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History of the Phonograph

record player

record player or phonograph, device for reproducing sound that has been recorded as a spiral, undulating groove on a disk. This disk is known as a phonograph record, or simply a record (see sound recording). In using a record player, a record is placed on the player's motor-driven turntable, which rotates the record at a constant speed. A tone arm, containing a pickup at one end, is placed on the record. The tone arm touches the groove of the record with its stylus, or needle. As the record revolves, the variations in its groove cause the stylus to vibrate. The stylus is part of the pickup, a device that also contains a transducer to convert these mechanical vibrations into corresponding electrical signals. These signals are then increased in size by an amplifier. After leaving the amplifier, they are passed to a loudspeaker that converts them into sound.

Although sound waves had been recorded in the middle of the 19th cent., the first machine to reproduce recorded sound, the phonograph, was built by Thomas A. Edison in 1877. Edison's records were made of tinfoil, upon which a groove of unvarying lateral direction but varying depth was cut; later this method became known as "hill-and-dale" recording. In 1887, Emile Berliner invented the disk record (patented 1896), which has grooves of unvarying depth but of varying lateral direction. His method, called lateral recording, superseded the earlier method. Berliner also invented the matrix record, from which unlimited duplicate recordings could be pressed. Early turntables were operated by a spring-driven motor that required rewinding for each record played; later the use of an electric motor made rewinding unnecessary.

The quality of reproduction was greatly improved by high-fidelity amplification (popularly called hi-fi) and by complex speaker systems. From 1948 records were made to be played at slower speeds, thus lengthening the amount of material that could be recorded on a single disk; such long-playing discs were known as LPs. Stereophonic reproduction was achieved by adapting the phonograph to reproduce two channels of sound (see stereophonic sound). The first commercially available stereo recordings were produced in 1957. In addition to musical performances, records were often used to reproduce sound effects for radio and the theater, transcriptions of radio broadcasts, "talking books" for the blind, and lessons for language study. Most recording companies stopped producing phonograph records by the early 1990s in favor of cassette tapes and compact discs.

See B. Steffens, Phonograph: Sound on Disk (1992); E. L. Reiss, The Complete Talking Machine: A Collector's Guide to Antique Phonographs (1998); T. C. Fabrizio and G. F. Paul, Antique Phonographs: Gadgets, Gizmos, & Gimmicks (1999).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2013, The Columbia University Press.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Recorded Music in American Life: The Phonograph and Popular Memory, 1890-1945
William Howland Kenney.
Oxford University Press, 1999
FREE! Edison: His Life and Inventions
Frank Lewis Dyer; Thomas Commerford Martin.
Harper & Brothers, vol.1, 1910
Librarian’s tip: Chap. X "The Phonograph"
American Popular Music and Its Business: The First Four Hundred Years, from 1790-1909
Russell Sanjek.
Oxford University Press, vol.2, 1988
Librarian’s tip: "Mr. Edison's Wonderful Talking Machine" begins on p. 363
A Spiral Way: How the Phonograph Changed Ethnography
Erika Brady.
University Press of Mississippi, 1999
FREE! The Science of Musical Sounds
Dayton Clarence Miller.
The Macmillan Company, 1916
The Record Book: A Music Lover's Guide to the World of the Phonograph
David Hall.
Smith & Durrell, 1940
Sound Recording Practice
John Borwick.
Oxford University Press, 1996 (4th edition)
Directory of American Disc Record Brands and Manufacturers, 1891-1943
Allan Sutton.
Greenwood, 1994
His Master's Voice/ Die Stimme Seines Herrn: The German Catalogue
Alan Kelly.
Greenwood Press, 1994
Berliner Gramophone Records: American Issues, 1892-1900
Paul Charosh.
Greenwood Press, 1995
88s on 78s: Pianists on Record from 1903 to 1925
Robertson, Rick.
American Music Teacher, Vol. 52, No. 5, April-May 2003
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