Looking Back At Antique Record Machines

On December 22, 1877, the Scientific American published an article on the invention of the phonograph, after Thomas Edison's demonstration of his machine in their offices earlier that month.

Following the invention of the telegraph, Edison hypothesized that a message could be recorded so it could be sent repeatedly. He built a prototype of his machine with the help of his mechanic, John Kruesi.

Edison tested the machine by reciting the nursery rhyme Mary Had a Little Lamb, and to his amazement, his voice was recorded on a tin foil-wrapped metal cylinder.

The date was August 12, 1877, though some historians believe it may have been later because Edison did not apply for a patent for his new invention until December 24, 1877. However, that date was two days following the published article, and this may have compelled Edison to apply.

Edison turned his attention to the invention of the light bulb and did not immediately work on improvements to his phonograph. Meanwhile, Chichester Bell, cousin to Alexander Graham Bell, and his partner Charles Tainter set out to improve the device.

The tin foil covering the cylinder in Edison's model wore out rapidly, and Bell and Tainter made improvements by using wax to replace the tin foil, as well as developing a floating stylus instead of using a rigid needle.

They exhibited their machine as a graphophone, and received a patent for it on May 4, 1886. Bell and Tainter attempted to collaborate with Edison to further improve the machines, but Edison refused.

Throughout the 1880's, Edison, Bell and Tainter, and others continued to improve upon these recording machines. Emile Berliner developed the gramophone, which used a zinc disc instead of a cylinder.

As the recording devices developed, several companies began to market the new machines, first to businesses, then to the general public.

. 1878: Edison Speaking Phonograph Company

. 1885: Volta Graphophone Company

. 1886: American Graphophone Company

. 1887: Edison Phonograph Company

. 1888: North American Phonograph Company

. 1895: Berliner Gram-o-Phone Company

. 1901: Victor Talking Machine Company

For more than 100 years, Edison was considered the pioneer of audio recording, but in early March of 2008, researchers discovered a recording of Au Clair de la Lune made by Leon Scott (Eduoard-Leon Scott de Martinville) on April 9, 1860 on a device known as a phonautograph. The phonautograph was also described by Charles Cros in a paper he deposited with the French Academy in April 1877, although Cros did not make a prototype of his machine.

Today, collectors enjoy these antique recording machines. Many machines originally made in the early 20th century have been restored; replicas are also popular.

If you want to learn more about antique phonographs and gramophones, there are several books on the subject. You can also read about the machines and their parts, as well as information for beginning and advanced collectors. You can listen to old-fashioned Victrola music on CD or tape, and gather information on old recordings.

The music of yesteryear evokes the pleasant nostalgia of a simpler time. Investigate these intriguing machines and add a little simple pleasure to your life.