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American influence on global entertainment at the turn of the 20th century

There is nothing uniquely American about engineering by itself, and oftentimes, even the inventions universally credited to American ingenuity are actually a product of global innovation, with America’s native inventors simply striking the final chord, or fitting together the last missing piece. Even by the turn of the 20th century, technology was vastly sophisticated, and machines like the cotton gin, which could be claimed in their entirety by a sole inventor, were no longer significant acts of technological achievement. In the late 1800s, true technical innovation required a network of minds, and national origin was little more than a point of pride for the countries from which the inventors came.

Invention of the Phonograph

Edison with Phonograph
So the fact that the first incarnation of the phonograph was completed by Thomas Edison in 1877 does not make the invention a sole product of American ingenuity 1. Twenty years previously, a primitive version of the phonograph, christened the phonautograph by its French inventor Edward-Leon Scott de Martinville, became the first device capable of recording live sound. Like the phonograph, the phonautograph was characterized by a horn shaped cylinder that was capable of receiving nearby radiated sound waves. The waves were then recorded onto a piece of paper, so Scott could study their varying melodic pitches 2. This same invention was developed by Alexander Graham Bell in 1974, and while the two inventors were unaware of each other, their machines functioned nearly identically 3.
But even more relevant to Edison’s discovery was the theoretical framework of another French engineer named Charles Cros. In 1877 Cros sent a sealed envelope to the Secretary to the Academy of Sciences, containing a letter that described a process that “consists in obtaining the tracing of the to-and-fro movements of a vibrating membrane, and the utilization of this tracing for reproducing the same to-and-fro movement, with their relative inherent durations and intensities in the same membrane, or in another adapted for furnishing the sounds and noises which result from this series of movements.” 4. What Cros had described, though never actually built, was an elaborate version of Edison’s phonograph. There is some speculation as to whether Edison was aware of this envelope or the man who sent it, and there was even debate as to whether he deserved the patent for his invention, but the machine Cros had described was a far more elaborate device than the one Edison developed 5.
It is an interesting scientific phenomenon that so many variations of similar discoveries are often made simultaneously by scientists working completely independently of each other. There were other engineers to whom Edison owes gratitude for their own work in laying the foundation for recording technology, including the host of European scientists who pioneered the study of sound waves, but by and large the invention remains his own 6.
But the question still remains; what about the phonograph makes it a product of American cultural expansion? By 1888 the invention had not left the United States, but Edison had spent those eleven years improving on his original design, and both Alexander Bell and Emile Berliner had built similar devices, called the graphophone and the gramophone respectively. These two inventions recorded sound onto discs rather than the cylinders Edison used because they proved easier to manufacture and sold in higher volumes. That same year all three inventions were released into public distribution, and marketed as a tool of business communications. Edison imagined that the phonograph, as a recording device, would revolutionize the way information was dictated between offices 7. He established two separate companies that would oversee the development and manufacture of his machine, and he, his investors, and his competitors eagerly awaited the corporate response 8.

Response to the Phonograph

But the phonograph was received by a drastically different public than anybody had predicted, and it was this reception that cemented the machine as a product of a uniquely American culture. In 1889, somebody had the idea to set up phonograph parlors and penny arcades in San Francisco, which would play selections of music to anybody willing to pay for them. Interestingly, the workers to whom the phonograph had been marketed found the machine complicated and temperamental, and resisted it’s integration into their offices 9. But the general public was wholly enthusiastic about listening to the music they previously could only hear live, and demand for these recorded discs and the devices that played them grew exponentially.

Introduction of the Phonograph to Europe

Public demand for the phonograph continued to increase, causing manufacturing and distribution companies to acknowledge the profitability of the phonograph as a medium of entertainment in the United States. It was the Columbian Phonograph Co. that introduced the notion of taking the machines overseas. In 1889 the company set up a small branch in London, and began building penny arcades in several European cities. By the end of the year it had a sales outlet in France. Ten years later there was one in Berlin. At the same time, Emile Berliner, the engineer behind the gramophone, was forced by exclusive contract rights in the U.S. to market his product overseas. Much like it had in the United States, the demand for the phonograph grew massive throughout Europe as people first discovered they could listen to prerecorded music. It was not long before European companies established themselves as distributors of their own phonographs, and foreign artists began recording their own music, to the benefit of their audiences. By the beginning of the twentieth century, there existed British phonograph syndicates that were as large and successful as the biggest American companies 10.

