A forgotten North Carolina inventor named James Davis seems to have played a significant role in the early history of sound recording, but it’s tantalizingly unclear just what that role was.
My interest in Davis was sparked by a historical essay on the telephone published in the London Electrician in 1883. The author of this essay, telegraph historian John Joseph Fahie, describes it as consisting of “such notes as I have been able to collect in the course of my researches in musty tomes,” and the following passage is the one that caught my attention:
Our next note refers to a claim which is equally vague as the last [Fahie has just been discussing Innocenzo Manzetti], and rests upon still more slender foundations, to wit, the ex post facto statements of the claimant himself. In saying this we do not by any means wish to insinuate that these statements are unworthy of credence. We give the paragraph as we found it in the Journal of the Telegraph, for May, 1877, leaving it to our readers to draw their own conclusions:—“There is another claimant in the field for the honour of inventing the telephone. Dr. James Davis, of Salisbury, N.C., writes to the Raleigh Observer, stating that his ‘phonetic telegraph,’ invented ten years ago, anticipated the discoveries of Messrs. Bell, Gray, and others. Dr. Davis says that he made pen-and-ink drawings at that time, fully illustrating his invention, and that he described the apparatus to persons whom he names. He declares that his device covered the changing of air vibrations into those of electricity, and restoring the air waves after transmission; that his apparatus was more perfect than that which the present inventors exhibit, and that it could write or register the sounds in a distinct language.”
I’ve found only one other reference to James Davis in later historical literature about the telephone, and it simply parrots the above information. Telephone historians have had their hands full with claimants whose work is more richly documented, and they might not have considered it worth their while to research a person who merely wrote a letter containing a few unsubstantiated claims in 1877. Phonograph historians are likely to find the passage quoted above more interesting. Davis reportedly claimed to have invented a machine that was able not only to transmit and recreate aerial sound waves (“air vibrations”), but also to record them. Even if he hadn’t really imagined a speaking telephone in the 1860s, the fact that he was proposing to combine one with a sound-recording device in the spring of 1877 would still warrant attention. So I set about trying to learn more.
Fahie had apparently copied his paraphrase of Davis’s claims verbatim from the Journal of the Telegraph, but I still didn’t have those claims in the inventor’s own words, and the journal had clearly left out some significant details—for example, Davis had “described the apparatus to persons whom he names,” but I didn’t have the names themselves. Moreover, I didn’t know when the Raleigh Observer had originally published Davis’s letter, although this obviously had to have happened sometime before the publication of the May 1877 issue of the Journal of the Telegraph. Since the Raleigh Observer didn’t seem to be accessible anywhere electronically, I put in an interlibrary loan request for the microfilm. When it arrived, I found Davis’s letter—itself dated April 3, 1877—on page two of the issue for April 6 (see below). For comparison, Charles Cros’s famous letter describing a method for reproducing recorded sounds was dated April 16 and deposited with the Académie des Sciences on April 30.
From the original publication, we learn that our inventor was a former resident of Fayetteville, North Carolina, which enables us to fill in some biographical details from census records and other sources. Dr. James Davis was born about 1832 in New York and opened a dental practice in Fayetteville about 1859. His wife was Lucy J. (Dickson) Davis, and they had two daughters, Katie and Lucy. In 1860, James received a patent for a sewing machine stitch, evidence that his inventive efforts weren’t limited to telephones. His family was still located in Fayetteville when the elder Lucy testified as a witness in a murder trial in 1867, but by 1870 they had moved to Goldsboro, and when James wrote his letter to the Raleigh Observer in 1877 he was living in Salisbury as an invalid, ravaged by pulmonary disease. I find no trace of him or his family in the 1880 census, so he may no longer have been alive then, although I haven’t yet seen any explicit record of his death. We also learn the names of his proposed witnesses, both residents of Fayetteville. Thomas Jefferson Robinson (1827-1879), to whom he had “described the apparatus,” was a railroad engineer, and Dr. Thomas Devereux Haigh (1829-1908), from whom he had borrowed some anatomy books, was a physician. He also states that he had sent drawings of his invention to the Scientific American so that he could reference them if needed to prove his priority of invention.
