For the purposes of introduction, the gramophone and the phonograph have been considered a single invention since the former evolved out of the latter to eventually replace it. Both were inscribing, groove based systems. The gramophone/phonograph was the keystone innovation on which the record industry was invented.
A good place to begin an exploration of the technological development of the record and the industry it spawned is in the early 1860s. This was when a Frenchman named Leon Scott, working at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Cambridge, Massachusetts), came up with a device called a phonautograph for tracing vocal patterns.
A thin hog’s bristle quill was attached to the centre of a compliant diaphragm at the back of a tapered horn that concentrated the sound. The other end of the quill was a sharp fine point. A piece of smoked glass would travel past the point as a sound entered the horn causing a wavy line that corresponded to the sound vibrations to be scratched into the soot.
A later version of the device positioned the stylus against a cylinder of heavy paper coated with soot. The cylinder was rotated by hand, and if someone shouted into the horn, an image of the vibrations were captured on the paper. There was no provision to manufacture Leon Scott’s device as it was not a marketable product aside from its scientific applications, but it did point the way towards later invention.
In 1877 a French inventor, Charles Cros, proposed the Phono-Graphos. He never had the money to build his idea, but it was much closer to what would become the gramophone. Cros described a method for recording on a round flat glass plate. He also suggested a means of playback. Like Scott, Cros failed to commercialize his idea because he could not see a wide market for the Phono-Graphos.
By the 1860s, telegraph and Morse code had become widely used. Two major problems were that the messages could not be stored and they could not be transmitted very far without requiring the weak signal to be listened to, copied and repeated by an operator.
One of these young telegraph operators was Thomas Edison. In the late 1860s, he figured out that you could take a magnetically actuated stylus and vibrate it up and down to emboss a waxed paper disc.
To repeat the indented message, the disc was flipped over so that the indented dots and dashes were now seen as a series of bumps of two different lengths. A “playback” stylus rode over the bumps, and, as it moved up and down, would make contact with a switch that repeated the original message.
Dictating with a cylinder phonograph.
This was the first of a long line of commercially successful inventions by Edison, whose inventiveness was only matched by his ability to develop his ideas into commercial products.
One day he heard his telegraph repeater operating at high speed and noted it sounded somewhat like music (Edison was not a particularly musical person). He took the same horn and membrane type “microphone” that Scott had invented and mounted it on a screw mechanism. This was made to travel across a revolving cylinder that had been wrapped in tin foil. When he cranked the cylinder and talked loudly into the horn a continuous groove was embossed which represented the sound.
He then took the cylinder and played it back on a similar mechanism with a lighter and more compliant stylus and diaphragm. The first working model of the phonograph used an up and down motion called “hill and dale” recording and was patented in December 1877. Edison’s first recorded words to himself were “Mary had a little lamb”.
The quick success of his invention had as much to do with his marketing genius as it did with its ability to record and playback sound. Edison believed the phonograph would be used for archival purposes, not as a means of playing distributed duplicates. He wrote:
“We will be able to preserve and hear again, one year or one century later a memorable speech, a worthy tribute, a famous singer, etc… We could use it in a more private manner: to preserve religiously the last words of a dying man, the voice of one who has died, of a distant parent, a lover, a mistress.”