproduce it in a manner that is consonant with the pleasure music is capable of. You pay dearly for that but this isn’t an inexpensive endeavor.

  16. Only because Edison isn’t an audiophile and would prefer the convenience of digital over the reality of true analog. Need to keep pushing analog so it equals digital dynamic range.

    Also there are many people who have very sizable and valuable record collections and they want to listen to them and they like what they hear.

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