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Start Edison, the Inventor Overwhelmed by his Invention
07 May 2015

Edison, the Inventor Overwhelmed by his Invention

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Due to the exponential it is very unreliable to predict how media will be used tomorrow. Examining the spotty record of past predictions is humbling and helps open our minds to the future.

In 1878, the year after he invented the phonograph, Thomas Edison had no idea how it would be used; or rather, he had scores of ideas—but he could not come up a priori with the killer application of his hardware.

BBVA-OpenMind-ventana-edison-inventor-Thomas Edison with his second phonograph, in 1878. Credit: Mathew Brady
Thomas Edison with his second phonograph, in 1878. Credit: Mathew Brady

Edison was a shrewd inventor who kept meticulous notes. Here were his top 10 ideas for the use of the phonograph:

  1. Letter writing, and all kinds of dictation without the aid of a stenographer.
  2. Phonographic books, which will speak to blind people without effort on their part.
  3. The teaching of elocution.
  4. Music—the phonograph will undoubtedly be liberally devoted to music.
  5. The family record; preserving the sayings, the voices, and the last words of the dying members of the family, as of great men.
  6. Music boxes, toys, etc.—A doll which may speak, sing, cry or laugh may be promised our children for the Christmas holidays ensuing.
  7. Clocks, that should announce in speech the hour of the day, call you to lunch, send your lover home at ten, etc.
  8. The preservation of language by reproduction of our Washingtons, our Lincolns, our Gladstones.
  9. Educational purposes; such as preserving the instructions of a teacher so that the pupil can refer to them at any moment; or learn spelling lessons.
  10. The perfection or advancement of the telephone’s art by the phonograph, making that instrument an auxiliary in the transmission of permanent records.

He first attempted a business centered on stenographer-free letter writing. That failed, largely because it was a big threat to the incumbent player—stenographers. It would be years (and a few recapitalizations) later that music would emerge as the business of phonographs. And this was a business that survived for well over 100 years before cratering.

>> Excerpt from Peter Hirshberg’s essay: “First the Media, Then Us: How the Internet Changed the Fundamental Nature of the Communication and Its Relationship with the Audience”


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