The phonograph died in the 1990’s, or so we thought.
Back in the mid-90s, my friend Jay moved from the Midwest to the West Coast. In doing so, she decided to unload lots of old stuff that had been gathering dust, literally in the half basement. Hey, she’s a baby boomer; don’t blame me.
Worthless ancient accumulations that she hadn’t used in years. She didn’t even hesitate, I don’t believe, before tossing a bunch of records into the trash. Records, vinyl records.
We almost don’t want to tell you what she tossed; it’s embarrassing. Do you believe it: the Beatles, Bing Crosby Christmas albums, Miles Davis … lost. Almost criminal, we think now. Oh, my.
After all, she, like everyone she knew, had gone over to CDs. No one was playing those scratchy relics and hadn’t been for some time. I suppose she could have given them away, say to Goodwill, but she was in a hurry and that didn’t come to mind.
Funny thing: as she continued packing the next morning, she happened to glance out the front window. The garbage company had not picked up yet. Some guy was rummaging through her trash can! … I wonder what treasures he found?
Gramophone, Phonograph, Or Record Player: Whatever You Call It, The Invention Brought Music Home
Gramophone: what a funny name. I rarely used it, always said “phonograph”. But record player history is pretty cool, and is one of those fascinating “did Edison get there first?” inventor mystery stories of the late 19th century.
Yup, Thomas Edison actually did get there first. He called his 1887 invention the phonograph. The sounds were recorded and replayed using needles on cylinders that had an outer layer of tin foil.
What were the first words that he recorded?
First Words Spoken On A Phonograph: “Mary had a little lamb”.
It was this device that made Edison famous. We like the story of him demonstrating it to the U.S. President, Rutherford Hayes.
Oldest Known Recording Of A U.S. President
The cylinders, unfortunately, could only be used once, and the sound was not great. They underwent a significant refinement in the hands of the Scottish-born American scientist Alexander Graham Bell. He originated wax cylinders that played on “graphophones” and had better quality sound, but couldn’t be mass produced.
Flat Disc Records: You Can Say “Woof” To Them!
It was a much lesser known immigrant to America who had the innovation that made the phonograph into a really usable device. Emile Berliner, born in Germany in the mid 19th century, devised the gramophone.
It utilized glass discs that became grooved as the recording was made. A needle read the grooves and the sound vibrations were fed into a speaker.
Before the turn of the century, the discs could be readily reproduced and a viable commercial enterprise took off. The Victrola, made by Berliner’s Victor Talking Machine Company, was the first record player that you could buy.
Obviously, over the years, records and their players evolved, standards developed, came and went. But the basic analog format and devices persisted until the early 1960s.
Little fun aside: “His Master’s Voice” image of the terror dog Nipper listening intently to the output of the gramophone, originated as a British painting by the artist Francis Barraud in 1899. It was purchased by Berliner’s company, modified, and became famous as the trademarks, labels, and logos in many subsequent iterations over decades as the record industry evolved.
Note: It’s still okay to use the word gramophone, even though it is less common and is a bit dated after all, just as you would use the words phonograph or record player.
Another little fun aside: Trying to recall where else you know that “gramophone” word? How about the “Grammys“?! That’s right. The greatest American award for music, given annually since 1959 by The Recording Academy, has as the winner’s gold-plated trophy depicting a gramophone.
Here we show Bonnie Raitt, who carried off an armload of Grammys in 1990 for rock, blues, and pop. She returned to the award show many times as a recipient and performer.
Vinyl Made Records Playable On A Mass Scale
Vinyl (polyvinyl chloride) came up in the 1950s, disposing shellac coated as the preferred format. At this point, records could be manufactured on a large scale and could be played many more times with a reduced risk of wearing out.
The history of vinyl records is the story of the success of record playing after this time.
Vinyl reigned for years.
- Early 1900s – gramophones (record players) – vinyl records
- 1960s – audio cassette players – tapes
- 1980s – compact disc players – CDs
- Late 1990s – MP3 players – flash memory discs
- 2010s – cell phones, computers, home theaters – Internet digital downloads
Evolution And Apparent Obsolescence Of Record Players
Analog audio cassettes and cassette players or decks came on the scene starting in the 1960’s. They were much more convenient and easy to use. You couldn’t play a disc recording in your car, but you could put in a tape deck. And so most people did.
The “Digital Revolution” brought with it the major change in electronic technology that included the advent of compact discs (CDs) into the audio world. Interest in audio tape playing (cassettes) declined.
MP3 players, in turn, in the late 1990s encroached on CD playing. Now digital files did not necessarily require a vehicle outside of the playing device. (Although, of course, you could use a digital carrying device, such as a small hard drive or flash memory card, as needed). Also, the caliber of the music and other sound enhancements with each generation was so much better than before. The Apple iPod became the most popular.
