Did you ever wonder how sound comes out of a CD or an iPod? Or what a Grammy Award is modeled after? It would take an electrical engineer to answer the first question, but the Grammy is simple: it’s a phonograph – -the great-grandfather to all sound reproducing inventions.
What exactly is a phonograph? It’s simply a device that recreates sound from a record through the mechanical action of a steel needle (most pre-1948 disc records) or a jeweled stylus (cylinder records and later discs).
For a century after its invention in 1877, the phonograph was the preeminent means by which people heard recorded music and speech. There had been music boxes prior to that time, but the pinned metal cylinders and perforated discs that plucked their musical combs cannot be considered “records.” In today’s parlance, they’re closer to “programs,” whereby a series of zeros and ones (holes or pins) act upon a limited number of bytes of memory (teeth of a musical comb) to produce sound. Roller organs and other mechanical music devices worked in similar ways. They all could play music, but in tones distinctive to that particular device, and immediately recognizable as mechanical. A music box or reed organ cannot sound like a piano or a banjo, and neither can it talk. But the phonograph can. What impressed early listeners most was the phonograph’s ability to cough, laugh, sing, and talk like a human being. No other machine could do that. Hence, the new invention was often called a Talking Machine.
From its introduction, the talking machine or phonograph played cylinder records (first on tinfoil; later on wax compounds and celluloid). Entertainment cylinder records sold well only until the early 1920s, but were produced until 1929. Disc (flat) records were commercially introduced in 1889, and have persisted in various materials, speeds, and recording technology to the present day. And all these records are played by phonographs. For a more detailed description of the various phonographs manufactured until approximately 1929, see the article, Collecting Antique Phonographs, elsewhere on this website.
Phonographs that played cylinder or disc records coexisted for 40 years, and survive today in surprising numbers. In 1925, phonographs with electric amplifiers for playback were first made available, and 90 years later they are still being manufactured (in a highly refined form, of course). The acoustic phonograph (requiring no electric power) persisted commercially until the 1960s in the form of suitcase portables.
Today, all types of phonographs are avidly collected, although not all of them are a century old (the widely accepted definition of “antique”). The Antique Phonograph Society embraces all of these archaic devices, records, and those who collect them.