The extreme rarity of original tinfoil phonographs makes it difficult for collectors to enjoy examples of these historic machines. However, high quality replica phonographs have been made over the years, bringing otherwise unobtainable machines into the reach of those who are intrigued by the astonishingly simple yet effective technology found in these relics of 1877-1880.


Edison's first phonograph was hand-built in the Menlo Park laboratory by his assistant, John Kruesi, between December 2-6, 1877. Amazingly, it worked the very first time, repeating Edison's "Mary had a little lamb" clearly. Tinfoil was wrapped around a grooved brass mandrel which was hand-cranked. As the recording diaphragm vibrated the foil was indented by the stylus. In playback these vibrations were traced by the reproducing diaphragm, recreating the sound. Only one example of this first phonograph was made, and that original is now displayed at the Thomas Edison National Historical Park in West Orange, New Jersey.

This first incarnation of the phonograph had a separate recording diaphragm in front, and a reproducing diaphragm in the rear. Edison quickly discovered that the dual diaphragms were unnecessary and all subsequent tinfoil phonographs used a single unit for both recording and reproducing.

In 1880 Edison gave the original phonograph to a visiting representative of the London patent office. The machine spent the next 48 years in England before it was finally returned in 1928. Edison then had his staff make detailed blueprints of the machine and proceeded to make several precise copies for various institutions, as well as wooden models for promotional displays. These blueprints were later published and have long served to aid modern-day machinists in making authentic replicas.

The "Kruesi" replica seen here is one of the models made around 1928-1929 by Thomas A. Edison, Inc. for displays in conjunction with belated anniversary celebrations for the phonograph, and also for commercial purposes. The B&W photo below shows one of these models displayed by an Ediphone dealer in the 1930s. The replica is made mostly of wood and was not intended to be functional. However it is evident that a great deal of effort went into making it a detailed, exact-size visual copy for display purposes. The total number made is not recorded; two examples are known to survive. It is one of the earliest replica tinfoil phonographs in existence today. (This was formerly in the famous Dave Heitz collection; his wife, Nina Heitz, generously gifted it to me after his 2004 death.)


As originally designed, the prototype 'Kruesi' tinfoil had a mouthpiece made of brass and gutta percha mounted to the recorder to angle it upward, making it easier to use. This mouthpiece is clearly shown in an engraving made by Scientific American magazine after Edison demonstrated the machine for the editor the day it was finished. It also appears in the original patent application. However at some point in the succeeding years this part was lost. Because it had disappeared in the distant past the mouthpiece was not included in the blueprints drawn by Edison's staff in 1928, and the many replicas that have been made from those prints over the years lack this feature.

The Kreusi phonograph pictured above is an extremely precise replica made in 2011 by expert machinist Bill Miller in Michigan. It is accurate to the smallest details, including machining marks, extraneous holes, paper shims etc. However, like other replicas, it lacked the missing mouthpiece.

Working with historian David Giovannoni, Dutch machinist Anton Stoelwinder recreated the missing mouthpiece in 2017, based upon the original Scientific American engraving. The first was supplied to the Thomas Edison National Historical Park and is now mounted on the original Kruesi phonograph, restoring it back to original configuration for the first time in 140 years. Stoelwinder made a few more for collectors; I was privileged to obtain one of them to complete my replica Kruesi.