By Louis Rastelli
From Vol. 2 No. 4, 2003
An 1886 Harper’s magazine article (quoted elsewhere here) correctly predicts that as sound quality improves, this “graphophone” could be used for music and allow just about anyone to hear the famous singers in their own homes. The magazine incorrectly predicts, however, that water jets would soon be used as a form of microphone for recording records. Water does carry sound, and Bell & Tainter demonstrated a graphophone that recorded with water. A normal phonograph had a diaphragm at the end of a horn, with a stylus protruding from it (which etched the vibrations into the wax). The water device replaced the horn with a jet of water which ran in a constant stream, landing directly onto the diaphragm. Apparently, anyone talking near the water set it vibrating, and the diaphragm would vibrate enough to move the cutting stylus as any other phonograph would. The water was even more sensitive to sound, though, and Bell & Tainter thought that this would make it perfect for use in recording meetings, where every voice around the table, however faint, could be recorded. I’ve never heard of such a device ever being marketed, though—most likely the messiness of a device that literally shoots water made it just plain impractical.
There are numerous other strange variations on phonographs which were never developed after those early days. One particularly loud one from 1900 combined a phonograph with a powerful megaphone and was called “the shouting phonograph.” It supposedly would “shout so loudly that every word can be heard at a distance of ten miles.” A special hard metal cylinder was used in this contraption, which placed the megaphone attachment between the cylinder and a four-foot long horn. The cylinder would already play back sounds much, much louder than they had been recorded, and this huge mega-horn would kick the volume up still louder. Over water, the sound was said to carry for up to 15 miles while still intelligible. The visions for the device were quite grand—aside from being used by lighthouses to alert ships in heavy fogs, an article in Literary Digest from 1900 suggests this contraption will “render loud [musical] selections in the open air that can be listened to by thousands of people, or it will shout news messages that could be heard high above the roar of the traffic and the thousand noises of a big city.” Yet as far as I know, this device was not heard from again (no pun intended), perhaps because it would likely have burst the eardrums of anyone not standing 10 miles away from it…
Other assumptions about the future uses of phonographs were widespread (and also incorrect). One writer predicted in 1900 that the major cities of the world would soon have entire “phonographic museums” where the public can come and hear specimens of foreign languages, folklore, animal and other sounds. (Though libraries did eventually acquire records, I don’t think any “museums of sound” ever existed.)
Another person writing in the Literary Digest, in 1899, predicted that the curious sounds heard when listening to records backwards would eventually lead to a whole new form of music. The entry on music in the 1926 Encyclopedia Britannica makes an even more interesting prophecy which has yet to come true: they predicted that the microscopic study of the grooves of records would lead to new kinds of music wherein instruments are bypassed completely, with the sounds being engraved directly onto discs. “The limitations of music so produced would no longer be those of instruments, but would be determined solely by the precision with which it may become possible to model any sound-wave required. The composer will imagine and prescribe any producible timbre at any pitch he pleases…”
Although just about anyone with a computer and the right software can now model any sound-wave at “any pitch he pleases,” it’s debatable as to whether today’s music surpasses all previous limitations…