Record Players, as they are called today, have a history that dates back to the 19th century. Phonographs, as they were known then, are popularly regarded as playing flat disc records that spun at a rate of 78rpm. Truthfully, though, the original phonographs were even more different than that.
The phonograph is generally considered to have been invented in 1877 by Thomas Edison, an American inventor and entrepreneur who was also known for his work on the telegraph and the light bulb. Instead of a flat disk, however, Edison’s phonograph used a rotating cylinder covered with tin foil, on which a stylus engraved sound vibrations as the cylinder was turned by a hand crank. A second stylus could then trace the same groove and reproduce the sound through a horn or earphones.
Edison’s phonograph was a sensation when he demonstrated it to the public, but it had some limitations. The tin foil was fragile and could only be played a few times before it wore out. The sound quality was also poor and distorted. Edison soon moved on to other projects and did not improve his phonograph for several years.
Meanwhile, other inventors were working on their own versions of the phonograph. One of them was Alexander Graham Bell, the Scottish-born inventor of the telephone. Bell and his associates at the Volta Laboratory in Washington, D.C., made several improvements to Edison’s design in the 1880s. They introduced the graphophone, which used wax-coated cardboard cylinders instead of tin foil. The wax cylinders were more durable and could be recorded over by shaving off the old sound. They also used a cutting stylus that moved from side to side in a zigzag groove around the cylinder, instead of up and down as in Edison’s phonograph. This reduced the friction and improved the sound quality.
The graphophone was patented by Bell and his partners in 1886, and they formed a company to market it. They initially focused on business applications, such as dictation and transcription, rather than entertainment. They also faced competition from Edison, who resumed his work on the phonograph in 1887 and introduced his own wax cylinders and improved machines. The two companies eventually merged in 1890 to form the North American Phonograph Company, which controlled most of the phonograph market in the United States.
The invention of the phonograph was a major milestone in the history of sound recording. It paved the way for later developments, such as disc records, gramophones, record players, turntables, and more. The phonograph also had a profound impact on culture and society, as it enabled people to listen to music, speeches, stories, and other sounds at their own convenience and preference.