This Phonograph Essay example is published for educational and informational purposes only. If you need a custom essay or research paper on this topic, please use our writing services. EssayEmpire.com offers reliable custom essay writing services that can help you to receive high grades and impress your professors with the quality of each essay or research paper you hand in.
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.
- Gelatt, The Fabulous Phonograph: From Edison to Stereo. New York: Appleton Century, 1965.
- Morton, David. Off the Record: The Technology and Culture of Sound Recording in America. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2000.
- Sterne, Jonathan. The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006.