By Brad Dison
In 1877, Thomas Edison’s engineers worked on a machine that would transcribe messages sent over telegraph lines. Alexander Graham Bell patented the telephone just one year prior, but it would be years before it became commonplace. As Edison and his engineers pondered over the different uses for this invention, Edison speculated that an audio message could be recorded in a similar fashion. This is one of the earliest known mentions of an answering machine or, in the cell phone era, a voicemail recorder. Edison proposed a sketch of this invention to mechanic John Kruesi, who built a working model within 30 hours. Edison tested the machine by reciting “Mary had a little lamb.” The machine recorded the recitation on a hollow cylinder made of tin foil. He was astonished to hear his own words played back to him. On Christmas Eve, 1877, Edison filed the patent for the phonograph. On January 24, 1878, Edison created the Edison Speaking Phonograph Company. Due to the sound being recorded on fragile tin foil, the phonograph was viewed only as a novelty because the tin foil only allowed the recording to be played back a few times. Edison’s work on the incandescent light bulb drew his and his engineer’s time away from further developments on the phonograph.
Alexander Graham Bell and his team of engineers made improvements on Edison’s phonograph, most notably of which was the replacement of the tin foil with a wax cylinder. Bell and his team patented what they called the graphophone and approached Edison to discuss a collaborative effort to make further improvements. Edison refused and made improvements on his phonograph which included Bell’s wax cylinder. Edison called it his New Phonograph. In October 1887, Edison formed a new company to market the machine. One advertisement pictured Edison standing alongside his newest model with the quote, “I want a phonograph in every home.”
In 1906, Hodson Burton, a wealthy, elderly resident of Buchanan, Michigan, revised his last will and testament. Burton’s will specified the distribution of some but not all of his property. Among other information, his will included the statement that he had buried a large sum of gold in a secret location. He recorded the location of the gold on a phonograph cylinder which was to be kept in his attorney’s safe until he had been dead five years.
In the spring of 1906, shortly after completing his will and phonograph recording, Hodson Burton died. For five long years, Burton’s heirs puzzled over the location of the hidden gold. Despite their requests, the attorney was resolute in honoring Burton’s will. Finally, on Saturday, April 1, 1911, all of the heirs gathered in the front parlor of the home of Burton’s son, Luke Burton, to finally play the phonograph cylinder and learn the location of the hidden gold. While they anxiously awaited the arrival of the attorney, they imagined what they could purchase with the gold such as “automobiles, mansions, and aeroplanes.”
The attorney had taken every precaution to ensure the fragile wax cylinder and phonograph machine remained safe. The attorney arrived through the rear of the house and went to the kitchen. On the kitchen table, he carefully unwrapped the phonograph and the wax cylinder. After five long years, the attorney was ready to rid himself of the responsibility of keeping it safe. He placed the cylinder on the phonograph and carefully lifted it off the table. With a deep breath, he slowly carried the phonograph from the kitchen, over the threshold to the parlor where a table had been cleared for the device. The attorney glanced back and forth between the phonograph and the table as he walked. As the attorney entered the parlor, he tripped over a footstool and the wax cylinder shattered into countless tiny pieces as it struck the floor, forever concealing the location of Burton’s hidden gold.
- The South Bend Tribune, April 3, 1911, p.10.
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