A Brief History of the Record Player
The history of the record player, alternatively called Gramophone or Phonograph, begins in the 1870s. The phonograph as we know it was first invented by Thomas Edison in 1877. The phonograph, however, owed its origin to research carried out by Edouard Leon Scott de Martinville, who created a device called the phonautograph in 1857. Edison’s invention was improved upon by Alexander Graham Bell (the inventor of the telephone), which in turn led to the creation of the first proper phonograph by Emile Berliner.
There were thousands of improvements from the 1880s to the 1980s – a whole century of innovations. By the late 19th century, the phonograph or gramophone had become widely accepted commercially. This invention changed the entire way sound and music was perceived. Earlier, music was limited to live performances that were not universally accessible. With a record player, one could listen to his favorite piece of music, anytime, anywhere. It truly brought about a democratic revolution in the creation as well as appreciation of music.
Colloquially, record players are often referred to with different names, from ‘decks’ and ‘turntables’ to ‘record players’ and ‘record changers’. The original word, phonograph, itself was created by inventor F.B. Fenby in 1863. In the early 20th century, there were several terms used commonly for the record player, each a trademarked name of its manufacturer. Major ones among these were the ‘Granophone’, ‘Gramophone’ and the ‘Zonophone’.
The earliest phonograph invented by Thomas Alva Edison recorded onto a tinfoil sheet wrapped around a cylinder through an up-down motion of the stylus. But it was Emile Berliner’s Gramophone invented in 1889 that set the template for the record player as we know it. It used a zinc disc coated with a compound of beeswax and benzine to record sound through a spiral motion of the stylus. This design was more efficient than Edison’s and eventually became the predominant one.
The popularity of the record player can be gauged from the fact that by the end of the 19th century, virtually all major cities in the US had ‘phonograph parlors’. These were small shops where one could order a music/sound selection of his choice – somewhat like the modern day jukebox. The invention of a process to make duplicate, mass-produced copies of a phonograph record in 1890 further increase the popularity of the device.
Innovations, Improvements, and Gradual Obscurity
The record player saw constant improvements over the years. A couple of decades after its invention, it quickly established itself as one of the most important entertainment devices in a house. The first models employed a hand-crank mechanism to draw power – a method that was replaced by electricity eventually.
It was in 1940 that vinyl was introduced as the recording material. This afforded greater space for recording. A long play vinyl record could contain an entire symphony – a fact that further expedited the device’s adoption. By the end of the 1950s, it was a permanent fixture in most American households.
The record player was used widely until the 1970s, when high-fidelity, precise and expensive players became widespread. However, the introduction of the eight-track player, and the much cheaper cassette player in the 1980s dealt a death blow to it. The introduction and widespread adoption of CDs as a medium for recording music was the final nail in the coffin for this device.
The history of the record player is still being written, however. Despite the popularity of digital music, record players are still being used and are even gaining in popularity. By offering greater fidelity and sound quality, these players have become the de-facto choice of music connoisseurs.
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