Written by Howard Hope, ex-Chairman of the City of London Phonograph and Gramophone Society.

Edison first Phonograph of December 1877 indented sound-waves into tinfoil wrapped around a hand-turned mandrel. The machine was proof that sound could be recorded, and for the following year it was viewed as a sensational novelty, but such recordings were poor in quality and could only be repeated twice at best. The inventor returned to experimentation with the light bulb and power generation.

Between 1880 and 1886, Alexander Graham Bell and his associate Charles Sumner Tainter worked to create a truly practical phonograph. Tainter discovered that incising into wax produced better reproduction than tinfoil. He patented the concept, thus obliging Edison to pay royalties for the use of wax in cylinders in any further machine he might develop. This stung Edison into returning to the fray in 1887.

On the 24th of June, 1888, Edison’s British-based agent Colonel George Gouraud and American Edison development engineer Hugh deCoursey Hamilton arrived at Southampton from New York, bringing with them a phonograph that Edison had developed over the preceding months. It was named the ‘Perfected’ Phonograph, and followed the ‘New’ Phonograph of 1887 and the ‘Improved’ Phonograph of early 1888. The machine was, in fact, far from perfect, but Gouraud was anxious that Edison should not be beaten in the race with Bell to place a practical phonograph on the market.

Gouraud lived in Upper Norwood, South London, less than two miles from the iconic Crystal Palace, where his friend the conductor August Manns was Director of Music. Every three years, the Palace hosted a Handel festival that had first been held in 1857, when the Palace was situated in Hyde Park in central London. The event was immensely popular and attracted singers, musicians and audiences from across the British Isles. By the 1880s, the choir had swollen to three and a half thousand singers, accompanied by an orchestra of up to five hundred players under Manns’ baton. The Palace could accommodate an audience of thirty thousand.

It was the sheer volume of sound created that persuaded Gouraud and Hamilton to attempt the first ever recording of a public music event. It was an astonishing leap of faith in a machine which had only ever previously recorded at point-blank range in its short life. The men were granted a space in the press gallery to set up their machine and direct the recording-horn over the balcony. It was forty feet above ground and almost two hundred and fifty from the stage.

The chosen performance was Israel in Egypt on June 29th, with Edward Lloyd as principal tenor. Several extracts were recorded, including He Rebuked the Red Sea, He Led Them Through the Deep, He is My God and Moses and the Children of Israel. Of these, only parts of the latter survive on three cylinders now housed at the British Library Sound Archive.  The remarkable chain of events that led to their preservation, which includes being looted from a bombed house in the WW2 London Blitz is a story in itself, and beyond the scope of this article.

The Perfected Phonograph was a large machine, weighing twenty-five kilos, or approximately sixty pounds. It was powered by a hefty electric motor using glass ‘Grenet’-pattern bichromate cells, as seen in the illustration here from the Illustrated London News. The almost-white ‘paraffin wax’ cylinders it employed were around four inches (10cms) long, with an internal diameter of just over two inches. These revolved at around 100 rpm with a groove-pitch of one hundred to the inch, giving a recording capacity of just under four minutes. The recordings were quiet by later standards, and best heard through ‘listening’ tubes of thin rubber, running from the reproducing, or ‘playback’ head of the machine, to the ears, although a horn could be employed.