Today, as you are very well aware, we don’t even bother with separate players. We just (oh, hum) download or stream all the music and other digital audio files that interest us from the Internet right onto our cell phones for portable delight.
Oh, yes, we might develop a wireless home audio system using Wi-Fi connections to speakers in our homes, or even expand into a full-fledged home theater with all that associated video gear and paraphernalia for watching TV and movies.
In The Meantime: What Happened to Record Players and Vinyl Records And How Did They Get Our Attention Again?
These early devices really receded, declining almost entirely it seemed, but they did not ever completely lose popularity.
Use That Word: Vinyl Like It’s A New Word
In their day, they were just called “records” or “phonograph records”. Similarly, “vinyl record players” were simply known as record players. I think today’s custom of noting them to be specifically “vinyl” came about to contrast them with our more modern methods of playing music that had not yet invented in the record era. It certainly makes the physicality stand out.
Is A Turntable A Record Player?
The name “turntable” was in use during the heyday of records as either a synonym or a term specifying the turntable component of record players. (Note: this is what the record goes on and the stylus plays. But you also need amplifiers and speakers to make a total player.)
More recently, however, it’s become a familiar term on its own. Again, this presumably highlights what it is, in distinction to more modern musical playing equipment.
Turntables As Musical Instruments And The Art Of Scratching Vinyl
But not only that: “turntablism” came into being. Not in the mainstream at first, but in those cubbyholes of true sound masters and avid players, especially DJs. Hip hop arose in the 1970s. Innovative disc jockeys blended, mixed, and created new sound fusions. Turntable combinations and electronic mixing became pretty creative.
Watch Theodore Livingston, American hip hop DJ, who invented scratching:
Grand Wizzard Theodore, Creator Of The Vinyl Scratch
Vinyl Tried To Compete With Tape Cassettes And CDs
When cassette decks came out, they seriously threatened to make phonographs obsolete. At the same time, however, there was talk about how tape recording audio quality just did not match what you could hear on the now old-fashioned flat discs.
Caught up in the convenience of tapes, many still went over to them, but not always exclusively. Interest in the previous era continued to compete to some degree.
CDs did very seriously threaten. In fact, if truth be told, the vast majority of folks, like my friend, finally ditched their phonographs. Records went to the second-hand store or the attic.
Just an aside: Isn’t it funny, but I recall people missing the large cardboard sleeves as much as the playback devices themselves! The tiny surface area of cassette holders did not support the wonderful picture-making of the 12-inch plus diameter and the lots of descriptive text and story-telling on the back. The artwork, sometimes, was terrific.
A Niche Audience Would Not Give Up Vinyl
Who buys them? A small clientele hung on. Thank goodness it was enough to keep the fading industry alive. Over time a cult-like following developed. If you were seriously into it, clearly you were an avid listener and devotee of high-quality sound, a fidelity aficionado.
In the meantime, radio and club DJs grew into special groups attached to the wonderful specific sound of audio records.
Amazingly, turntablism has also demonstrated it can be part of high audio art.
The Ongoing Story Of Modern Playing And Musicianship
Over time, as we have come to expect, equipment manufacturers continue to improve on turntable design and capabilities. Work goes on trying to get past some of the limitations that had earlier almost led to the equipment piece’s demise. They will never be easy to use like our pure digital devices.
So, an emphasis is on quality, which is where it needs to be. Especially what vinyl gramophones can do those others cannot: unique modern music making and close to the impeccable audio sound.
In the best of both worlds scenario, today’s descendants of the gramophone include highly evolved analog devices with up-to-date digital interfaces and connections.
Nostalgia, Collecting, Vintage Style Players, And Accessories
Are you satisfied to just read about it, or do you feel the yen to get into collecting and playing your own? It’s fun stuff!
Nostalgia drives a lot of the renewed interest in the older analog recordings and machines. It is especially apparent when you get enthusiastic enough to look into whether to look for vintage or purchase new but vintage style audio equipment.
Then you want to look into how to display or house your retro equipment and record collection. You can get modern wooden turntable furniture and vinyl record display cabinets. Alternatively, you can buy mid-century style record player stands for your vintage or new vinyl.
Or, you can forego the old-fashioned appearance. You can get into the most modern record player console styles and develop a full-fledged ready-made system or combine components as you like.
We show some of all these in other posts on this website.
Before You Go
See what we’ve written regarding getting to know all about vinyl records.
You might also like to read our posts about the technology of phonographs, and some verbiage about choosing a modern version of your own. We also have reviews of several fine beginner turntables for you to check out.