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The Shifting Technology Of The Phonautograph, Phonograph, and Turntable

Updated: Oct 12, 2021

Written by Ernesto J. Green R. on 23rd May 2016

The Phonautograph, phonograph, and turntable are audio devices that succeeded one another chronologically and are related historically in their technological evolution. The creation of these machines have experienced a ground-breaking industrial transformation. The development of these devices has influenced the advancement of the recording industry.

The phonautograph was the first known apparatus to record a graphic representation of sound waves when travelling through air.

The phonautograph

It was invented by the french printer/bookseller Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville, and patented in March 1856. The principle of this device was a transcription of sound waves as undulations in a line traced on smoked-blackened paper. The two dimensional character of the tracing did not allow the reproduction of sound, and this visual information was merely used for the study of sound waves. As Steffen wrote, “it was, as one historians of the phonograph describes it, 'halfway towards a talking machine.'”, (Steffen, 2005, p.21). Although, the phonautograph was not a marketable item, it paved the way for later innovations in recording and reproduction of sound.

In April, 1877, a french poet/inventor going by the name of Charles Cros conceived a theoretical written formulation of a possible design he branded “Paleophone” which could record and reproduce the sound from a traced line, and audition it through a mastermind mechanism. The basis of Cros's idea had a similarity with the concept applied to its sound (recording/reproduction) device successors, specially the gramophone. Albeit, the paleophone was not materialise before his death, it is considered to be the first known scientific analysis about recording and reproduction of sound.

In December, 1877, a couple of decades after Scott's invention, Thomas Edison (inspired by the phonautograph) announced the completion of the phonograph. Edison's device was able to recreate the recorded sound, and quickly gained international recognition. The mechanical principle of the phonograph was the physical response of the stylus to sound vibration embossed (in a hill-and-dale form) on a tinfoil wrapped around a recorder (a rotating cardboard cylinder).

Edison's tin foil (phonograph 1879)

In the early phonographs, the mechanical movement of the record was generated by way of a hand crank, and the produced sound could be heard through a flaring horn, or using stethoscope. The commercial application of this gadget was not profitable due to its performing limitations; the record cylinder could only sample roughly up to two minutes maximum of audio, the source had to perform each time a recording-copy was needed, the tin foil was not a feasible recording medium, and the device was not suitable for mobile use. Edison directed his interest and focus to the development of the incandescent light bulb and put aside the phonograph venture.

Alexander Graham Bell while working on telecommunications in his Volta Laboratory with Charles Tainter introduced some upgrades to the phonograph using a wax-coated cardboard cylinder (longer durability) instead of the tin foil sheet. The audio signal was laterally engraved into the record by the stylus (moving in zig zag) rather than the vertical-embossing applied on Edison's phonograph. The innovations made to Edison's approach provided some practicality to the new apparatus and its trade-mark went by the name of Graphophone.

Edison's Graphophone

The first graphophone was introduced in 1885, it had better sound quality (but quieter) and longer playback time than the phonograph, which made it more popular than its predecessor as a marketable product. The Volta Laboratory became the Volta Graphophone Company, and Graham Bell founded Dictaphone which was a company specialised in dictation machines. Early dictation machines were an industry version of the graphophone designed by Charles Tainter, and were mounted on a sewing machine table with a foot treadle for power.

Graham Bell's Dictaphone

Dictaphone operator

These devices benefited from gradual improvements and were the first audio equipment to record and reproduce speech efficiently. The graphophone attained most of his popularity as a dictation machine, thus it was used for voice recording in government/business offices and congresses. Once Edison successfully completed the development of the light bulb he went back to reformed the phonograph taking on board the wax coating record cylinder and other important technical factors, in order to expand its market, and make it more commercially viable.

Edison's phonograph

In 1887, Emily Berliner was granted the patent for the Gramophone, an upgrade version of the phonograph, however, in this case, the device used a wax flat disc as a recording medium—first envisioned by Charles Cros.

Emily Berliner and his gramophone

The stylus traced the surface (in spiral form) from the periphery towards the centre as the disc rotated. The gramophone produced a louder volume because it featured stronger pressure from the tone-arm's stylus on the disc when tracing the wax.

In 1895, Berliner's innovation was introduced and rapidly achieved commercial success due to the feasible character of the new recording medium in the manufacturing, and distributional process.

As we can see, there has been a gradual and noticeable technological development from Scott's phonautograph early concept to the gramophone machine. If we analyse the technological shift from Edison's phonograph record cylinder to Berliner's flat disc gramophone, we can appreciate the groundbreaking technological transformation which has paved the way for today's audio industry. In addition, attempts in preparing these innovations for mass consumption and make it a profitable market encouraged the creation of new means and ways pushing their technology even further. Edison created gold-moulded cylinders from a master wax record which allowed a blank brown-wax cylinder to be pressed through a technical system under a calibrated level of heat. After cooling, the brown wax record would have the engraved grooves of the original recording, this approach saved time and money during the mass-reproduction process and increased sales.

