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The Phonograph Essay, Research Paper
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
Major Talking Machine Corporations
Through World War I
in the Jazz Age
and Electronic Recording
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.
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
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
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
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."
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
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:
WHAT DID YOU DO IN THE GREAT WAR–’DECCA’?
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
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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