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The Phonograph Essay, Research Paper

The Phonograph


The invention of the phonograph and other

sound reproduction machines began a new way of producing historical archives.

Expressions of the human voice were no longer limited to their abstraction

as words on the page, and the artistry and passion of a musical performance

could be preserved outside human memory. People could bring the sounds of

the world into their homes, and a global culture began to arise out of the

mixture of influences that a broad diversity of recordings could provide.

Before radio and sound motion pictures, the phonograph and other "talking

machines" reigned for several decades as the great modern innovation

in audio culture and entertainment.

The early history of the phonograph can be organized into the following



Scott’s Phonautograph




Bell-Tainter Graphophone


Recording Industry




Major Talking Machine Corporations


Recording Boom


Through World War I


in the Jazz Age


and Electronic Recording


and Decline

Leon Scott’s Phonautograph

The first successful sound recording device was developed by Leon Scott

de Martinville in 1855. Scott’s "phonautograph" used a mouthpiece

horn and membrane fixed to a stylus that recorded sound waves on a rotating

cylinder wrapped with smoke-blackened paper. There was no way at the time

to play the sounds back, but the Frenchman’s device was a crucial foundation

for the developments that would come two decades later. Scott’s phonautograph

was manufactured and sold as a laboratory instrument for analyzing sound

beginning in 1859.

Edison’s Phonograph

In 1877 Thomas

Edison designed the "tinfoil

phonograph" and directed John Kruesi, one of his top laboratory

mechanics, to build a prototype. The device consisted of a cylindrical

drum wrapped in tinfoil and mounted on a threaded axle. A mouthpiece attached

to a diaphragm was connected to a stylus that etched vibrational patterns

from a sound source on the rotating foil. For playback the mouthpiece

was replaced with a "reproducer" that used a more sensitive

diaphragm. Edison recited "Mary Had a Little Lamb" into the

mouthpiece for the first demonstration. Even though he expected success

he was startled to hear the "tinny" version of his own voice

echo his performance. Edison prepared an encore presentation for the editor

of The

Scientific American, a close friend, who wrote the following in the

Nov. 17, 1877 issue:

It has been said that Science is never sensational; that it is intellectual,

not emotional; but certainly nothing that can be conceived would be

more likely to create the profoundest of sensations, to arouse the liveliest

of human emotions, than once more to hear the familiar voices of the

dead. Yet Science now announces that this is possible, and can be done….

Speech has become, as it were, immortal.

The invention of the first "talking machine" is most commonly

attributed to Edison, in part because of the publicity that attended his

celebrity and the theatrical power of his demonstrations, and in part

because previous inventions had earned him the means to have the device

built. The first to build a phonograph, of course, was Kruesi. The first

to conceive of a workable design was most likely the Parisian Charles

Cros, who delivered viable plans for a machine that would use discs to

the French Academie des Sciences in April of 1877. This occurred several

months before Edison happened on his idea while working on a telegraphy

device designed to record readable traces of a Morse code signal onto

a disk.

In January of 1878, investors created the Edison Speaking Phonograph

Company to oversee the manufacture and exhibition of the talking machines.

Edison received $10,000 and periodic royalties. He continued to refine

the tin-foil phonograph through mid-1878, feeding a popular enthusiasm

for stage demonstrations of the "magic" machine which could

imitate any language, cough, or animal sound that a skeptic from the audience

could produce in an attempt to expose the "trick."

By October of the same year, however, Edison was coaxed away from the

phonograph by an offer of substantial backing to pursue the invention

of an electric light. As the novelty of the phonograph exhibitions waned,

the audiences tapered off and the invention went through a dormant period

nearly a decade long before it would transcend its status as a curiosity.

The Bell-Tainter Graphophone

The late 1870s and early 1880s were full of inventive breakthroughs and

rapid advancements in communication technologies that came from a number

of well-organized laboratories. Fast-shutter motion photography, the first

crude motion pictures, the electric light, the

telephone, and vast improvements in the telegraph were all developed within

a few years of the phonograph. Alexander

Graham Bell had invented the telephone in 1876, and Edison had become

financially independent by designing a carbon transmitter for Bell’s invention

a few months before he began designing the phonograph.