Davis dates the invention itself to “more than ten years ago”—that is, if we take the statement literally, to sometime before April 1867. He mentions discussing his “phonetic telegraph” with a number of people, but not of demonstrating it to anyone, which suggests that—like Cros—he may never have built a working apparatus, though we can’t be absolutely sure. He had been waiting to “perfect” his invention before taking out a patent on it, he writes, but it was already more “perfect” than the telephones of Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Gray, since he had “overcome some of the difficulties which they encountered”; specifically, its superiority lay in its ability to “write or register the sounds in a distinct language, a thing which they have not yet accomplished.” We also learn that Davis had somehow modeled his invention on the structure of the human ear.
So what was the invention? We can start our analysis with its name: “phonetic telegraph.” This phrase wouldn’t have been original to Davis in the 1860s, but had been used sporadically since the 1840s to refer to various kinds of telegraph that relied on the receipt of audible rather than visible signals. The inventors of other “phonetic telegraphs” had sometimes named parts of them after loosely analogous parts of the ear—cochlea, incus or anvil, malleus or hammer, vestibule, and so forth—but their intention had always been to transmit messages manually, whether by Morse code or some other arbitrarily contrived system, rather than to emulate the ear’s capacity for picking up speech and other sounds from the air. If Davis’s invention had resembled these other “phonetic telegraphs,” then it wouldn’t have been a speaking telephone in Bell’s sense, and there are arguably some further grounds for doubt: Davis doesn’t explicitly claim that his invention was capable of transmitting or recording speech, and the Raleigh Observer article of April 3 that had prompted him to write his letter had reported a test of Gray’s musical telephone, which simply transmitted the vibrations of tuned reeds.
On the other hand, Davis is clearly claiming that what he had called a “phonetic telegraph” was identical to what Bell and Gray alike were calling a “telephone” in 1877. He alludes to a “discovery” or “discoveries” generally attributed to those inventors, but he claims that the same insight “was not a discovery with me,” but rather a pure “invention,” something he had worked out in his mind and on paper rather than stumbling across it fortuitously through experiment. The only relevant “discovery” he mentions was “the changing of air vibrations into electrical, and the restoring of them again into air vibrations or waves, as is done by these inventors,” which in 1877 would have been understood as referring to the use of a membrane as a transducer of airborne sounds—the word “air” in “the changing of air vibrations into electrical” is crucial here, since it rules out something akin to Gray’s musical telephone. Whatever Davis may or may not have imagined or accomplished in the 1860s, I submit that he’s definitely trying to describe a speaking telephone similar to Bell’s in his letter of April 3, 1877.
Now let’s consider Davis’s most intriguing phrase: his invention “could write or register the sounds in a distinct language.” Of course, he might have meant that it could record sounds for visual apprehension as Scott’s phonautograph did, in a “distinct language” which people would have had to learn to decipher and read by eye. However, we can’t easily rule out the more exciting possibility that he intended to access the recorded sounds through playback. Unlike Scott’s phonautograph, the invention Davis describes would have included a mechanism for “restoring” transduced sounds to the air. The question, then, is whether he’d thought of using that same mechanism to “restore” recorded signals as well as signals transmitted over a wire in real time—the paraphrase infers that he’d expected restoration to occur specifically “after transmission,” but he hadn’t qualified his own statement in that way. His reference to a “distinct language” isn’t necessarily incompatible with playback, since later playback phonographs were themselves still said to possess a “peculiar language of sinuous lines and microscopic waves.” Ultimately, we can’t tell from Davis’s letter whether he intended to play back the sounds he recorded or not, nor do we have the slightest clue as to his recording format: lateral or vertical modulation, embossing or cutting or electrochemical imprinting, paper or wax or metal, tape or plate or cylinder, oscillographic or spectrographic.
Unfortunately, nobody at the time seems to have bothered to verify whether or not Davis had really sent drawings to the Scientific American to document his priority of invention, but we can readily identify a set of circumstances under which he might plausibly have done so. The Scientific American for May 4, 1867, contains an essay seeking “to stimulate thought and inquiry on the subject” of “photo-phonography,” or the automatic recording, long-distance transmission, and playback of sound—apparently the only piece published on this distinctive combination of topics in the United States during the 1860s. As we’ve seen, Davis claimed to have conceived his invention “more than ten years” before April 1877, which points to a date sometime before April 1867. If that’s true, the essay on “photo-phonography” in the Scientific American for May 4 might have prompted him to submit a confidential communication detailing his own plans before other inventors could scoop him. Other possible connections suggest themselves as well, but at this point we don’t have enough evidence to support anything but speculation.
