Humans have kept records of their experiences for hundreds of thousands of years, first with images and later with sound. In 1877, Thomas Edison became the first person to record and reproduce his voice. Edison’s invention, which he named the phonograph, utilized the same principles as a modern record player. Edison’s phonograph was a critical first step in sound recording, but there have been a number of innovations in the decades following.
Although 8-track tapes, cassette tapes, CDs, and digital media have all had their time in the sun, vinyl records have managed to maintain a loyal fanbase throughout the last century and have seen a massive resurgence in popularity in recent years. If you’re new to vinyl and starting your own collection, check out some of Victrola’s tips for starting a vinyl collection alongside the information below about record player history, and you’ll be a pro in no time!
Below, we will chart record players history, starting with Edison and ending in the modern era.
Thomas Edison’s Phonograph
In 1877, Thomas Edison created the phonograph. At the time, previous inventors had created devices that could record sounds; however, it wasn't until Edison's invention that a machine could reproduce that recorded sound output. His phonograph, which he sometimes referred to as a "speaking machine," used a steel needle that would carve the sound vibrations from a spoken voice into a sheet of tin foil. That foil wrapped around a cylinder and was hand-cranked to “record” the sounds.
This invention was a novelty that did not sell well, and Edison ultimately went on to pursue other inventions, including his best-known lightbulb. However, the wheel of time had been set in motion. A few years after Edison had invented sound recording, others were working on perfecting it.
Alexander Graham Bell and The Volta Associates
Alexander Graham Bell improved upon the design pioneered by Edison by recording into wax on top of the tin foil. He and his associates at the time, known as the Volta Associates, also used different types of styluses, instead of the early steel versions that Edison had used. They experimented with:
- Molten metal
- Some other materials
These techniques helped to deepen the grooves, and had many effects on the method itself:
- Higher sound quality
- Longer lasting recording, meaning it could be played back many more times
- A more reliable method of recording
Instead of patenting their invention, however, they sealed it in the Smithsonian. It was not discovered again until 1947, leaving open the door for other inventors to capitalize on the interest in sound recording technology.
Emile Berliner and Further Innovations
In 1887, Emile Berliner made some improvements to Edison’s original design. Namely, Berliner innovated the way that sound was physically recorded onto the surface.
- Disc, Not Cylinder – Instead of recording on a cylinder which rotated vertically, Berliner used small discs, no more than 20-30 cm wide, to record the sound waves by using a needle (the same tool Edison used to engrave his cylinders). By using a disc, both the length of recordings as well as the quality was significantly improved.
- Negative Imprint – Berliner was the first to record sound waves outwardly on a disc, using a technique called electroplating. In 1895, Berliner found a way to create "master copies" of recordings utilizing this technique, which could be used to reproduce discs with inward grooves. With these methods, artists could reproduce recordings of a single track many times, seriously impacting the commercial value of the method for the better.
- Shellac Discs: Berliner also innovated the development of shellac discs. Shellac is a substance that is secreted from certain insects, similar to sap. Berliner used this material to create discs that were reproducible and set the stage for more significant innovations in the 20th Century.
Berliner no doubt laid the foundation for the modern record player, and his innovations are the reason why record players are so popular even now.
Eldridge R. Johnson worked to improve the sound quality of discs, and ultimately found a method to record sounds in such a way that eliminated a lot of the scratchy feedback noises that were produced by Berliner’s shellac records and the vintage record players. His company, the Victor Talking Machine Company, still produces the Victrola record player.
Radio Corporation of America
Of course, around this time in history, the radio was also becoming a popular staple of American life. For the first time in history, sound was not only being recorded but also being broadcast around the nation. While the Radio Corporation of America was initially incorporated to bring radio communications to the high seas (particularly for military applications), the popularization of radio broadcasting for recreation in the 1920s turned RCA into a powerhouse.
The Victor Talking Machine Company changed hands several times and ultimately came under the umbrella of the Radio Corporation of America. Perhaps the best-known recording label of all time, RCA Victor produced many of the seminal recordings of the mid-twentieth century. If you have ever listened to classical music, you have almost certainly listened to a record that was produced by RCA Victor.
