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Early History

Edison wax cylinder phonograph c. 1899

Edison wax cylinder phonograph c. 1899

The phonautograph, patented by Léon Scott in 1857, used a vibrating diaphragm and stylus to graphically record sound waves as tracings on sheets of paper, purely for visual analysis and without any idea of playing them back. These tracings can now be scanned and digitally converted into audible sound. Phonautograms of singing and speech made by Scott in 1860 were played back as sound for the first time in 2008. Along with a tuning fork tone and unintelligible snippets recorded as early as 1857, these are the earliest known recordings of sound.

In 1877, Thomas Edison invented the phonograph. Unlike the phonautograph, it was capable of both recording and reproducing sound. Despite the similarity of name, there is no documentary evidence that Edison’s phonograph was based on Scott’s phonautograph. Edison first tried recording sound on a wax-impregnated paper tape, with the idea of creating a “telephone repeater” analogous to the telegraph repeater he had been working on. Although the visible results made him confident that sound could be physically recorded and reproduced, his notes do not indicate that he actually reproduced sound before his first experiment using tinfoil as a recording medium several months later. The tinfoil was wrapped around a grooved metal cylinder and a sound-vibrated stylus indented the tinfoil while the cylinder was rotated. The recording could be played back immediately. The Scientific American article that introduced the tinfoil phonograph to the public mentioned Marey, Rosapelly and Barlow as well as Scott as creators of devices for recording but, importantly, not reproducing sound.[5] Edison also invented variations of the phonograph that used tape and disc formats.[6] Numerous applications for the phonograph were envisioned, but although it enjoyed a brief vogue as a startling novelty at public demonstrations, the tinfoil phonograph proved too crude to be put to any practical use. A decade later, Edison developed a greatly improved phonograph that employed a hollow wax cylinder instead of a foil sheet. This proved to be both a better-sounding and far more useful device. The wax phonograph cylinder created the recorded sound market at the end of the 1880s and dominated it through the early years of the 20th century.

Emil Berliner with disc record gramophone

Emil Berliner with disc record gramophone

Lateral-cut disc records were developed in the United States by Emile Berliner, who named his system the “gramophone”, distinguishing it from Edison’s wax cylinder “phonograph” and Columbia’s wax cylinder “graphophone”. 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. 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 them. 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.

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 41⁄2 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 gradually supplanted by the digital compact disc, introduced in 1983.