Phonograph Essay

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A phonograph, or record player, is a machine that plays  prerecorded audio  from  a wax  cylinder  or vinyl disk, onto which sound waves have been imprinted. The phonograph spins the record while a stylus attached to a stationary arm “reads” and amplifies  the  sound.  Originally,  the  phonograph was one of several different  types of record  players, including  the graphophone, gramophone, and Victrola,   though   today,   it  may  be  used  as  an umbrella  term  for  any  device that  plays  records. The  phonograph helped  shape  both  home  entertainment and  mass  mediated  culture  throughout much  of the 20th  century  and  was a major  catalyst for today’s multibillion-dollar recording industry.

In 1877, Thomas Alva Edison and Charles Cros each proposed a device for recording  and  playing sound;  although Cros  publicly  presented  the idea first, he could not afford  to file a patent,  so it was awarded  to   Edison.   Edison’s   first   phonograph etched  the  sound  waves  onto  tin  foil, which  was then  pressed  onto   sturdier   wax.  Over  the  next decade,  Alexander  Graham Bell, Chichester  Bell, and Charles Sumner Tainter worked together to improve  Edison’s  design  by  using  wax  on  cardboard  as a less expensive  alternative to  Edison’s wax on cast iron record design. In 1886,  they patented the graphophone and started  the Volta Graphophone Company. By 1888, Edison resumed work  on  his  phonograph and  created  a  way  to reproduce wax cylinders for mass production.

The Birth Of The Commercial Record  Industry

Originally,  Edison intended  his phonograph to function  as a dictation machine  in offices, but  as the demand  for prerecorded records grew, increasingly more  recordings  featured  short  musical  performances. At  the  time,  records  were  not  mass produced; rather, musicians  would  stand  in front of dozens of phonographs, each recording  a single wax  cylinder. The performance would  have to be repeated  over and over in order  to record  enough cylinders for wide sale. Furthermore, early phonographs  had very poor  recording  quality  compared with today’s standards: brass instruments, whistles, and voices were among  the few sounds  that  could be clearly heard  on playback. Each cylinder could hold only about  2 minutes  of sound,  but  multiple short songs were recorded together, with brief advertisements inserted  between  performances. At the  time,  even  the  least-expensive   phonographs cost  $150   ($3,500   in  today’s   terms),  so  many people did not own a phonograph; rather, records could be heard  for 5 cents at a listening arcade.

By the early 1900s,  three  major  record  companies  had   been   established,   each   manufacturing both  phonographs and  records,  and  heavily competing with the other two. First, in 1887 and 1888, the businessman Jesse H. Lippincott purchased the rights  to  both  the  graphophone and  the  phonograph,  subsequently creating  the North American Phonograph Company. When Lippincott died and his company  went  bankrupt in 1894,  Edison  got back  the  patent   rights  for  his  phonograph and started  his National Phonograph Company. Second,   in  the   early   1890s,   a  lawyer   named Edward  Easton  started  the Columbia Phonograph Company (later changed to Columbia Record Company)  in Washington, D.C., and began selling Edison phonographs and records, but after the dissolution  of Lippincott’s  company,  Columbia began manufacturing its own products. In 1901, the businessman  and  inventor  Eldridge  Johnson  patented his own  version  of the  phonograph, the Victrola, and established the Victor Talking Machine Company. Within   the  next  two  decades,  Victor would become the world’s leading phonograph manufacturer.

In  1889,  Emile  Berliner  invented  the  gramophone,  a  playback-only machine  that  used  wax disks instead  of cylinders. Disks allowed  for easier reproduction of a recording  because a master  disk could  be created  with  a zinc plate,  then  stamped onto thousands of wax disks. This style of machine—a  flat turntable on which a disk spins— is now  the standard for all record  players. Victor adapted  this  process  for  mass  production,  and within   the  next   20  years,  shellac  disk  records played  at 78 revolutions per minute  became standard.  Record  prices  dropped from  $2  per  record (approximately $47 today)  to 50 cents per record. Phonographs, however,  varied widely in price, depending  on size and quality  of materials  used: a small, cheaply  made  one cost $10,  whereas  high-end  ones  mounted in  stand-alone wood  casings cost up to $500.

In  1929,   the  Radio   Corporation  of  America (RCA) bought  the Victor  Talking  Machine Company and renamed  it RCA Victor (now simply RCA,  a Sony Music  Entertainment label).  Under this  name,  the  company  developed  a method  for pressing  records  in  vinyl  instead  of  hard  shellac wax. This new material  cost less, was more  durable, and could hold longer recordings because finer “grooves,” or lines of audio waves, could be etched into the disks. These records  could also be mailed to radio  stations,  allowing  prerecorded advertisements and songs to be played on air. This drop  in price, in conjunction with a rising middle class that had the time and money for mass-produced entertainment, positioned the  phonograph as a major form of home entertainment.

The phonograph exposed middle-class consumers  to  new  types  of  music  and  allowed  them  to hear concerts that  they could not afford  to attend. For example, in the early 1900s, Victor introduced the Victrola Red Seal line of records that  consisted entirely of opera and classical music, effectively bringing  high culture  to a mass audience.  In conjunction   with  radio,   the  production, marketing, and sale of music records quickly became a booming  business  because  listeners  could  hear  a  new song on the radio, then easily go out and purchase it. During World War II, even the U.S. government demonstrated the importance of the record  player in  American  life  by  sending  records  of  popular music to troops  overseas. The phonograph would continue   to  be  a  staple  in  home  entertainment around the world  well into the 1970s.


  1. Gelatt,   The Fabulous Phonograph:  From Edison to Stereo. New York: Appleton  Century,  1965.
  2. Morton, David. Off the Record: The Technology and Culture  of Sound Recording  in America. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers  University Press, 2000.
  3. Sterne, Jonathan. The Audible Past: Cultural  Origins  of Sound Reproduction. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006.

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