The Vinyl Record
The first vinyl record was born in 1948. Peter Carl Goldmark, a Hungarian physicist who immigrated to the US, created the first “Long Play” record. He presented his innovation in Atlantic City that year and was lauded almost immediately. Compared with the Edison and Berliner prototypes, Goldmark’s record had many differences:
- A 23 minute play time
- 30 cm diameter
- Over 100 grooves per centimeter
Columbia Records innovated on Goldmark’s design and marketed the Long Play record, while RCA marketed a new size and speed of record called the “45,” because it rotated at 45 rotations per minute. While shellac records continued to be sold into the 1970s, vinyl soon became dominant. Read more about vinyl record speeds in our related post.
The record companies (Columbia and RCA Victor) pursued their product research independently, but in the 1950s they did agree to standards on the needle size that would play their records as well as frequency standards, which stand even today. The music industry as we know it was born during this era.
Interested in learning how a vinyl record is made? Read our related post to find out how.
Stereo Sound and New Formats
In 1957, the first commercially available stereo sound records were released to the public. In contrast to the earlier, monophonic records, these recordings used spatial characteristics (namely a left and right channel) to create a more holistic listening experience. Nearly all records today are stereo, and two-channel recording remains the most popular for musical applications.
In the 1970s, the development of surround sound began to show early signs of emergence, including three-channel recording and even four-channel recording. Most of these formats were not commercially successful or yet viable with the current technology in place. Many inventions of the twentieth century proved to be commercially unsuccessful, in fact, including:
- Three-channel recording – Which formed the basis for surround sound.
- Four-channel recording – Which was a complete commercial failure.
- Laser turntables – Which were functional but expensive and laid the groundwork for the compact disc and other optical formats.
Around the same time, though, the vinyl record was completely changing the world of music in discos, clubs, and even homes around the world. Mass production of turntables and new entrants into the market had caused worldwide popularity and a cultural revolution.
Since the 1950s, various enhancements have been made to improve the quality, reliability, durability, and dynamic range of records:
- Improved cutting techniques – Changed the way records are cut, and increased dynamic range significantly, paving the way for less traditional genres in music, including metal and hip-hop.
- Diaphragming – A chemical technique designed to mask background noise and create less surface noise in addition.
- Enhancements in spiral groove pitch – Which improved endpoint distortion on records.
Record Players Today
In the late 80s, record players started to die out in popularity due to new formats and policies from record distributors about applying credits for unsold, returned, vinyl records. Retailers began to devote more shelf space to CDs and cassettes, causing the popularity of both vinyl disc records and record players to decline.
That said, in the mid-2000s, the popularity of indie rock in the UK and United States caused a resurgence in vinyl, and record players have skyrocketed in popularity once again. Today, most indie rock, hip hop, and electronic music records are released on vinyl, which makes record players quite popular among young, hip listeners.
Enduring Record Players
From the very first recordings of the human voice to the early recordings made by Alexander Graham Bell and his associates, all the way to the modern electronic record players of today, it's hard to deny the enduring nature of this incredible piece of machinery.
It is easy to see why they have remained so popular. There is artistry, a tactile experience, and underlying craftsmanship you simply cannot get from digital music files. Listening to music on a record player is by far the easiest way to experience the high-fidelity sound intended by the artist, as well as connect your listening experience to the past.
Interested in buying a record player? Check out our tips for choosing a Victrola record player. Keep in mind that different record players come with various price ranges. Check out Victrola’s Vinyl Record Price Guide to see what style of record player will fit your budget.
America's Story from America's Library. Thomas Edison and the First Phonograph. Retrieved from http://www.americaslibrary.gov/jb/recon/jb_recon_phongrph_1.html
National Museum of American History. The Volta Laboratory and the Smithsonian - Hear My Voice | Albert H. Small Documents Gallery | Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. Retrieved from http://americanhistory.si.edu/documentsgallery/exhibitions/hear-my-voice/8.html
Library of Congress. Emile Berliner and the Birth of the Recording Industry - Digital Collections. Retrieved from http://www.loc.gov/collections/emile-berliner/about-this-collection/