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.
Constructed almost entirely of brass, this is one of the most finely finished and elegantly crafted tinfoil phonographs ever made. Little is known of its history. The speaker arm is engraved "Made by R.W. St. Clair, M.D., Feb. 1879." The only known example was donated to The Henry Ford Museum by the Edison Pioneers, former employees who had worked with Edison prior to 1885. How it came into their possession is unknown but it was probably acquired simply as a representative example of an early phonograph.
St. Clair was a doctor in Brooklyn, NY. His legacy as a physician seems to be limited to promoting quackery: he endorsed patent medicines, and wrote a book titled "The Practical Application of Electricity in Medicine and Surgery." (He would have gotten on well with Thomas A. Edison, Junior, who sold his name to the promoters of the Magno-Electric Vitalizer.)
Whether St. Clair was a machinist as well as a physician, or if he commissioned its construction, is not known. Either way, it is certainly an exceptional piece. Surprisingly compact (the base is only about 12" by 7"), it incorporates all the key features of the much larger Bergmann Exhibition phonographs of late 1878, and includes some improvements of his own. It is not merely state of the art for its time, it shows artistry and elegance which is very unusual in tinfoil phonographs. This exceptionally precise replica operates flawlessly.
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