Who Invented the Gramophone?
Early attempts to design a music-playing gadget began in 1877 when Thomas Edison invented his tin-foil phonograph. The word ‘phonograph’ was Edison’s trade name for his device, which played recorded sounds from round cylinders.
The sound quality on the phonograph was bad, and each recording lasted just for one only play. On November 8 1887, Emile Berliner, a German immigrant working in Washington D.C., patented a successful system of sound recording. Berliner was the first inventor to stop recording on cylinders, and start recording on flat discs or records.
The first records were made of glass, later zinc, and eventually plastic. A spiral groove with sound information was etched into the flat record. The record was rotated on the gramophone. The ‘arm’ of the gramophone held a needle that read the grooves in the record by vibrations and transmitted the information to the gramophone speaker.
Berliner’s discs (records) were the first sound recordings that could be mass-produced by creating master recordings from which molds were made. From each mold, hundreds of discs were passed. Emile Berliner founded ‘The Gramophone Company’ to mass manufacture his sound discs (records) and the gramophone that played them.
To help promote his gramophone system Berliner did two things, he persuaded popular artists to record their music using his system. Two famous artists who signed early on with Berliner’s company were Enrico Caruso and Dame Nellie Melba. The second smart marketing move Berliner made came in 1908, when he used Francis Barraud’s painting of ‘His Masters Voice’ (H. M. V.) as his company’s official trademark.
Berliner’s earliest discs, first marketed in 1889, but only in Europe, were 5 inches (13 cm) in diameter, and were played with a small hand-propelled machine. Both the records and the machine were adequate only for use as a toy or curiosity, due to the limited sound quality. In the United States in 1894, under the Berliner Gramophone trademark, Berliner started marketing records with somewhat more substantial entertainment value, along with somewhat more substantial gramophones to play them.
Berliner’s records had poor sound quality compared to wax cylinders, but his manufacturing associate Eldridge R. Johnson eventually improved the sound quality. Abandoning Berliner’s “Gramophone” trademark for legal reasons, in 1901 Johnson’s and Berliner’s separate companies reorganized to form the Victor Talking Machine Company, whose products would come to dominate the market for many years. Emile Berliner moved his company to Montreal in 1900. The factory which became RCA Victor still exists. There is a dedicated museum in Montreal for Berliner.
In 1901, 10-inch disc records were introduced followed in 1903 by 12-inch records. These could play for more than three and four minutes respectively, while contemporary cylinders could only play for about two minutes. In an attempt to head off the disc advantage, Edison introduced the Amberol cylinder in 1909, with a maximum playing time of 4½ minutes (at 160 rpm), which in turn were superseded by Blue Amberol Records, which had a playing surface made of celluloid, a plastic, which was far less fragile.
Despite these improvements, during the 1910s discs decisively won this early format war, although Edison continued to produce new Blue Amberol cylinders for an ever-dwindling customer base until late in 1929. By 1919 the basic patents for the manufacture of lateral-cut disc records had expired, opening the field for countless companies to produce them. Analog disc records would dominate the home entertainment market until they were outsold by the digital compact disc in the late 1980s (which was in turn supplanted by digital audio recordings distributed via online music stores and Internet file sharing).