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.

1857

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.

1877

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.

1881

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).

1895

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.

1906

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.

 


FOOTNOTES:

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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