Biographical / Historical
Charles Sumner Tainter, son of George and Abigail Sanger Tainter, was born on April 25, 1854, in Watertown, Massachusetts, near Boston. His father was an inventor with several patents to his name. In his memoirs Tainter describes his father as "a man of much force of character and inventive ability" and his mother as, "a woman of high character and beloved by all." His school years left him with a terror of public speaking that followed him all his life. He completed public school without much enthusiasm and then became essentially self-educated, studying only subjects that interested him. He obtained scientific and technical books from the public library, and was an avid reader of Scientific American. In his memoirs he recalls: "I believe that this journal had a great influence in molding my thoughts in mechanical and scientific directions as I grew up with it and used to read it regularly."
In 1870 Tainter started to work for Charles Williams, Jr., a manufacturer of telegraphs and electrical apparatus in Boston, for five dollars a week. Two years later he became associated with Johnson and Whittlemore, manufacturers of electrical instruments in Boston. He stayed with them until the business folded in 1873, and then joined Alvan Clark and Sons, a well-known manufacturing company of large telescopes and optical instruments in Cambridgeport, Massachusetts. As a technician at the Alvan Clark and Sons Company, Tainter assisted with the building of the Equatorial Telescope mounted in the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C. He also constructed much of the equipment that was used during the U.S. government expedition to observe the transit of Venus in the South Pacific on December 8, 1874. The Secretary of the Navy appointed Tainter a member of this expedition, and Tainter vividly reveals his role in the event in his memoirs: "Early History of Charles Sumner Tainter." See Series 1, Box 1. [Note: Henry Draper, (1837 1882), a scientist whose collection of papers are also stored in the Archives Center, Series 3, Box 6, was superintendent of the government commission for the observation of the transit of Venus.] After he returned from the expedition in 1875, Tainter rejoined Alvan Clark and Sons Company and stayed there for three years.
Tainter started his own business in 1878 in Cambridgeport, Massachusetts, constructing scientific instruments. It was in Cambridgeport, that he met Alexander Graham Bell. A year later Tainter accepted Bell's proposal to join him in Washington, D.C. to establish a small laboratory. After a series of experiments they developed the radiophone, an instrument for transmitting sound to distant points through the agency of light, using sensitive selenium cells. The radiophone was shown at an electrical exhibition in Paris in 1881, where Tainter was awarded a gold medal and diploma for his part in the invention. Between 1879 and 1880, Tainter and Bell also experimented with and tried to improve on Edison's talking machine.
The Academie des Sciences of Paris awarded Bell the Volta prize in 1880 for his development of the telephone. The prize included $10,000 that Bell used a year later to establish the Volta Laboratory Association, a small research laboratory in Washington, D.C. He asked his cousin, Chichester A. Bell, a chemist from London, and Tainter to join him in this venture. Although they devoted much of their attention to electrical and acoustical research, most of their efforts went into the improvement of Edison's talking machine. Edison had used tinfoil as the recording medium for his first phonograph in 1877, but then abandoned the project and turned his attention to the electric light and power distribution system. Meanwhile, Chichester Bell and Tainter saw the fragile tinfoil as a major obstacle in any further development of the instrument, and after much experimenting came upon the idea of replacing the tinfoil with a wax compound onto which they could engrave the sound waves directly. This invention was patented in May 1886 under the name Graphophone. It was an important step in the development of the phonograph since for the first time it was possible to manufacture the device commercially. Tainter recorded his experiments on the graphophone in thirteen notebooks ("Home Notes") and two large volumes of technical drawings and sketches. See: Series 2, Boxes 1, 2, and 3.
Bell and Tainter recognized Edison as the inventor of the talking machine, and they wanted to work with him and carry the costs for all further experiments in exchange for half the share of the profits, but Edison rejected this proposal. He felt that they wanted to steal his invention. In 1885 the partnership between Bell, his cousin, and Tainter was dissolved, and the graphophone rights were given to a group of Washington court stenographers who felt that the graphophone could best be utilized as a dictaphone. The group subsequently formed the Volta graphophone Company where Tainter continued to work for several years. The Volta Graphophone Company was reorganized two years after its formation as the American Graphophone Company. Eventually Edison sued the Volta Graphophone Company (1894), and the American Graphophone Company (1895-96).
In June 1886 Tainter married Lila R. Munro, daughter of William J. Munro of Newport, Rhode Island. Two years later he suffered a severe case of pneumonia, which was to incapacitate him intermittently for the rest of his life.
The Volta Graphophone Company sold the foreign rights for the graphophone in the spring of 1889 to form the International Graphophone Company. Tainter became associated with this new company and went to Europe to look after its interests there. In the same year the graphophone was exhibited at the Paris Exposition and Tainter was awarded the Decoration of "Officier de L Instruction Publique" from the French government for his invention of the graphophone. Upon his return from Europe Tainter established a factory for the International Graphophone Company in Hartford, Connecticut in 1889. When he left the company in 1890, he launched his own laboratory in Washington, D.C., where he continued to improve on the phonograph and a number of new inventions were patented.
At the Chicago Exposition in 1893 Tainter was asked to manage the exhibition of more than a hundred machines for the American Graphophone Company. In 1897 a fire destroyed Tainter's Washington laboratory and much valuable material was lost, including three volumes of his "Home Notes", which contained some of the findings of his experiments on the graphophone. Three years later the city of Philadelphia awarded the John Scott medal to Chichester Bell and Tainter for their work in connection with the graphophone.
Tainter's chronic illness forced him to suspend his work frequently and seek treatment and relief in various sanatoria and spas both in Europe and in the United States. He and his wife eventually moved to California. They settled in San Diego in June of 1903 to enjoy the better climate there. Again Tainter established a laboratory and continued to work whenever his health allowed. In 1915 he was awarded a gold medal and diploma for his work with the graphophone at the San Francisco Exposition. Tainter's wife died in 1924. Four years later he married Laura Fontaine Onderdonk, widow of Charles G. Onderdonk.
At the meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Pittsburgh in December 1934, Tainter was made an Emeritus Life Member, having been a fellow for 55 years. His obituary also mentions that in 1915 Tainter was awarded a gold medal at the Panama Pacific Exposition for his work on the graphophone.
Tainter died on April 20, 1940. He was considered an inventor, a physicist, and a manufacturer of electrical apparatus, but most of all he was known as the father of the talking machine.