Edison's cylinder recorder
Edison's cylinder recorder

December 6

Thomas Edison's first sound recording (1877)

It was on this date, December 6, 1877, that inventor and Atheist Thomas Alva Edison demonstrated the first sound recording at West Orange, New Jersey. On that occasion he recited "Mary had a Little Lamb" into a recording device using a needle to scratch a sound track onto a cylinder wrapped in tinfoil.

Thomas Edison and disc
Thomas Edison holding an Edison disc —
another technological advance without a prayer!

The first words I spoke in the original phonograph. A little piece of practical poetry:

Mary had a little lamb
Its fleece was white as snow
And everywhere that Mary went
The lamb was sure to go.
The first sound recording followed the first electronic long-distance telegraph message by 33 years. The secular children's poem was recorded in preference to the paraphrase of Numbers 23:23, "What hath God wrought,"** transmitted from Baltimore to an astounded Congress in Washington DC by the Nativist politician and painter Samuel F.B. Morse. While Morse thanked God for what the scientific work Hans Christian Oersted, Joseph Henry and Michael Faraday had wrought, the skeptical Edison credited the proper authorities: "A good idea is never lost," he said,
Even though its originator or possessor may die, it will someday be reborn in the mind of another. ... Because ideas have to be original only with regard to their adaptation to the problem at hand, I am always extremely interested in novel ideas others have used successfully.

* The recording is a 1927 recreation of the original 1877 recording. The technology had advanced somewhat in 50 years!
** Numbers 23:23 "No, there is no sorcery against Jacob, nor omen against Israel. It shall yet be said of Jacob, and of Israel, 'Behold what God has wrought!'" The message was recorded on a paper tape in Washington, DC. The phrase had been suggested to Morse by Annie Ellworth, the young daughter of a friend.

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Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac
(engraving by Ambroise Tardieu)


Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac (1778)

It was also on this date, December 6, 1778, that French chemist Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac was born in Saint-Léonard-de-Noblat. He studied at the École Polytechnique, then at the École des Ponts et Chausses, and apprenticed under the famous chemist Claude Louis Berthollet. Gay-Lussac returned to the École Polytechnique to became professor of chemistry, and was professor of physics at the Sorbonne from 1808 to 1832.

It was the Age of Revolution in France, following the successful one across the ocean, and also an era that revolutionized chemistry. Gay-Lussac formulated the law that a gas expands linearly with a fixed pressure and rising temperature. He did this in 1802, but the discovery later became known as Charles's Law, after Jacques Charles, whose unpublished discovery is thus acknowledged. He also first isolated the element boron, showed chlorine to be an element, and formulated the law of combining volumes of gasses.

During the Revolution of 1830, Gay-Lussac worked politically with the anti-clerical side, and was closely associated with mathematician and astronomer Dominique François Jean Arago, an outspoken atheist and republican, as well as German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, a Deist. Gay-Lussac shared their religious views, but as one of the greatest chemists in Europe at the time, even the restored royalty had to honor him with the chair of chemistry at the Jardin des Plantes.

Gay-Lussac was a rival of the great British chemist, Sir Humphrey Davy, but outlived him by some 21 years. Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac died in Paris on 9 May 1850.

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Ronald Bruce Meyer is a freelance writer.
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