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From the Archives: December 1877, Edison Unveils Phonograph

Thomas Edison at the unveiling of his wildly successful Phonograph in 1877.

MENLO PARK, New Jersey -- Throngs of die-hard fans of Thomas Edison packed the auditorium of the famed innovator's Menlo Park complex Wednesday last to witness the unveiling of the "Invention Factory's" latest product.

No formal announcement had been made of the event, but leaflets bearing the cryptic message: "Are you listening? -- E" have been seen on telegraph poles along the Atlantic seaboard for nearly a fortnight, and dedicated technophiles knew that their beloved Alva had another Christmas present in store for them
this year.

When the auditorium doors closed at promptly noon and the lights dimmed, the crowd's nervous silence was broken by a gorgeous rendition of "Mary Had a Little Lamb." Wild eyes darted across the room, but there were no singers, there was no orchestra, there was only a strange looking horn in the center of the stage. A panic filled the audience, but Edison emerged in his trademark black suit and black turtle necktie to put things right again.

"Fear not!" the Wizard of Menlo Park called to the enraptured crowd, "Today, you are witnessing a revolution of modern science. Gentleman, I present to you: the Phonograph! With this device, sounds can be captured and repeated. Gone forever are the days of hiring an entire orchestra just for light music about the house; now a cylinder the size of a log can store up to five minutes of high-quality sound that can be replayed dozens of times before wearing out!"

Edison struggled slightly as he lifted such a cylinder and held it precariously, "Behold: Beethoven's 9th, in the palm of my hands!"

When Edison attempted to demonstrate the machine, there were a few bugs. These had to be shooed away carefully to prevent damage to the cylinders, and the presentation continued.

Edison went on to explain some of the features of the Phonograph, such as reversible play, a hand crank, and a scaled up version, the Phonograph S, which allows for the use of electric power. By the time Edison had finished presenting his work, the crowd was already standing; raucous applause erupted, and the cheer "Alva" could be heard.

Edison retreated backstage with nary a word, while his secretary announced that Phonographs would appear in stores in January, with a mail-order catalog for ordering new tracks being rolled out to select users throughout the year.

Reviews of the Phonograph have been largely positive, with the Royal Society praising its "user-friendly, portable design." One notable criticism came from Westinghouse magazine, which complained about the ease with which tracks could be "pirated" by using two Phonographs in conjunction. As of press time, rumors had already emerged of a forthcoming Phonograph 2, which is expected to compete with Tesla's Zuneograph when it drops next spring.

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