November 21st, 1877 – The Invention of the Phonograph

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Edison with his second phonograph (1878)

On November 21st, 1877 by Thomas Edison announced the invention of his phonograph. While other inventors had produced devices that could record sounds, Edison’s phonograph was the first to be able to reproduce the recorded sound. His phonograph originally recorded sound onto a tinfoil sheet phonograph cylinder, and could both record and reproduce sounds. Alexander Graham Bell‘s Volta Laboratory made several improvements in the 1880s, including the use of wax-coated cardboard cylinders, and a cutting stylus that moved from side to side in a “zig zag” pattern across the record.

Also in the 1880’s, Emile Berliner, a German-American inventor, initiated the transition from phonograph cylinders to flat discs with a spiral groove running from the periphery to near the center. In 1886 Berliner began experimenting with methods of sound recording.

He was granted his first patent for what he called the “Gramophone” in 1887. The patent described recording sound using horizontal modulation of a stylus as it traced a line on a rotating cylindrical surface coated with an unresisting opaque material such as lampblack, subsequently fixed with varnish and used to photoengrave a corresponding groove into the surface of a metal playback cylinder.

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Berliner with an experimental disc and Gramophone he exhibited in 1888

In practice, Berliner opted for the disc format, which made the photoengraving step much less difficult and offered the prospect of making multiple copies of the result by some simpler process such as electrotyping, molding or stamping. In 1888 Berliner was using a more direct recording method, in which the stylus traced a line through a very thin coating of wax on a zinc disc, which was then etched in acid to convert the line of bared metal into a playable groove.

By 1890 a Berliner licensee in Germany was manufacturing a toy Gramophone and five-inch hard rubber discs (stamped-out replicas of etched zinc master discs), but because key US patents were still pending they were sold only in Europe. Berliner meant his Gramophone to be more than a mere toy, and in 1895 he persuaded a group of businessmen to invest $25,000, with which he started the US Berliner Gramophone Company. He began marketing seven-inch records and a more substantial Gramophone, which was, however, still hand-propelled like the smaller toy machine.

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Did Emile Berliner ever ponder the car radio?

The difficulty in using early hand-driven Gramophones was getting the turntable to rotate at an acceptably steady speed while playing a disc. Engineer Eldridge R. Johnson, the owner of a small machine shop in Camden, New Jersey, assisted Berliner in developing a suitable low-cost wind-up spring motor for the Gramophone and became Berliner’s manufacturer. Berliner gave Frank Seaman the exclusive sales rights in the US, but after disagreements Seaman began selling his own version of the Gramophone, as well as unauthorized copies of Berliner’s records, and Berliner was legally barred from selling his own products. The US Berliner Gramophone Company shut down in mid-1900 and Berliner moved to Canada.


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