Here’s a fascinating artifact, courtesy of Lists of Note: a handwritten list of names created by Thomas Edison and his colleagues in 1877, the year the Edison phonograph was introduced. Most of the names are compounded from Greek or Latin roots; the list includes helpful translations (“Atmophone = vapor or steam sound”).
The list affords a rare peek into a long-ago naming process and into the concepts Edison was struggling to define. You can see how the team would fix on a word part—graph or phone—and build on it. Name development still relies on this very basic skill.
From a 21st-century name developer’s perspective, the list is revealing in other ways, too.
- It’s a surprisingly short list: only 55 names if you count all the variations (e.g., Electrophemist electrophemy electropheme). By comparison, I came up with 200 names for a recent project; my naming partner developed about the same number. That’s about par for the course. I couldn’t help remembering that Edison famously made hundreds (or thousands) of attempts at a working light bulb; when asked about his failures, he is said to have replied: “I have not failed 1,000 times. I have successfully found 1,000 ways not to make a light bulb.” (Some versions of the story make it 10,000 failures and 10,000 ways.) Clearly, Edison had more patience with filaments than with prefixes and suffixes.
- The names are almost identical in style: all Greek and Latin (these gentlemen knew the classics!), all descriptive, all three or more syllables. A more comprehensive list would include shorter words (e.g., Pronto), English words (Hark), and metaphors (how about Euterpe, named for the Greek muse of song?). We would also see different types of word parts, such as the -ola that appeared a couple of decades later in the Victor-Victrola.
- Edison must have stipulated that his own surname was not to be used in forming the name. That’s selfless, but it was also a missed opportunity, given that the last syllable of Edison’s name, son, means “sound.” In fact, son, sonic, and their variants don’t appear on the list at all. But there’s also no Ediphone or Edigraph.
- The ultimate choice, phonograph, does not appear on the list. In fact, phone appears only as a suffix. I’d love to know how and when someone got the brilliant idea to move that word part to the beginning of a word.
Or maybe simply to “borrow” the whole word. Phonograph had been invented more than 40 years earlier, in 1835. It originally meant “a character [graph] representing a sound [phono],” and referred to shorthand writing. Edison must have known about the word and decided to appropriate it for his device. (By the way, he called his sound recordings phonograms.)
One last comment: in a million years, I’d never have come up with “Symphraxometer.” The handwritten note gives the word’s meaning as “pressure meter,” but I can’t help hearing a symphony.
Thanks to HangingNoodles for the link to Lists of Note.