About Phonographs

A phonograph is a machine that plays, and in some cases can record, cylinder records. Cylinder records were the first generation of recorded sound, Where today we have CD's, MP3, Ipod's, our ancestors in the late 1890's and early first decade of the 20th century had cylinder phonographs.



A phonograph usually consists of:
- a mandrel to hold a wax, celluloid or coated cardboard cylinder
- a motor to turn the mandrel at a constant speed. Usually spring driven, but could be directly hand wound, and in some cases equipped with an electric motor. The motor could be alongside the mandrel, so that you can see it functioning, or below it, encased usually in a wood case.
- a reproducer, usually a metal housing with a diaphram and a glass or sapphire stylus.
- a horn for amplifying the sound, usually in Brass or tin, but also wood, copper, papermache and even glass.
- a cabinet that could take many forms. The most common resemble sewing machine cases where the mechanism is covered with a domed wooden lid when the machine is not in use. With some european machines , a style of reversible case was used where the machine and case flipped over into its case.

The variations in the way inventors approached the primary issue of moving a cylinder under a stylus and amplifying the sound, are many and varied, as you will see in the various makes and models you see in the menu at the left of the screen.

Evolution of the Phonograph

More important than the technical evolution of the phonograph, is the evolution that it created in society, and in music itself. Before the phonograph, people enjoyed music in concert and music halls, in church, at people's homes, wherever a few people with musical instruments came together to play. Music was an event, a social activity that brought people together.

Before the phonograph, composers would write long, elaborate symphonies and operas and people may only have heard several such performances in theit lifetime.

After the invention of the phonograph, musicians had to redesign the way they wrote music. Since records lasted only 3 or 4 minutes, tunes needed to be instantly recognizable, thus long performances were stripped down to a basic, recognizable melody that could be recorded on the phonograph. Phonograph technology began to determine what we hear and how we hear it. Because of the phonograph, listening to music became a more intimate experience for the listener, as it moved from the social event of concert halls to the privacy of living rooms, to the headphone of the iPod.

Technically the first phonographs using tinfoil were little more than experimental devices, where the sound was discernable but imprecise. Edison had forseen the phonograph to be a piece of office equipment to be used as a dictation taking machine. Early progress on the phonograph was aimed at finding the optimal recording medium and playback. In the late 1890's wax cylinders were found to be the best medium, though monster machines such as the Edison Class M, were by no means compatible with home use, though exhibitors at fairs would hook up a dozen listeners to a nachine, and people would pay for the novelty of hearing recorded music.

The Graphophone B was perhaps the machine that really launched the phonograph into the home. It was a simply constructed machine at a low price of $10. It played way cylinders that lasted 2 minutes.

The next large leap was in 1908 when the 4 minute Amberol was introduced, playing for 4 minutes and with a better sound quality. This was a response to growing competition from disc records. However by 1908, many cylinder phonograph companies were abandoning cylinder technology.

By 1913 Edison was the last manufacturer in the cylinder field, and refused to give up on cylinder technology, introducing in 1913 the Blue Amberol record, an unbreakable cylinder. It did produce the best available sound at the time, far better than any disc. The finer sound of the cylinder was because a cylinder has a constant surface speed from beginning to end in contrast to the inner groove distortion that occurred on discs i.e. the outside disk speed is faster than the inner speed. People also argued that the vertical cut in the groove produced a superior sound to lateral cut disc records.

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