While the two inventors’ ability to inspire each other never yielded

a particularly amicable partnership, it did fuel a competitive drive in

both men that would entangle their lives for decades. The telephone won

Bell the $10,000 Volta Prize from the French government, which he used

to establish a laboratory for experimenting with electrical acoustic devices.

He gave his cousin, an engineer named Chichester Bell, and Charles Tainter,

a scientist and instrument maker, the project of improving the phonograph.

The Bell-Tainter "graphophone" released in 1887 displayed some

key improvements to the Edison model. Cylinders were made entirely of

wax instead of cardboard and tinfoil, which allowed for longer and more

clearly defined recordings. The graphophone also used a loosely mounted

"floating" stylus for clearer conversion into sound, and it

resolved the pitch fluctuations associated with Edison’s hand crank by

using a foot treadle or an electric motor.

Early Recording Industry

By this time Edison had renewed his interest in the phonograph and pursued

improvements of his own, most notably replacing the tinfoil sheath with

a coating of wax and developing a battery-powered electric motor to drive

the instrument. He insisted the phonograph should be more than an amusement,

and advocated its dignified use as an office dictation machine. Amid competing

patents and corporate plans for the talking machines, and against Edison’s

protests, a market for their use arose again. Very few office stenographers

warmed to the newfangled dictation method, but by 1891 coin-operated phonographs

installed in corner drug stores and cafes that charged a nickel for approximately

two minutes of music began to take in an average of $50 per week.

Something of a commercial recording industry had started up in 1890.

Musicians would record on several phonographs at once, repeating their

performance until enough cylinders were produced to satisfy demand. Wax

was a poor medium for capturing music of any quality and the cylinders

could only hold two minutes of music, but the entertainment value of having

a wide variety of recordings to choose from made the new industry quite

attractive nonetheless.

Numerous "phonograph parlors" popped up to exploit the invention’s

lucrative possibilities. A customer could speak into a tube to request

one of as many as 150 titles and listen to a recording played on the floor

below that was piped into two ear horns at the customer’s private desk.

The leisure culture that the parlors spawned soon included individual

coin-operated kinetoscopes that flipped photographs past a viewer, creating

the first common motion picture illusions. The phonograph proved to be

a useful advertising medium. Machines that could be activated by the touch

of a button were mounted in conspicuous places, in keeping with the logic

of an 1894 promotional statement: "Nobody will refuse to listen to

a fine song or concert piece or oration, even if interrupted by the modest

remark, ‘Tartar’s Baking Powder Is Best’, or ‘Wash The Baby With Orange


It became clear that the phonograph was meant to be part of the entertainment

world. Thomas Macdonald, the manager of a graphophone factory, developed

an inexpensive and reliable clockwork motor. This enabled the Bell-Tainter

camp, now doing business as the Columbia Phonograph Company, to launch

a full-fledged retail venture with a clockwork-driven machine they called

the "Graphophone Grand."

Berliner’s Gramophone

While the cylinder machines were finally enjoying a period of wide public

acceptance, a device that had already gone through several years of development

was introduced to the U.S. market. Emile Berliner’s "gramophone,"

which used discs pressed in hard rubber instead of cylinders, was launched

with minimal backing in 1893. The plan behind the first small-scale release

was to attract more substantial backers by demonstrating the unique advantages

of the gramophone. The discs were much cheaper to produce and any number

of copies could be made from a zinc master. Berliner based his model on

Scott’s phonautograph and Cros’s disc machine design. Berliner described

the process this way:

Gramophone: a talking machine wherein a sound is first traced into

a fatty film covering a metal surface and which is then subjected to

the action of an acid or etching fluid which eats the record into the

metal. This record being a continuous wavy line of even depth is then

rotated and not only vibrates the reproducing sound chamber but also

propels the same by the hold its stylus retains in record groove. The

original record can be duplicated ad infinitum by first making an electrotyped

reverse or matrix and then pressing the latter into hard rubber, celluloid

or similar material which is soft when warm and quite hard when cold.

