Recorded Sound? Yeah, Edison Didn't Invent That Either

from the there-goes-another-one dept

Whenever we get deep into a discussion about patents, it doesn’t take long before someone tosses up the example of Thomas Edison as someone who proves that patents were necessary for innovation. The problem is that isn’t true at all. As we’ve pointed out a few different times, it’s tough to find anything that Edison actually invented. Instead, it’s quite easy to find things that others invented that Edison took credit for, patented and then prevented anyone else from competing against him. The latest of his great inventions to fall? Recorded sound. Kevin Donovan points us to a NY Times article highlighting the discovery of a 10-second recording of a song that was made 17 years before Edison got a patent on such a system. While there’s no reason to believe Edison copied the idea from this inventor, that doesn’t matter to patent system defenders who insist that any infringement is “stealing.” So will those patent system defenders now admit that their hero was a thief? If not, they’ve got some inconsistencies to explain.

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Comments on “Recorded Sound? Yeah, Edison Didn't Invent That Either”

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Jake says:

Re: Re: recording, not playback

Agreed, Chris; I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Edison had at least heard of de Martinville’s design, as the basic physics are quite similar, but if he didn’t come up with his own system independently he certainly doesn’t seem to have gone out of his way to correct the misapprehension.

Hal B says:

Recording or reproducing

On 24 Dec 1877 Edison filed patent no. 200,521 for a “Phonograph or Speaking Machine” for “reproducing the human voice or other sounds.” He made no clain for originally recording sound.

So it seems his patent was legit. At least in today’s patent arena, it would have been considered novel and patentable.

Looks like another example of how the pop-media always loves to tarnish reputations.

Philip (user link) says:

There are fundamental problems with patents. The person who invents something is almost never the person who is granted a patent. It is usually the person with the money to employ a patent department and that is usually a corporation. (Just ask Microsoft.) To me this seems antithetical to a society that would like to advance socially and intellectually. It is only viable in a society that encourages abuse of money and power.

Anonymous Coward says:

Come on now

This only recorded the sound, what they had to go through to reproduce it is crazy. A virtual stylus reading a sound wave marked on paper, using a tuning fork to get the pitch right? Explain exactly how that matches Edison’s “speaking machine”, what good is recording if you can’t play it back for over 150 years….

Seems Edison might have innovated there Mike, made the idea useful, don’t you bring that up once in a while?

DanC says:

Re: Come on now

In the patent for a “Phonograph or Speaking Machine”, Edison claimed to have discovered that the human voice could be recorded, which is obviously false as shown by the French recording.

Additionally, Edison used an extension of the method Scott had used to record the audio.

So, yes, Edison did innovate, but he also took credit for discovering how to record audio, which was a complete fabrication.

Mike (profile) says:

Re: Come on now

Seems Edison might have innovated there Mike, made the idea useful, don’t you bring that up once in a while?

Yup, actually, I believe that Edison did innovate quite a bit. That was the point I made in my earlier post.

However, innovating (making something useful) is not what you get a patent for.

And Edison DID do plenty to block others from innovating once he got his patents.

bored now says:

light bulb

A comment, on one of the other articles referred to, correctly points out that Swan not Edison invented the light bulb.

However, it incorrectly claims that Swan was a Scot. In fact he was from the North East of England and invented the light bulb in Newcastle upon Tyne (when I was a kid you could go and look at a working copy of his prototype, carbon filament and all).

Sadly for all Geordies, Joseph Swan turns out to be from what later became Sunderland. This will mean nothing to 99.999% of readers, but means “Mackem” to those who know.

DanC says:

Re: Re:

OK, I admit it, Edison was a thief because he stole the ideas of others.

Nobody accused Edison of being a thief.

Now, will you admit that people who download music and violate copyright are stealing and that they are theifs?

Nope, because that simply isn’t true. The basic dictionary definitions of the words point to the difference, and the Supreme Court recognizes the difference. Why don’t you?

If not, you have got some inconsistencies to explain.

You misread the post. Those who believe that patents spur innovation and that infringement = stealing often hold up Edison as proof that patents work. The post is pointing out that, using their own logic, those supporters should consider Edison a thief.

angry dude says:

poor little techdirt lemmings

more nonsense for you
makes about as much sense as the rest of this blog

The common cormorant or shag
Lays eggs inside a paper bag
The reason you will see no doubt
It is to keep the lightning out
But what these unobservant birds
Have never noticed is that herds
Of wandering bears may come with buns
And steal the bags to hold the crumbs.

Ubersurfer says:

What type of patent?

