Thomas Edison Announces Phonograph; First Star Is African-American George Johnson

American inventor Thomas Edison announced the invention of the phonograph today (November 21, 1877).

The invention, which originally recorded on tinfoil sheets, gave birth to the modern recording industry.

Several inventors including Alexander Graham Bell and Emile Berliner improved upon the invention, which was the dominant audio recording format throughout the 20th century.

“It was finished, the foil was put on; I then shouted ‘Mary had a little lamb’, etc. I adjusted the reproducer, and the machine reproduced it perfectly,” Thomas Edison recalled of creating his invention. “I was never so taken aback in my life. Everybody was astonished. I was always afraid of things that worked the first time. Long experience proved that there were great drawbacks found generally before they could be got commercial; but here was something there was no doubt of.”

By 1890, enough demand and industry had developed around the original invention and the subsequent improvements by other inventors, for record manufacturers to begin a rudimentary process to duplicate records for public consumption.

The first recording star to ever have a hit record was an African-American named George Washington Johnson.

George Johnson recorded his song “The Laughing Song,” or “Laughing Coon” thousands of times during his stellar career, since there was no mass replication process.

George Johnson was a former slave from Virginia, who migrated to New York after the Civil War.

He worked as a street entertainer in New York, performing and singing popular tunes.

It was around this time that representatives of the New York Phonograph Company and the legendary Victor Emerson of the New Jersey Phonograph Company heard George Johnson performing at the terminals on the Hudson river.

They felt that Johnson’s voice, whistling and singing would reproduce well on the wax phonograph cylinders.

George Johnson’s first recording, “The Laughing Song,” or “Laughing Coon,” became the first best-selling recordings in the United States.

It’s estimated that Johnson individually recorded and sold between 25,000 to 50,000 copies of the song.

Despite the extreme prejudices of the day, it was well known that George Johnson was a black man recording the tune, which was also copied by numerous white artists.

George Johnson died from pneumonia at the age of 67 in 1914.

He is buried in an unmarked grave in Maple Grove Cemetery in Queens, New York.

Share this content: