Building the American Dictating Machine Industry

Introduction: The Original Commercial Application for Sound Recording

Thomas Edison had invented the phonograph in 1877, but after demonstrating it he had moved on to other projects, most notably his system of electric lighting. Alexander Graham Bell, Chichester Bell, and Charles Sumner Tainter picked up the ball a few years later, and developed an improved version of the phonograph, naming it the graphophone. Instead of tinfoil wrapped around a cylinder, the graphophone used a cylinder made of wax, which resulted in better recordings.

John Milton, dictating to a secretary

Edison wasn’t too pleased when he found out, and in 1878 he hastily invented an “improved phonograph,” which incorporated many features that were similar to the graphophone. The two machines, phonograph and graphophone, were offered for sale in the late 1870s as a mechanical replacement for the stenographer. Stenography had been used for years in business and government, and occasionally by professional writers. It was expensive to employ a stenographer, but justified where accuracy was important, such as in transcripts of congressional or parliamentary debates. Shorthand, a method of high-speed writing, was already well-established for this purpose by the middle of the 19th century. It allowed stenographers to write quickly enough to keep up with a conversation. In fact, the word “phonography” was already in use as a synonym for stenography.