a brief look at the first fifty years of recorded music

Es­ti­mated reading time is 10 min­utes.

THE TECHNOLOGY TO RECORD SOUND is more than a 160 years old! It has been avail­able since 1857, years be­fore the tech­nology to re­pro­duce that sound was re­al­ized. The first recording ma­chines were used for sci­en­tific re­search, pri­marily to study sound waves. The first vi­able tech­nology for recording and playing recorded music for home en­ter­tain­ment was Thomas Edison’s Phono­graph in 1877.

Edison’s system used cylin­ders wrapped with tin-foil, upon which ‘sound’ was en­graved. For sev­eral decades, the phono­graph dom­i­nated the field. Its sole com­pe­ti­tion came from Emile Berliner’s Gramo­phone (1895), a system that used discs in­stead of cylinders.


In 1929, Edison quit pro­ducing cylin­ders and the term ‘record’ re­ferred ex­clu­sively to discs.


For a time, as the two sys­tems com­peted for the consumer’s dol­lars and their at­ten­dant af­fec­tions, both Edison’s cylinder and Berliner’s disc were re­ferred to as records, as each format was a record of cap­tured sound.

The disc even­tu­ally won the first Battle of the For­mats, with the cylinder being rel­e­gated to the his­tory books. Discs were the dom­i­nant source of recorded music for more than eighty years, with the words disc (or disk, the two used in­ter­change­ably) and record be­coming syn­ony­mous in common par­lance. 1


RecordedSound cylinders Columbia 450

An in­de­struc­tible record in the early years of the 20th cen­tury cost a mere 35¢. Of course, in today’s dol­lars, that would be about $10 for a single track, or 2-3 min­utes of music—which trans­lates to about $250 for a CD album.

A very brief outline

During the 1970s, the cas­sette tape re­placed the record as the best-selling medium for most forms of recorded sound. Tape lasted less than twenty years as the dom­i­nant format: By the end of the ’80s, it was re­placed by the compact-disc.

This ar­ticle is a very brief out­line of the early his­tory of recorded sound and music. For more de­tailed his­to­ries, type “his­tory of recorded sound” into your browser and you’ll find a few rel­e­vant web­sites. Wikipedia has a lengthy and good his­tory under “Sound recording and re­pro­duc­tion” with many re­lated links.

One of the mo­ti­va­tions for this brief his­tory is an ex­cuse to in­clude photos of these amazing looking record-players from the past. The photos below are not nec­es­sarily the first ma­chines for the date in which they were in­vented or patented.


Recorded Music: a replica of Leon Scotts's Phonautograph from 1857.

The orig­inal Pho­nau­to­graph was built by Leon Scott and Rudolph Koenig in Paris in 1859; an orig­inal ma­chine is not known to exist. The one above is a replica built in 2014 by Jean-Paul Ag­nard. While there is cer­tainly beauty in the wood, this ma­chine looks like Rube Goldberg’s idea of a cement-mixer.


The Pho­nau­to­graph

In 1857, Edouard-Leon Scott de Mar­t­inville of France (often re­ferred to simply as Leon Scot) demon­strated his Pho­nau­to­graph for recording sounds vi­su­ally. It used a vi­brating stylus to pro­duce a graphic rep­re­sen­ta­tion of sound on a glass cylinder coated with carbon: the cylinder ro­tated and ‘recorded’ sound as a wa­vering line on its surface.

While it could not re­pro­duce those sounds, the seed had been planted. The last quarter of the 19th cen­tury could be de­scribed as the “steam en­gine time” for the de­vel­op­ment of audio recording and play­back tech­nology. 2

The term Steam En­gine Time refers to a “pe­riod of time when many in­ven­tors all over the world . . . with no con­tact with each other in any way, begin in­venting a sim­ilar tech­nology with a co­in­ci­dental com­mon­ality of ideas.” (Urban Dic­tio­nary)

I think of it as a point where the lines of progress of var­ious sec­tors such as sci­ence, tech­nology, knowl­edge, theory, cul­ture, and even economy meet and merge in a way that makes in­evitable the in­ven­tion or dis­covery of a par­tic­ular something—whether it’s an idea, an in­ven­tion, or even a technology.

The term al­ludes to the in­ven­tion of the ven­er­able steam en­gine by James Watt: at the time of his in­ven­tion (1769) and patents (1775), sev­eral other men who were in­de­pen­dent, if not com­pletely un­aware, of Watt and each other were in­venting a de­vice sim­ilar to Watt’s ma­chine. 3


Recorded Music: photo of Edison's Standard Phonograph Model C.

An Edison Stan­dard Phono­graph Model C with three cylin­ders. This re­minds me of some­thing that E.T. might have rigged up to phone home if he had found him­self stranded in an an­tique store in­stead of a farm­house. To a modern viewer, the cylin­ders look like jars of peanut butter.


The Phono­graph

In 1877, an­other Frenchman, Charles Cros, de­scribed a ma­chine that would record and re­pro­duce sound. Un­for­tu­nately, he nei­ther demon­strated nor patented such a de­vice nor did he even coin a name for it! But an Amer­ican named Thomas Alva Edison did file a patent for a re­mark­ably sim­ilar ma­chine, which he called the Phonograph.