Eclipsed by the cylinder machines’ new heights of success, Berliner’s

gramophone was slow to attract attention. By 1896 Berliner’s company had

finally found some backers and were able to release the Baby Grand Gramophone,

a spring-driven machine which could legitimately compete with the cylinder


The Major Talking Machine


There were now three major selling agencies that would dominate the sale

of home machines for years to come: The National Gramophone Company, which

sold Berliner gramophones; the Columbia Phonograph Company, which sold

Bell-Tainter graphophones; and the National Phonograph Company, which

sold Edison phonographs. Corporations that held and manufactured under

patent rights added to the tangle. Among these were Volta Graphophone,

associated with Bell-Tainter machines, and the Victor Talking Machine

Company, which was Berliner’s partnership with Eldridge Johnson, the man

who had developed the gramophone’s spring drive.

The commercial success of the machines in the late 1890s sparked a number

of corporate lawsuits and patent battles, and fueled several new technical

innovations. The Berliner people developed a new disc-stamping process

and Duranoid, a shellac-based plastic material that proved far superior

to rubber. Edison’s camp came up with a machine that could play two cylinders

with one winding of the spring drive. An inventor named Harold Short developed

a compressed-air amplifier. Some odd new twists on turn-of-the century

talking machines included an intriguing variety of handsome and at times

bizarre cabinets and horns, a disc design that allowed for 12 minutes

of play and moved the stylus from the center outward, a method of linking

the sound patterns to a mouthpiece so people could plug their ears and

"listen with their teeth," and records made of chocolate that

could be eaten when they were too worn out to play.

Worldwide Recording Boom

As executives of the Gramophone Company sought greater international

influence, they sent a young musician and talent scout named Fred Gaisberg

to the great cities of Europe and Asia with an elaborate and bulky assemblage

of recording equipment. Gaisberg’s tireless enthusiasm for recording all

manner of church and military music, street and tavern acts, and folk

performances provided an enormous variety of recordings the company could

offer gramophone enthusiasts.

The talking machines were enjoying a tremendous surge in popularity among

Europeans near the turn of the century. It was easy to persuade local

acts to record, but the Gramophone Company was presented with a formidable

challenge when it sought to record Europe’s great opera stars. Most of

the singers scoffed at the idea of being associated with an amusement

gadget, but a new wax engraving process improved recording quality dramatically

and by 1901 the Gramophone Company made sixty records by four stars of

the Russian Imperial Opera. This coup prompted Gaisberg to pursue the

great young tenor, Enrico Caruso,

whose name became, in Gaisberg’s words, the "decoy that brought other

hesitating celebrities to our recording studios." Caruso’s records

would yield over $2 million by the end of his career about two decades


Innovations Through

World War I

A global culture of recording enthusiasts continued to expand through

the years of World War I. Technological advances included a pleated and

varnished paper diaphragm speaker which could replace the horn, more durable

cylinders and discs which also facilitated longer and better quality recordings,

and a way of installing a tone arm mount for the stylus in a box lid that

made possible the "Decca," the first truly portable talking

machine. Hundreds of portables were sent to the British front lines to

relieve tedium and jangled nerves, and post-war Decca sales literature

portrayed the machines as war heroes:


I was ‘Mirth-Maker-in-Chief to His Majesty’s Forces’; my role being

to give our Soldiers and our Sailors music wherever they should be.

In that capacity I saw service on every Front–France, Belgium, Egypt,

Palestine, Italy and the Dardenelles; right in the Front Line and away

back in Camps and Hospitals. All told, there were 100,000 ‘Deccas"

on Active Service from start to finish of the War.

And now that the War is over, I still pursue my calling but under pleasanter


The recording industry experienced unprecedented growth after the war.

In 1914 the American Society of Composers,

Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) was formed to ensure that its members

were paid for the use of their work. By 1920 more than 200 manufacturers

had taken advantage of lapsed phonograph patents and went into production.

Recording in the Jazz Age

The corporate push to expand the range of music coincided with the emergence

of a few white musicians who began to emulate black New Orleans jazz.

Soon after the Original

Dixieland Jazz Band cut the first jazz record in 1917, the "authentic

New Orleans sound" found its way into white homes and became a national

craze. As music historians Russel Miller and Roger Boar put it, "…before

radio and talking pictures, gramophone records were the trend-setters,

the star-makers, the catalyst jazz needed to take the country–and later

the world– by storm."