Introduction of the Radio

It was at this time that radio, having recently been born through a network of individual discovery and innovation even more complex than the one that spawned the phonograph, was also being recognized for it’s entertainment value. In 1909, the world’s first broadcast was made out of San Jose, California, by a primitive radio station called KQW, and other independent stations began their own broadcasts shortly afterwards. The first recorded and commercially licensed radio broadcast was emitted in Pittsburgh in 1920 by a station called KDKA, founded by the Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company. It was this broadcast that established the precedent of advertising over radio broadcasts, which transformed radio into a viable commercial enterprise 11. Observing this, phonograph companies became eager to absorb radio into their business. Phonographs became built with radio capabilities, and the successful companies increased their size and fervor so that by the time the decadence of the 1920s came full into effect, most every family in both the United States and much of Europe owned a phonograph and a radio 12.

Old Fashioned Radio
There is one more minor piece of innovation that the United States brought forth into the world of recorded sound, and it is the gift of broadcast advertising. Dr. Frank Conrad of the Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company had the idea of playing his record collection over the air of his company‘s broadcasting station, and when it proved an insufficient quantity of music, he borrowed records from a nearby record shop on the condition that he mention the store in between songs 13. And while advertising during broadcasts was most likely an inevitable aspect of public broadcasting, it is fitting that it would originate in America. Advertising clinched entertainment as the primary purpose of the phonograph, extending a tradition of entertainment that was a truly American aesthetic. The turn of the 20th century marked an increased affluence in the United States, and working Americans were finally able to take advantage of their newly found free time. Theme parks, sporting events, and vaudeville became urban necessities 14, and when Edison built a machine that could provide that kind of entertainment at home, the entire country was willing to experience it. Penny arcades were a logical next step after vaudeville, and their introduction to Europe was a next step after that. By the turn of the century the entire world was ready for the phonograph, but it was the United States that knew how to make it possible.


1. “The History of the Edison Cylinder Phonograph.” Inventing Entertainment. 20 March 2007 <>.

2. Schoenherr, Steven E. “Leon Scott and the Phonautograph.” Recording Technology History. 15 Jan. 2004. 20 March 2007 <>.

3. “Alexander Graham Bell Telephone Inventor.” Invention at Play. Smithsonian National National Museum of American History. 20 March 2007 <>.

4. Schoenherr, Steven E. “Charles Cros.” Recording Technology History. 7 July 1999. 20 March 2007 <>.

5. Read, Oliver and Welch, Walter L. From Tin Foil To Stereo. Indianapolis: Howard W. sams & Co., Inc., 1976. P. 10

6. Read, Oliver and Welch, Walter L. From Tin Foil To Stereo. Indianapolis: Howard W. sams & Co., Inc., 1976. P. 5-10

7. Gitelman, Lisa. “How Users Define New Media: A History of the Phonograph.” MIT Communications Forum. MIT. 20 March 2007. <>.

8. Read, Oliver and Welch, Walter L. From Tin Foil To Stereo. Indianapolis: Howard W. sams & Co., Inc., 1976. P. 309-407

9. Gitelman, Lisa. “How Users Define New Media: A History of the Phonograph.” MIT Communications Forum. MIT. 20 March 2007. <>.

10. Read, Oliver and Welch, Walter L. From Tin Foil To Stereo. Indianapolis: Howard W. sams & Co., Inc., 1976. P. 309-407

11. Settel, Irving. A Pictorial History of Radio. New York: The Citadel Press, 1960. P. 40-41

12. Read, Oliver and Welch, Walter L. From Tin Foil To Stereo. Indianapolis: Howard W. sams & Co., Inc., 1976. P. 309-407

13. Settel, Irving. A Pictorial History of Radio. New York: The Citadel Press, 1960. P. 36-39

14. Nasaw, David. Going Out: The Rise and Fall of Public Amusements. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999.

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