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The Intriguing History and Origins of the Phonograph

History of the Phonograph
What is a phonograph? Who invented it? Read on to find out.
ScienceStruck Staff
Last Updated: Nov 27, 2018
Old fashioned turntable playing a track
Phonograph, which has been used for playing recorded sound, finds its roots in the phonautograph that was invented in 1857.
Many scientists have contributed to the invention of the phonograph, which is also known as the gramophone. Let us peek into the history of its creation.
Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville, a French printer and bookseller from Paris, devised a phonautograph and patented it on March 25, 1857. Phonautograph lacked the means to play back sound after recording it. It was composed of a mouthpiece horn and a stylus with a membrane fixed to it, and a rotating cylinder covered with paper darkened by smoke.
The stylus recorded sound waves on the cylinder. With this device, a graphical image of sound was recorded, and not the sound itself. Scott's phonautograph was sold in 1859 as a laboratory instrument to analyze sound.
Tinfoil phonograph of Edison
Charles Cros, a French scientist postulated the phonograph theory, but was unable to manufacture a working model. Thomas Edison had created a working phonograph by the time Cros' theory was made public.
Gramophone on white background
Both Edison and Charles Cross are attributed with independent discoveries of the phonograph.
In 1877, Edison came up with the principles of sound recording and reproduction of sound. On November 21, 1877, he declared that he had invented a phonograph and demonstrated it for the first time on November 29.
The first phonograph designed by Edison consisted of a phonograph cylinder of tinfoil onto which sound could be recorded by means of a stylus. The cylinder was covered with tinfoil and mounted on an axle. The stylus was connected to a mouthpiece attached to a diaphragm.
The stylus reproduced the sound in the form of vibrational patterns on the rotating foil. A 'reproducer' with a more sensitive diaphragm was used for playback. Edison demonstrated this invention by recording 'Mary had a little lamb'.
Antique illustration of Thomas Alva Edison
John Kruesi, Edison's close associate and head machinist used to translate Edison's ideas into working devices. He has a share in devising the phonograph.
In 1886, Charles Sumner Tainter and Chichester Bell patented vertically modulated engraved recordings that used wax-coated cylinders. Their patent was known as graphophone.
The wax coating made it possible to have longer and more clear recordings. The loosely mounted stylus allowed for better conversion of sound. The problem of pitch fluctuations that the Edison model had, was solved in the Bell-Tainter graphophone. Their project was funded by Alexander Graham Bell who aimed at improving Edison's phonograph.
In 1887, Emile Berliner, an American inventor born in Germany, came up with his version of the phonograph and patented it as the gramophone. The gramophone was based on a system of recording that used the lateral movement of a stylus that moved spirally over a zinc disc. The zinc disc was wax-coated.
Early Phonograph Wax Record
After a recording, the disc was dipped in an acid solution, whereby the recording got carved onto the zinc surface.
Through electroplating, the zinc disc was converted into a stamper that could be used for the final recordings. The volume of the records on a gramophone depended on the pressure with which the tonearm would press into the groove.
Thus, loud sounds could be produced with gramophones. The model was based on Scott's phonautograph and Cros' design. Berliner described his model as 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.
May 1889 witnessed the opening of the very first phonograph parlor in San Francisco, where customers could select songs to be played on it. In the next few years, there were three main agencies selling these audio-playing devices.
The National Gramophone Company sold Berliner gramophones, the National Phonograph Company sold Edison phonographs, and the Columbia Phonograph Company sold Bell-Tainter graphophones.
Through the years of the First World War, the recording industry boomed. With the advent of wireless technology, microphones and amplifiers were introduced. The frequency range improved, overdubbing was possible, radio and recording became popular, and the sales of radio-phonograph combination machines increased.
After the stock market crash in 1929, the recording industry suffered. People lost interest in buying records. Soon, Edison stopped the production of records and phonographs. Two years later, he died. With improvements in audio technology, phonographs that had evolved into gramophones took a backseat to never be as popular as they were in the late 1880s.
But this invention definitely had a lot to give to the future of the recording industry. Today's audio technology derives a lot from the old record players. Perhaps, the idea of jukeboxes and music parlors is a derivative of the phonograph parlors of the olden times.
After the first successful demonstration of the phonograph, The Scientific American had rightly said, Speech has become, as it were, immortal. And that's the gist of the history of the phonograph; this invention immortalized speech.