Like the Pho­nau­to­graph, Edison’s ma­chine used a moving glass cylinder, but with a sheet of tin foil wrapped around it. Un­like Scot’s ma­chine, the Phono­graph recorded and re­pro­duced sound, an al­most mag­ical achieve­ment at the time. 4

De­spite the need for ob­vious im­prove­ment in the Phono­graph system—the sound was “abysmal” and the cylin­ders “wore out al­most immediately”—and, the fact that it was, ar­guably, his most im­por­tant patent, Edison moved on to other en­deavors. 5


In the US, people played phono­graph records on their vic­trolas, while in the UK people played gramo­phone records on their gramophones.


Edison paid little at­ten­tion to his Phono­graph for sev­eral years. Seeing the in­terest in the tech­nology by other in­ven­tors and the public, he even­tu­ally re­turned to his Phono­graph, which be­came his greatest success.

In fact, such was the suc­cess of Edison’s in­ven­tion in the US that by the early years of the new cen­tury, the term phono­graph began to be ap­plied gener­i­cally to both cylinder-playing and disc-playing machines.

The term was also ap­plied in the US to the discs which the ma­chines played, with all discs called phono­graph records.

To readers in my age group (let’s say around 60-years-old), we often heard our par­ents and es­pe­cially our grand­par­ents refer to our 45s and LPs as “phono­graph records,” which we found funny be­cause we played our records on “stereos.”


Recorded Music: photo of Alexander Bell's Graphophone with its box.

A Grapho­phone Type B man­u­fac­tured by the Co­lumbia Grapho­phone Com­pany. If the folks who made blun­der­busses 400 years ago had de­signed mor­tars, they might have looked like this.


The Grapho­phone

In 1881, Scottish-born Alexander Graham Bell de­vel­oped a ma­chine that im­proved on Edison, which he called the Grapho­phone. The main dif­fer­ence be­tween the oth­er­wise sim­ilar ma­chines was that Bell’s used wax rather than tin foil to coat the cylinder. 6

Bell smartly re­placed the glass cylinder with a lighter, more flex­ible card­board tube, also coated with wax. This cylinder-based tech­nology dom­i­nated the Amer­ican and Eu­ro­pean mar­kets during the last two decades of the century.

Recorded Music: photo of Emile Berliner's Sound Master Gramophone.A Gramo­phone Sound Master disc-player. The horn alone is a thing of beauty and the pat­tern on the in­side would not have been out of place on the huge disc on the back of George Wells’s in­ven­tion in the George Pal movie The Time Ma­chine (1960).


The Gramo­phone

In 1895, German-born Emile Berliner in­tro­duced a com­mer­cial player that used a flat disc in­stead of a cylinder. Berliner named his ma­chine the Gramo­phone, and his discs pro­duced a higher sound volume than cylin­ders. At first, Berliner’s discs were made using an acid bath process, but by 1901 he had con­verted to a system using wax. 7

“The im­proved fi­delity of the wax master that re­placed the crude (and noisy) acid-etched system in 1901 was a great step for­ward, and did much to per­suade house­hold names to make records when hith­erto the gramo­phone had been little more than a toy. Caruso, Chali­apin, Melba, and Patti et al turned the talking ma­chine into an in­stru­ment fit for the front par­lour.” 5

His process for man­u­fac­turing these discs even­tu­ally used a ‘stamper’ to stamp the grooves of the discs into a ball of hard rubber.

Berliner’s ma­chine was more pop­ular in the UK and Eu­rope than Edison’s, and gramo­phone be­came a generic term for record-players out­side the US. 


Recorded Music: photo of an RCA Victor Victrola cabinet model from the early 1900s.

A Vic­trola cab­inet model with an in­te­rior speaker and a shelf to hold records. As time went on, cab­i­nets would be de­signed to spread out hor­i­zon­tally, not stand up ver­ti­cally, until they be­came the hi-fi con­soles of the 1950s.


The Vic­trola

In 1906, RCA Victor in­tro­duced its first Vic­trola, a disc-player with the horn in­side the cab­inet in­stead of sit­ting out­side, like all pre­vious players. The Vic­trola was a huge suc­cess and within a few years, vic­trola was also used gener­i­cally for record-players in America.

Oddly, the same people who re­ferred to record-players gener­i­cally as vic­trolas con­tinued to refer to the records they played gener­i­cally as phono­graph records.

“There were other sig­nif­i­cant com­pa­nies op­er­ating in the early years of the cen­tury. Co­lumbia, which orig­i­nally used the Bell & Tainter wax cylinder process, had turned to discs, pooling their patents for wax recording with the gramo­phone com­pa­nies’ patents for disc recording.

Co­lumbia, though, never re­ally com­mitted it­self, in ei­ther America or Eu­rope, to large-scale clas­sical recording until the elec­trical era—1925 on­wards. Pathé in France did, but their process on both cylinder and ver­ti­cally cut discs, in­volved me­chan­ical dub­bing from master cylin­ders, and was ex­ceed­ingly poor.”

