History of the Record Player: A Closer Look
What is a record player and where did it come from?
Music has been around since the dawn of civilization thanks to the talent of musicians, but for many thousands of years, if there were no musicians around, there would be no music. We take music on-demand for granted when we have it available from so many different places: the radio, high-tech stereo systems, Youtube, Spotify, and plenty of others. If we chose to, we could listen to music all day and all night without having to leave the comfort of our homes. We no longer necessarily have to seek out talented musicians by going to concert halls or parties when we could listen to the same music with the click of a button on the internet. Obviously, this easy music accessibility has not been around forever, and in fact, it hasn’t been around for a long time at all.
One of the first devices ever invented to listen to music more accessibly was the record player, or rather, the phonograph. This fascinating device was invented in 1877, which is not that long ago considering the history of music. Ten years later in 1887, the gramophone was invented, which is more similar with our modern understanding of the record player than the phonograph1.
The Record Player
Back to the phonograph, this device was capable of using a cardboard cylinder covered in tinfoil to record and to play sounds. Not too surprisingly, it was created by one of the great inventors of the time: Thomas Edison. Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, expanded upon Edison’s design and had the idea to add wax to the phonograph’s design, allowing it to record sound waves. Bell’s addition to the phonograph would allow the device to have a smooth transition into what would be known as the gramophone1.
German-American Emile Berliner is the man officially given the title of the inventor of the gramophone. His invention used different materials than the phonograph, such as hard rubber and shellac, however, some time in the future it would come to be made with vinyl. The gramophone was very similar to our dearly familiar record player as it was able to read and produce sound from grooves engraved on flat disks rather than cylinders as Edison had used1. From this point, vinyl records became very popular.
However, the gramophone still had some leaps and bounds before it could become our modern record player. Berliner had another great idea up his sleeve to improve the gramophone: the turntable. The turntable was a part of the gramophone that was mechanized and designed to spin the vinyl record through the workings of a belt system. As the record spun, it would produce sound vibrations. A needle, also known as a stylus, made of a very hard material, usually a gem such as diamond or sapphire, would be dropped onto the record while being held by a delicate metal arm. The needle would follow the grooves in the record and interpret its sound vibrations through the needle’s metal arm, the vibrations then being converted into electromagnetic signals. These signals are fed into an amplifier and then exit speakers–or a horn–as sound or music1.
Only in 1895 were the first record players, such as the Victrola, mass produced. They were very popular, but their popularity quickly diminished once the radio was invented. For example, while in the 1930s and 1940s the record player still had decent demand, it was living in the shadow of the ever-popular radio. Interestingly, record players made a huge comeback in the 1960s and 1970s, especially since the automatic turntable had been invented1. In more recent memory, turntables were very popular in the 1980s and 1990s among hip hop musicians. By using their hands, DJs would scratch the vinyl records against a stylus to produce entirely unique sounds.
Yet again, we are currently experiencing another popularity surge with the record player. After many years of CDs and cassette tapes, we seem to have been enchanted yet again my the charm of vinyl records. Record players have since been updated with various technological advances such as high-quality speakers, radio connection, and even Bluetooth. It seems that, while the record player may fall in and out of fashion, it is always ready to jump back into action to produce wonderful sounds and music.
1 Richard, David. (2021). “History of Record Players (A Look At 100 Fascinating Years).” Top Record Players. Retrieved from https://toprecordplayers.com/history-of-record-players/#:~:text=Thomas%20Edison%20invented%20the%20phonograph,later%20resulted%20in%20the%20graphophone.