During Prohibition, speakeasies and dance halls, often run by gangsters,

built a thriving culture around black jazzmen from New Orleans who brought

their sound to Chicago. To capitalize on the talent pool while maintaining

the decorum of segregation, record companies created cheap ‘race record’

subsidiaries of their established labels to sell the music of black artists

exclusively in black residential areas. Jazz musicians were usually more

than happy to record. Whites who hungered for jazz could always find it.

Records allowed the improvised sound that inspired a passion for dancing

in some and puritan rage in others to burst across geographic and racial

borders and leave its mark on all forms of popular music.

Through most of the jazz era, recording artists had to crowd around and

sing or play directly into the mouths of large metal recording horns.

They also had to redo from the beginning any performance with a glitch

in it. Recorded music had to do without drums, which made the recording

stylus vibrate too much. As radio began its meteoric rise in the early

1920’s the contrast in quality between tinny crackling records and clean,

live broadcast sound prompted many to predict that recording machines

were in their declining years.

Radio and Electronic Recording

Research in "wireless telephony" conducted during World War

I yielded viable microphones and amplifiers that made the radio broadcast

boom possible. When the recording industry

began to apply these technologies and embraced electronic recording in

1925, the studio experience and the quality of recordings improved dramatically.

Individual microphones replaced shared recording horns, and artists could

now overdub mistakes. Electric amplification made it possible for studio

acoustics to emulate the atmosphere and clarity of live performances.

A much-expanded frequency range allowed for the improved definition of

sharper treble and the weighty force of deep bass.

These innovations sparked another surge in enthusiasm for recorded music

that now appeared to complement the popularity of radio. A number of radio-phonograph

combination machines were marketed successfully. The grandest symbol of

corporate confidence in the alliance was RCA Victor, the result of the

Radio Company of America’s acquisition in early 1929 of the Victor Talking

Machine Company.

Depression and Decline

Later in the same year, however, the predicted death of the phonograph

seemed to suddenly become a reality. The industry ground to a halt almost

overnight in October when the stock market crashed. People saw little

point in spending bread money on records when the radio continued to provide

free entertainment. In November, eighty-two year old Edison and his corporate

allies discontinued production of records and phonographs. Cylinder records

had already begun a sharp and steady decline since the advent of electronic

recording. The Edison announcement finally rendered them extinct. Thomas

Edison died in 1931.

In 1927, 987,000 machines were produced and 104,000,000 records were

sold. In 1932 those numbers dropped to 40,000 and 6,000,000 respectively.

With the exception of a few die-hard collectors, consumers not only quit

buying records, they also began to think of the whole phenomenon of "canned

music" as part of an outdated culture. Free live radio and the first

sound motion pictures (the first feature-length "talkie," The

Jazz Singer, was released in 1929) seemed to provide more vibrant,

immediate and modern cultural outlets. Millions of machines and records

found their way into attics and junkpiles. In decades to come, of course,

recording would be revived and go through even more dramatic technological,

cultural and corporate transformations. However, the Depression, the death

of the phonograph’s inventor, the drastic decline in consumer interest,

and the competition from new forms of audio technology marked the end

of the beginning for talking machines. Sources

Butterworth, William E.; Hi-Fi: From Edison’s Phonograph

to Quadrophonic Sound; Four Winds Press; New York; 1977.

Du Moncel, Theodore A. L.; The Telephone, The Microphone

and the Phonograph; Arno Press; New York; 1974.

Gellat, Roland; The Fabulous Phonograph 1877-1977;

Macmillan Publishing, Inc.; New York; 1977.

Hitchcock, Wiley, ed.; The Phonograph and Our Musical

Life: Proceedings of a Centennial Conference; Brooklyn College; 1977.

Jewell, Brian; Veteran Talking Machines; Midas

Books; Great Britain; 1977.

Miller, Russel and Roger Boar; The Incredible Music

Machine; Quartet/Visual Arts; London; 1982.

Read, Oliver and Walter L. Welch; From Tinfoil to Stereo:

Evolution of the Phonograph; Howard W. Sams & Co., Inc.; Indianapolis;


Whetmore, Edward J.; MEDIAMERICA: Form, Content, and

Consequence of Mass Communication (4th Edition); Wadsworth, Inc.;

Belmont, California; 1989.

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