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In today’s world, it’s hard to imagine having anything less than unlimited access to music, books, podcasts, and other audio recordings. We can access thousands, or even millions, of recordings from a device that fits into our pocket.
Even more amazing than this technology, however, is the fact that it dates back less than 200 years. Just a few generations ago, before Spotify and Discmans and the radio and even record players, the only way for a person to listen to music was to hear it performed live.
So what prompted the move to recorded sound, and, subsequently, the convenience that we all enjoy? Well, it all started with a couple of frustrated Frenchmen, two American thinkers (one of which was hearing-impaired), and a savvy German immigrant.
The Earliest Recording Devices: the Phonautograph and the Paleophone
The Phonautograph and History’s First Recorded Sound
The first known device to ever record audio was the phonautograph. It was invented in Paris, France by aspiring professional inventor Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville (or, more simply, Leon Scott). Scott mused that if a camera could capture a real-life image onto a daguerreotype, perhaps a machine could also capture sound.
Surprisingly, Scott never imagined that someone might actually hear the sounds he intended to record; he expected them to be “read” from the page. Interpreting that output proved more challenging than he anticipated, however.
The phonautograph he created recorded audio in the same way that a seismograph traces the trembles of an earthquake, scratching vibrations into paper or a glass plate. It was essentially capturing soundwaves, far from an interpretable written language.
Nonetheless, he continued to work on the invention. In 1860, he recorded a snippet of the French folk song “Au Clair de la Lune”.
150 years later, historians and enthusiasts used modern technology to turn this and Scott’s other etchings back into audio. The eerie, uneven sounds remained unimaginable in Scott’s day, however. And in the absence of anyone skilled in the reading of his recordings, Scott largely considered his invention a failure.
A Recording and Playback Device That Never Came to Be
Another Frenchman, however, saw the possibility of the phonautograph.
A poet, dreamer, and dabbler in the technology of the era, Charles Cros imagined a device that would both record audio and play it back. In April 1877, he wrote up his ideas, sealed them in an envelope, and filed them with the French Academy of Sciences.
Cros even applied for a patent for the imagined machine, which he eventually named the Paleophone.
However, he never built a prototype, and his patent application didn’t include any sketches or designs to bring the idea to life. As a result, Mr. Cros is best remembered (outside of France, at least) as an imaginer of modern audio technology, rather than as an inventor of it.
Thomas Edison’s Phonograph
The First (Actual) Device to Record and Play Sound
American inventor Thomas Alva Edison is famous for a lifetime of transformative ideas. By the time he died in 1931 at the age of 84, he had amassed more than 1,000 patents. From his New Jersey workshop came early versions of the movie camera, the lightbulb, and the alkaline battery, as well as improvements to the telegraph, cement, and other existing inventions.
In 1877, not long after Charles Cros filed his secret envelope, Edison also imagined a device that would both record and play sound.
However, unlike his French contemporary, Edison had the knowledge and means to build and test his design.
Interestingly enough, the arrival at Edison’s invention was not inspired by Cros or even Scott’s work. Instead, it was prompted by his history as a telegraph operator and the recent introduction of the telephone.
Telegraphs could be recorded and played back later for an operator to interpret. Edison had already been working to improve this process, and he simply wanted to apply the same logic to telephone messages.
Edison called his creation the phonograph. It was the first device to ever record and play audio back to a willing ear.
Incidentally, Edison was deaf in one ear, and his hearing was impaired in the other. Nonetheless, this disadvantage didn’t stop him from being a pioneer in audio technology.
Starting with paper and playing with various materials and techniques, he and his associates arrived at a machine that recorded sounds through impressions on tinfoil wrapped around a cylinder. The cylinder was turned manually by a hand crank.
This device, built by a mechanic named John Kruesi, was the first phonograph to be taken out of the lab. It was demonstrated to and promptly published by the editors of Scientific American in late 1877. They called it “The Talking Phonograph.”
Legend has it that the invention caught the attention of Charles Cros and Leon Scott.
Cros supposedly requested his envelope to be unsealed, hoping to prove that the invention was his idea first. Scott, who had long since abandoned his phonautograph, may have been disgruntled enough to revisit the project.
But while Edison had impressed the scientific world (and antagonized a couple of Frenchmen), the rest of the world was not yet ready.
Cartoons and articles appeared in various publications, all of them imagining the terrible outcomes this talking machine might bring. Even worse, the sound quality wasn’t good, and each tinfoil recording could only be played back once.
Edison had imagined that the phonograph would make him rich, but their success was more moderate than he’d hoped. Phonographs were produced and sold as novelty devices, but little more.
Alexander Graham Bell’s Graphophone:
Replacing Tinfoil with Wax for Better Sounds and Usability
A few years later, Alexander Graham Bell, whose telephone had revolutionized communication, introduced the graphophone. The machine was similar in design to Edison’s phonograph. It also used a cylinder mechanism for recording and playback, but Bell replaced the tinfoil with wax.
This material allowed his recordings to be played back many times, and significantly improved the quality of the output.
Bell attempted to market the graphophone as an office dictation device.
Like Edison, however, the machine remained primarily a curiosity. In fact, an 1893 version of the machine was coin-operated and created specifically for entertainment purposes.
