On this day in history, August 12, 1877, Thomas Edison invents the phonograph

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Thomas Alva Edison, the Wizard of Menlo Park whose genius ushered in a new era of light and sound for humankind, invented the phonograph at his New Jersey laboratory on this day in history, August 12, 1877. 

It was the earliest version of the record turntable that became the predominant form of music media in the 20th century — and is still in vogue today. 

“The phonograph will undoubtedly be liberally devoted to music,” Edison predicted, with stunning accuracy, in 1878.

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Edison’s phonograph not only played sounds. It recorded them, too. 

“Edison immediately tested the machine by speaking the nursery rhyme into the mouthpiece, ‘Mary had a little lamb,’” states the Library of Congress in its version of his moment of innovation.

American inventor and businessman Thomas Edison (1847-1931) with an Edison Standard Phonograph, at his lab in West Orange, N.J., 1906. The Edison Standard Phonograph, a wax cylinder player, shown here with its sound horn supported on a tripod, was produced between 1898 and 1913.

American inventor and businessman Thomas Edison (1847-1931) with an Edison Standard Phonograph, at his lab in West Orange, N.J., 1906. The Edison Standard Phonograph, a wax cylinder player, shown here with its sound horn supported on a tripod, was produced between 1898 and 1913.
(Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

“To his amazement, the machine played his words back to him.”

“The phonograph altered how people heard music,” Smithsonian Magazine enthused in 2016. 

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It was the beginning of on-demand listening, or “the music you want, whenever you want it,” as one phonograph ad boasted.

Thomas Edison applied for a patent for the phonograph on Dec. 24, 1877, and received it on February 19, 1878. 

Thomas Edison applied for a patent for the phonograph on Dec. 24, 1877, and received it on February 19, 1878. 
(Public Domain)

The phonograph was created amid Edison’s most inspired period of innovation. 

From 1876 to 1879, he invented the telephone transmitter, phonograph and incandescent lamp in rapid succession.

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Later versions of the phonograph were called the gramophone. 

Its unique horn shape inspired the name and design of the Grammy Awards, given by the Recording Academy each year since 1959 to honor the best productions and performances in music.

Dua Lipa, winner of the 2021 Grammy for Best Pop Vocal Album for "Future Nostalgia," poses in the media room during the 63rd Annual GRAMMY Awards at Los Angeles Convention Center. The shape of the award for music excellence was inspired by Thomas Edison's phonograph.

Dua Lipa, winner of the 2021 Grammy for Best Pop Vocal Album for “Future Nostalgia,” poses in the media room during the 63rd Annual GRAMMY Awards at Los Angeles Convention Center. The shape of the award for music excellence was inspired by Thomas Edison's phonograph.
(Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for The Recording Academy)

The date August 12, 1877, is commonly accepted as the day the phonograph was invented. The date has been disputed, however.

“Some historians believe that it probably happened several months later, since Edison did not file for a patent until December 24, 1877,” claims the Library of Congress.

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What’s not in dispute is the date he received the patent: Feb. 19, 1878. 

“The object of this invention is to record in permanent characters the human voice and other sounds … [to] be reproduced and rendered audible again at a future time.”

It was a date that changed music, media and the human relationship with sound forever. 

“The object of this invention is to record in permanent characters the human voice and other sounds, from which characters such as sounds may be reproduced and rendered audible again at a future time,” Edison wrote in his phonograph patent application.

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That future time envisioned by Edison and his phonograph is still with us today.

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