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10 New Uses for Old Inventions

In a way, we have Alexander Graham Bell to thank for the birth of the phonograph.
In a way, we have Alexander Graham Bell to thank for the birth of the phonograph.
Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

Beyonce and Lady Gaga probably don't worry about it much, but their careers almost never existed because records, record players and the music industry almost didn't exist. Here's the story: After Alexander Graham Bell patented the telephone in 1876, he marketed his invention to businesses. Savvy executives saw the potential of the device as a way to make correspondence more efficient, and phones began appearing in offices and warehouses across the country. There was just one catch -- they didn't have a way to record their conversations.

Enter Thomas Edison, who devised a way to make recordings by allowing sound waves to vibrate a stylus, which in turn etched a groove into tinfoil wrapped around a rotating cylinder. To play back the recording, he passed a needle over the grooves and transmitted the waves through a speaker. Edison quickly packaged his invention into a product -- a telephone message recorder -- that could be sold to commercial operations. Unfortunately, the sound quality was poor, the machines were finicky and businesses lost interest.

The device might have died a slow death if it weren't for other inventors who stepped up to make improvements to Edison's technology. One of these innovators was Emil Berliner, who, in 1887, developed a process to trace sound grooves in a circular pattern on a flat disc rather than on a cylinder. When a negative was made from the flat master disc, it could serve as a mold for making many copies of the original master disc. These "records" could be played on a machine Berliner named a Gramophone, the progenitor of the entire modern music industry.