As exciting as the prospect of recording telephone messages may seem to us in retrospect, critics in the spring of 1877 didn’t yet have Edison’s phonograph available to them as a point of reference, and the press outside North Carolina went so far as to deny that there was anything new about Davis’s scheme. The paraphrase of his letter quoted by Fahie hadn’t originated with the Journal of the Telegraph, but had first appeared in the New York Tribune of April 14, 1877, and was also reprinted elsewhere. However, the text found in these earlier publications doesn’t end with the phrase “it could write or register the sounds in a distinct language,” as in Fahie’s article, but continues:
Dr. Davis is evidently under the impression that the telephones exhibited have not accomplished the last mentioned feat, but Mr. Gray described an addition for this purpose to his apparatus in the specifications of his English patent, and Prof. Bell is understood to have contrived something of the sort in connection with his sounding diaphragm at the receiving station.
It’s true that Elisha Gray had designed a recording mechanism for his musical telephone, as Cromwell Varley and Paul la Cour had done for their similar inventions, the idea being to make the “vibratory electric signals visible” in the form of “permanent marks.” However, I’ve never seen any other suggestion that Alexander Graham Bell had tried to record the motions of a sounding telephone diaphragm in or before April 1877, and the remark quoted above contains some notable hedges: Bell “is understood” (by whom?) “to have contrived something similar” (but what, exactly?). Perhaps someone was misremembering Bell’s non-telephonic experiments with the phonautograph. Nevertheless, many readers must have gained the impression that the recording of telephone messages was a fait accompli, and no cause for excitement.
One person who regularly scoured the New York Tribune for news of things electrical was Edison’s associate Charles Batchelor. One of his scrapbooks contains fifteen clippings cut from it during 1877, including one from April 2 and another from April 16, and he also forwarded a Tribune clipping about Edison’s musical telegraph to the English Mechanic on May 5. Moreover, the Tribune seems to have been the newspaper of choice at Menlo Park during this period, judging from Edison’s account of a telephone experiment conducted there that August: “as a test one column of the NY tribune was spoken through Telephone & copied with only the loss of a few proper names.” Neither Edison nor Batchelor appears to have kept a copy of the piece on Davis’s recording telephone from the Tribune of April 14, but it’s likely that one or the other of them had at least read it.
Even if Edison and Batchelor had missed the Davis item in the Tribune, they would have had a second chance to spot it in the Journal of the Telegraph, which they also followed on a regular basis. Despite Fahie’s reference to the issue “for May, 1877,” the Journal of the Telegraph was actually semimonthly, and the paraphrase of Davis’s letter appears on page 152 of the May 16 issue. Batchelor clipped three articles from that same issue for his scrapbook, including two centered on the telephone. One from page 151 comprises a detailed account of an exhibition by Alexander Graham Bell, and the beginning of the Davis article is on the back of that clipping—the side Batchelor glued face-down. It’s clear that Batchelor read the May 16, 1877 issue of the Journal of the Telegraph closely, and that he was especially interested in articles about telephones. Under these circumstances, it hardly seems plausible that he would have failed to read the Davis piece, headlined “Who Invented the Telephone?”
The first of Edison’s laboratory notes to mention the idea of recording telephonic speech (spectrographically, using Helmholtz resonators) is dated May 26, 1877, and signed jointly by Edison and Batchelor. Given the date, they might well have been following up on the recording telephone idea mentioned in the Davis piece.
To the best of my knowledge, the letter James Davis sent to the Raleigh Observer is the earliest known account of a Bell-type telephone with sound-recording capabilities. Beyond that, Davis’s significance is uncertain, but the stakes are high: he might have envisioned the playback of recorded sounds before Charles Cros, and Thomas Edison might have first encountered the idea of recording telephone messages in an account of Davis’s work, launching him down the path that would eventually lead him to the phonograph.
