In an era of rapid technological change and regularly updated devices, it is easy to underestimate the revolutionary impact of new inventions in the late 19th century. At World Expo 1878 Paris, one such invention - Thomas Edison’s phonograph, capable of recording and playing back sound – seemed so amazing to visitors that many were convinced it was a fake.
First developed in 1877, the phonograph was one of Edison’s first creations, and the one that brought him worldwide fame. Partially based on existing technology used in telephones and telegraphs, the device was composed of a rotating brass cylinder that recorded sound by means of a needle and tinfoil. When the cylinder rotated at the correct speed, the stylus emitted vibrations resembling the human voice, allowing Edison to record conversations and play them back – an unprecedented technological leap forward.
Visitors to the American pavilion at Expo 1878 were stunned, with some believing it was ventriloquism, and others predicting that the technology would render opera singers useless. While such predictions failed to materialise, the phonograph continued to make waves, with Edison gifting a later edition at Expo 1889 Paris to Gustave Eiffel, enabling his voice to be forever on record.
The Bureau International des Expositions (BIE) is the intergovernmental organisation in charge of overseeing and regulating World Expos, Specialised Expos, Horticultural Expos and the Triennale di Milano.