By the end of 1918, the patents for lateral-cut disc records ex­pired, al­lowing a host of new com­pa­nies to enter the fray, man­u­fac­turing their own records, which sur­passed cylin­ders in popularity.

In 1929, Edison and the others quit pro­ducing cylin­ders and their players and the term record re­ferred ex­clu­sively to discs.


RecordedSound cylinders Indestructible 300

And the In­de­struc­tible Phono­graphic Record Com­pany cer­tainly had no problem let­ting the public know what they were peddling—indestructible phono­graphic records.

They’re all records!

Whether coated with tin foil or wax or cel­lu­loid, for more than forty years, cylin­ders were known as records, right along­side the more fa­miliar discs. 

As there were no other for­mats to choose from for the first seven decades of com­mer­cially avail­able recorded music, there was no need for a name for a 78 ex­cept record.

Ex­actly when ei­ther the in­dustry or the con­sumer began re­fer­ring to them as sin­gles is not known.

By 1910, record com­pa­nies had picked up on the pop­ular hobby of col­lecting pho­tographs and dis­playing them in card­board binders, called photo al­bums. Two or more records were col­lected into at­trac­tive card­board binders and sold as record al­bums.

A hun­dred years ago, Edison's cylin­ders and Berliner's discs were both called 'records.' Click To Tweet

Recorded Music: photo of two RCA Victor Victrolas inside the Astor Events Center in Anaheim, California.

FEATURED IMAGE: This photo of two RCA Victor Vic­trolas was taken in­side the Astor Events Center in Ana­heim, Cal­i­fornia. The center is a mu­seum of classic cars, re­stored and working vin­tage ra­dios, and an­tique tele­phones along­side col­lec­tions of model trains, gaso­line pumps, an­tique slot ma­chines, pedal cars, and movie mem­o­ra­bilia. Pho­to­graph by Robert Miller.



1   For most of those eighty years, records were also known as sin­gles, re­fer­ring to the fact that records that played at 78 rpm only al­lowed room for a single song per side. So a single ac­tu­ally con­tains two recordings.

2   Like so many in­ven­tions of the 19th cen­tury, the term pho­nau­to­graph is col­or­fully de­scrip­tive and has its roots in Greek: phono means ‘sound or voice,’ auto means ‘one’s own or by one­self,’ and graphein means ‘to write.’ Hence, pho­nau­to­graph means ‘a sound written by one­self,’ al­though it would read more ac­cu­rately in Eng­lish as ‘self-written sound.’

3   To place the above in more en­joy­able, if less ar­tic­u­late ver­nac­ular, I quote one of our finest living au­thors, Lewis Shiner, as stated in his 1989 short story, Steam En­gine Time: “Well, they had all the pieces of that steam en­gine lyin’ around for hun­dreds of years. Wasn’t no­body knew what to do with ‘em. Then one day five, six people up and in­vent a steam en­gine, all at the same time. Ain’t no ex­pla­na­tion for it. It was just steam en­gine time.”

Shiner’s story is a clever rewriting of an Elvis-like pro­tag­o­nist whose styles, both mu­sical and sar­to­rial, are well ahead of their time. It is rec­om­mended for Elvis fans in par­tic­ular and rock and roll and/or science-fiction fans in gen­eral. (And check out his mar­velous novels Glimpses and  De­serted Cities Of The Heart.)

4   The term phono­graph has its roots in Greek: phono means ‘sound or voice’ and graphein means ‘to write.’ Hence, phono­graph may be in­ter­preted as ‘sound-writer.’

5   From “A Brief His­tory of Recording to ca. 1950” by the UK’s Arts and Hu­man­i­ties Re­search Council Re­search (AHRCR) at the Centre for the His­tory and Analysis of Recorded Music (CHARM).

6   Ap­par­ently in­spired by Edison’s coinage (see above), the term graphophone has the same Greek roots: graphein means ‘to write’ and phono means ‘sound or voice.’ By in­verting the two words, Bell’s ma­chine can more ac­cu­rately be in­ter­preted as ‘writer of sound.’

7   The term gramo­phone has Latin and Greek roots: the Latin gram­matica form the basis for the Greek gram­matike tekhne, meaning the art of let­ters. It is also the root for the Eng­lish lan­guage word grammar. Hence it may be in­ter­preted as ‘some­thing written’ while phono means ‘sound, voice.’ Hence, gramo­phone means ‘written sound.’ This is a rea­son­ably ac­cu­rate as­sess­ment of the instrument’s in­ten­tions and capabilities.


RecordedSound Columbia ad 19 Disc Cylinder 500

An un­dated ad for Columbia’s records: discs fea­tured two record­ings (one track per side) and cost 65¢ each, while cylin­ders fea­tured just one recording and were 35¢. By the lan­guage on this ad (“double-disc records” and “two records at a single price”), Co­lumbia re­ferred to each recording (what we call a ‘track’) as an in­di­vidual ‘record’!




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great pics of high end equip­ment from way back

Hey Neal, great article!

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