There is more than one type of patent. Are we talking patents of invention (an original idea) or patents of design (innovations of an existing idea).

No, Tom Alva did not invent the recording of sound, nor did he invent the light bulb. He did, however, make them work.

On a related note, Bell did not invent the transmission of voice over a wire (a.k.a. telephone). He made a working version of it.

Mr. Wright says:

Stop the Spinning

I read that article and the original invention was a VISUAL recording of sound NOT PLAYBACK LIKE THOMAS EDISON REALLY DID INVENT. Actually the french guy (I forgot his name) did not even conceive of the idea of recorded sound unlike the great Thomas Edison did. He said that sound can only be analyzed visually and he was DEAD WRONG. And his arrogance was unbelieveable the french have not changed at all when it comes to arrogance even back in the 1800’s it was prevelant. Get your facts right then print them.

Mr. Wright says:

Re: Re: Stop the Spinning

I must admit, I live about 1km from Edison’s original lab in Edison, NJ and might be a bit biased but with no intention. It is interesting to note that the original light bulb is still working after over 100 years. Imagine the first reported light bulb still lights after over 100 years but the light bulb companies still can’t get it right. That can’t have anything to do with money companies are too honest to do that. He must have known something we don’t. hehehehe

DanC says:

Re: Re: Re: Stop the Spinning

The Centennial Light is currently recognized as the world’s longest lasting light bulb. I was unable to turn up any direct evidence of Edison’s original bulb still in use.

The Centennial light is a 4-watt bulb, with significantly more filament than a standard light bulb, running on 120V. The trade-off in this case is energy efficiency and lighting vs. longevity. It simply isn’t practical to use the same method because the bulb doesn’t give off enough light for most purposes, and the energy costs are higher. There isn’t some grand conspiracy to deprive the population of the “everlasting light bulb”.

DanC says:

Re: Re:

You hold Jefferson up to be the shining light, yet he owned slaves

How do you explain that inconsistency?

There’s really no need to explain it, because there is no inconsistency.

Jefferson is referred to frequently because he was instrumental in creating the patent system which is discussed regularly on this site. Both Jefferson and Edison are being discussed in terms of their participation in the patent system.

Mike (profile) says:

Re: Losing credibility

I think that, based on the comments above about how the real invention was playback and not recording, that Mike is starting to lose his credibility. Perhaps you should do a little more research before you start grinding your anti-IP axe.

Hmm. A few people misunderstand the point of the post and I’ve lost credibility? I don’t think so. The mistake I made was perhaps being too subtle in making my point. But if you want to think my credibility is gone, so be it. It won’t change fundamental facts.

Such is life.

Cheapskate Mike (user link) says:

Mike is a mind reader

While there’s no reason to believe Edison copied the idea from this inventor, that doesn’t matter to patent system defenders who insist that any infringement is “stealing.”

Mike does not know what was going on in Edison’s head waayyy back then, but he seems to think he knows what’s going on in everyone’s head today.

Evan Quinn says:

To say that Edison “stole” his inventions would be wrong. Yes, all of his “inventions” were invented by someone else, but Edison improved every single one. The phonograph that he improved could playback sound, which the original couldn’t do. The lightbulb that he improved lasted way longer than the original. The only thing that he invented for real was the word “hello” as a greeting. Before that “hullo” or “hallo” were expresions of surprise.

DanZee (profile) says:

Interesting discussion

I think the best way to sum up Edison is to say that he used existing scientific principals to make consumer products which he then protected viciously using patent law. (For example, he would hire Pinkerton guards to go around and head-bust filmmakers caught using French-made Lumiere cameras.) With sound recording, lots of people knew that sound waves could be made to make a pen or a needle move, Edison had to come up with the engineering expertise to turn it into a usable consumer product. If you read the Wiki article on his cylinder recorder, it took him 10 years before he “perfected” it, basically giving up on tin foil and using wax as the recording medium. With motion picture cameras and projectors, however, it’s pretty sure that Edison representatives saw the Lumiere devices in operation in Paris and Edison rushed to patent it in the US to monopolize that business. So Edison used a variety of methods to make money. He invented when he needed to, refined products when someone else invented them, and stole when he could.

Nick Robin says:


He did steal it. The Italian that took it from the Frenchman left the country with the technology and brought it to America where he found Edison and at that point Edison took it upon himself to work on it a little bit and then patent it as his own work. I have some recordings from the Italian talking on the subject ( ironically enough). Sorry I did not put the names down but if needed I can try and copy the recordings and bring the file to this forum if you guys want 🙂

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