This essay was originally published with a few minor differences as “‘It Could Write or Register the Sounds in a Distinct Language’: The Recording Telephone of James Davis,” The Sound Box 28:4 (Dec. 2010): 12-16.
 William Aitken, Who Invented the Telephone? (London: Blackie and Son Limited, 1939), 46.
 Federal census for 1860 (James Davis, Fayetteville NC, age 27); 1870 (James Davis, Greensboro NC, age 38); Guion Griffis Johnson, Ante-Bellum North Carolina: A Social History (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1937), 747, online here; Proceedings in the Case of the United States Against Duncan G. McRae, William J. Tolar, David Watkins, Samuel Phillips and Thomas Powers, for the Murder of Archibald Beebee at Fayetteville, North Carolina, on the 11th Day of February, 1867 (Raleigh: Robert Avery, 1867), 158, online here; James Davis, “Improved Sewing Machine Stitch,” U. S. Patent 27,620, issued 27 March 1860, online here; Emma Morehead Whitfield and Theodore Marshall Whitfield, Whitfield, Bryan, Smith and Related Families (Westminster: The Times, Inc., 1948-50), 2:92, online here.
 Federal census for 1860 (T. D. Haigh, Fayetteville NC, age 30); 1870 (Thomas D. Haigh, Fayetteville NC, age 40); 1880 (Thos. D. Haigh, Cross Creek Twp NC, age 50); 1900 (Thos. D. Haigh, Cross Creek Twp NC, age 70); 1910 (Rebecca Haigh, Fayetteville NC, age 75); “Abstracts from Fayetteville Observer 1851-1854,” online here; Richard Brodhead, ed., The Journals of Charles W. Chesnutt (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993), 105, n. 2.
 “Lecture of Professor Hume,” Southern Patriot (Charleston SC), 15 February 1848, ; The Telephone Appeals: Oral Argument of Mr. Storrow on the Drawbaugh Defence (Boston: Alfred Mudge & Son, 1887), 109-111, online here; L. H. Everitt, “Acoustic Telegraph,” U. S. Patent 40,616, granted Nov. 17, 1863, online here; “Improved Acoustic Telegraph,” Scientific American 9 (Dec. 12, 1863), 369-70; Lancelot Hope Everitt, “Improvement in Acoustic Telegraphing,” U. S. Patent 75,886, issued 24 March 1868, online here; Royal E. House, “Improvement in Electro-Phonetic Telegraphs,” U. S. Patent 48,408, issued 27 June 1865, online here; U. S. Patent 77,882, issued 12 May 1868; Royal E. House, “Improvement in Telegraph Sounders,” U. S. Patent 180,094, issued 25 July 1876, online here.
 “The Telephone Tested,” Raleigh Observer, 3 April 1877, ; see also “Successful Experiment of Professor Gray’s Telephone,” Raleigh Observer, 4 April 1877, .
 “The Graphophone in Japan,” Japan Daily Mail, 17 January 1889, in Thomas E. Jeffrey, ed. Thomas A Edison Papers: A Selective Microfilm Edition (Frederick, Maryland: University Publications of America, 1985—), henceforth “TAEM,” 146:398, or the digital edition at edison.rutgers.edu, henceforth “TAED,” SC89031A.
 “Phonography and Photo-Phonography,” Scientific American n.s. 16 (4 May 1867): 285, online here; probably inspired by William H. Harrison, “The Photographing of Sound,” British Journal of Photography 14 (25 January 1867): 39-40, online here.
 “Science for the People,” New York Tribune, 14 April 1877, 6; Boston Daily Advertiser, 27 April 1877, ; “Who Invented the Telephone?,” Journal of the Telegraph, 16 May 1877, 152.
 “Exhibition of Bell’s Telephone,” Journal of the Telegraph, 16 May 1877, 151 (TAEM 94:52, TAED MBSB10166X); “Electrical Science in the Daily Press,” Journal of the Telegraph, 16 May 1877, 149 (TAEM 94:52, TAED MBSB10167X); Journal of the Telegraph, 16 May 1877, 146-7 (TAEM 94:53, TAED MBSB10168X).
 For the evolution of the idea between May and July 1877, see Patrick Feaster, “Speech Acoustics and the Keyboard Telephone,” ARSC Journal 38 (2007): 10-43, online here; also the correction on page 227.