Berliner in partnership with Eldridge R. Johnson commercialised the gramophone and applied a similar mass-reproduction method, producing a stamp-record from the master disc. As Steffen wrote, “Berliner was developing the stamped record, and once perfected and adopted, stamping continue to be an integral part of the manufacturing process right through the 1970s...If one considers the basic concepts incorporated into his thinking Berliner, '[was] the first to produce disc records commercially [and] the first to commercially produce stamped or moulded records'. The shape of recorded music that we are still more familiar with is the disc, and from the earliest days until the advent of compact discs and DVDs, the stamped record has been a mainstay delivery system of recorded music.” (Steffen, 2005, p.30).

The Victor Talking Machine was founded by Johnson in 1901. The Talking Machine contributed to the commercialization of Berliner's wax discs, and in roughly 28 years period, sold over 600,000,000 records under the trademark “His Master's Voice”, setting an important mark in the commercial recording industry at the time. This event was a source of inspiration for future business ventures, and projects in the recording industry. Victor also designed and introduced to the market the Victrola which had the rotating table disc, and the amplifying horn veiled inside a wooden cabinet.

Victor's victrola

During the 1920s, the Western Electric Company was involved in the development of phonographic recording devices to be utilised on film-sound production. The phonograph went from being rudimental machine—powered by mechanical force generated by a hand crank—to an analogue electrical device with mass appeal.

The use of the phonograph expanded into the radio (as transcription discs between radio stations), and theatre/film industry (as speech or musical interludes). In 1931, Columbia Records brought us the long play, or LP—very much like the 12 inches we know nowadays. The LP featured a higher fidelity, and played for longer time. This was due to the medium being harder and thinner which allowed for more grooves to be added to the record at a slower rotating speed. The LP was a great contribution to the monopolisation, and advancement of the record industry. Moreover, the LP could hold an entire symphonic long-performance—that was big news at the time.

The metamorphosis process from a tinfoil wrapped up (or a wax-coated cylinder) to the thin solid waxed LP, constitutes an important technological success achieved through years of hard labour, analysis, and experimentation.

Thin solid waxed LP

• Industrial Revolution

When the industrial revolution began, there were a major technological shifts in the music industry. RCA introduced the 7 inches 45 rpm record to the world (usually holding one hit song or single), which made the old 78 rpm disc obsolete.

By the end of 1940s, analog record players were well established as home commodity with increasing demand.

In 1955, the first transistor record player was introduced by Philco, named TPA-1, and TPA-2. They only played 7 inches 45 rpm and experienced a huge public acceptance.


In 1965, Philco replaced the transistor (in their disc players) for vacuum tubes due to economical reasons.

During the '70s high fidelity record players were being built by big record companies, and the turntable was designed as a precise and solid audio-device featuring a belt, or direct-drive system.

MARANTZ TT-120 Stereo 2 Speed Belt Drive Turntable Vintage 1980

Technics SL-1210MK2 (direct-drive turntable)

The flexible weighted-tonearm holds the stylus which traces the grooves of the vinyl, and the pick-up is translated into electrical voltage which then, it's transduced through the speakers. The continuous developments and innovations by record companies and manufacturers have opened up ways for new audio production industries.

The radio and the phonograph industry played a parallel role, and influenced one another. The radio has always been an influential force in record sales, and the heavy rotation of hit songs on radio stations have helped to increase radio's popularity.

Thanks to the vinyl record, analog audio-formats such as the magnetic tape has been created. The advent of the digital era, have introduced us to digital audio formats such as the Compact Disc (CD), Mp3, and Wav file formats (to mention a few).

The creation and developments of loudspeakers have also been propelled by the innovations of the phonograph. Music charts, the DJ, club culture (a billions of pounds industry), television programs, and film have also been influenced by the development of the phonograph. Many audio industry equipments such as headphones, digital audio players, DAWs for audio production, samplers, and synthesisers are here today thanks to the phonograph evolution.

The phonograph has played an essential role in the creation and development of the sound system culture, and the evolution of dub music in Jamaica. We cannot talk about disco music, or hip-hop without mentioning the phonograph records.

The phonautograph led to the phonograph, and the phonograph evolved into the turntable. The latter has given birth to the turntablism which has become an art form in itself.

Thanks to the phonograph, contemporary electronic music is here today.

Music production, and recording equipment have been developed thanks to the basic technical principles underlying phonographic recording devices.

The invention of phonograph has been one major technological progression during the 19th century. Its legacy is here to stay for time indefinite.



Steffen, J. David (2005). “From Edison to Marconi, The First Thirty Years of Recorded Music”. MacFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers (USA).

Rampling, Danny (2010). “Everything You need to Know About DJing and Success”. Published by Aurum Press Ltd.

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