The Brief Popularity of Graphophones and Phonographs
Despite their relegation primarily to the novelty market, improvements to the phonograph (and closely related graphophone) did make it a popular item for several years. In the 1890s and 1910s, the machines were favored for their ability to both record and play back sound. Some versions of the wax cylinder were also virtually indestructible, allowing them to be played over and over again without wearing out.
However, the challenge of reproduction plagued both devices. Each cylinder required a separate audio recording, meaning that they could not be mass-produced for widespread purchase and enjoyment. This is where Emile Berliner stepped in.
The Gramophone: The Precursor to Modern-Day Record Players
Emile Berliner: Father of the Recording Industry
Late in 1887, just ten years after the debut of Edison’s tinfoil phonograph, a German immigrant named Emile Berliner patented a brand new sound machine. Instead of a cylinder, his device employed a flat disc. A needle skimmed the disc, “reading” the grooves and transmitting that information through a bell-shaped funnel to produce sound.
Berliner’s invention, called a gramophone, was the first iteration of modern-day records and record players. Made of glass, then zinc, and then plastic, the discs could be easily reproduced for the masses.
First, a “master” recording was created, then a mold made from the recording. The mold could then be used to create any number of copies.
Because of this, the gramophone was not only a new invention, but it gave rise to the modern recording industry.
The Growth of the Gramophone
Even though the gramophone required the use of pre-recorded discs, eliminating the recording feature of phonographs, it offered other advantages. They cost less to manufacture, and, as previously noted, could be produced in bulk. Once recordings began to appear on both sides of the disc, the capacity of a disc expanded far beyond the cylinder.
By 1910, the gramophone and other disc-based devices had replaced phonographs as the industry leader. Cylinder production continued to decline through the 1920s and stopped altogether in 1929.
Berliner’s company soon included outposts in Germany, Canada, and the United Kingdom.
After a legal dispute that prevented Berliner from producing discs in the United States, Johnson formed Victor to continue manufacturing both gramophones and records in the U.S., ensuring that the machines he sold would have something to play.
At the same time, Columbia Records also began to produce records for the American market.
The company had evolved in part from the Volta Graphophone Company, formed by Alexander Graham Bell and his associates.
Columbia eventually abandoning their cylinder-based models for the more marketable discs.
The Smart Marketing that Made the Gramophone a Success
Berliner wasn’t just a smart inventor; he was also a skilled marketer. To promote interest in his discs and the machine on which to play them, he engaged two popular performers of the era.
In the early 1900s, he recorded Italian opera singer Enrico Caruso and Australian soprano Dame Nellie Melba. Melba’s voice had previously been recorded on a phonograph, but she was so unhappy with the recording that she requested the cylinders destroyed.
Around the same time, the painting “His Master’s Voice” was adopted as the trademark for the Victor Talking Machine Company as well as Berliner’s UK record label HMV.
The image depicts a small dog listening to a gramophone (originally a cylinder phonograph).
It was inspired by the dog, phonograph, and recordings that British Artist Francis Barraud had received upon his brother’s death. Barraud noticed that the dog, named Nipper, had a particular reaction when played recordings of his former owner’s voice, which inspired the piece.
So wait – what exactly was the difference between a gramophone and a phonograph again?
While two words are often used interchangeably, the distinction is simple. The phonograph recorded on and played back from a cylinder. The graphophone did the same. The gramophone, in contrast, used a flat disc – a “record” in today’s nomenclature – to play a pre-recorded sound. It was the later invention that achieved widespread acceptance and enduring commercial success.
The Legacy of the Gramophone & its Predecessors
From the Phonograph to Modern Audio Technology: The Evolution of Sound Recording and Playback
As the design and technology evolved, the terms record player and turntable eventually replaced gramophone and phonograph in the common language.
Instead of a bell-shaped cone to transmit sound from the disc to the user, they began to use speakers. The machines, once powered by a crank, went fully electric. Other developments made the machines more portable and user-friendly.
While record players have enjoyed a comeback in recent years, most modern audio devices combine the player and the recording into one small package. Digital audio files are stored on a computer, iPad, or mobile phone and can be played from any of those devices.
Enduring Leaders in Audio Technology
More than 100 years later, Columbia Records is now the oldest name in recorded sound. Even more, it remains a leader in the recording industry. Artists who have recorded under the Columbia label include Beyoncé, Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Miles Davis, Frank Sinatra, and Adele.
Victor Talking Machine Company was acquired by RCA in 1929. Nipper, the iconic dog, has appeared periodically on the company’s products throughout the decades. Notable RCA Records artists include Britney Spears, A$AP Rocky, Dave Matthews Band, Justin Timberlake, Miley Cyrus, Shakira, and Childish Gambino.
EMI is a British label with its roots in Emile Berliner’s UK company, which merged with the British branch of the Columbia Graphophone Company in the 1930s to form Electric and Musical Industries Limited.
EMI Records came out of the union in 1972 and was sold to Universal Music Group in 2012. Artists with EMI Records have included Taylor Swift, Queen, Metallica, Florence and the Machine, Carrie Underwood, Justin Bieber, and Elton John.
Grammy Awards: Honoring the Legacy of the Gramophone
Though technology has moved well past the gramophone, its impact on the music industry is not quickly forgotten. The greatest achievement in American music, the Grammy Award, takes its name from the device. Each year, the honor recognizes outstanding musicians and related professionals across more than 25 categories.
And the statue that winners receive? It’s a golden gramophone, of course.