The Shifting Technology Of The Phonautograph, Phonograph, and Turntable

Updated: Mar 23

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

The Phonautograph, phonograph, and turntable are audio devices which succeeded one another chronologically, and are related historically in their technological evolution. The creation and development of these machines have experienced a ground-breaking industrial transformation and have opened up ways for 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/book-seller 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 and 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 the 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 name 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 but 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 tonearm's stylus on the disc when tracing the wax. Berliner's innovation was introduced in 1895 and rapidly achieved a recognised commercial success due to the feasible character of 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 Eldrige 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, it 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, and a source of inspiration for future business ventures/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 '20s and '30s, innovators kept advancing the phonograph. The participation and integration of others companies in the production and developments of wax recording devices during such as The Western Electric Company, the phonograph went from being rudimental machine powered by mechanical force generated by a hand crank, to an analogue electrical device with mass appeal. Its use was expanded into the radio,theatre and film industry as transcription discs between radio stations and in film/theatre speech or musical interludes. In 1931Columbia Records brought to us the long play or LP, very much like the 12 inches we know nowadays. The LP featured higher fidelity and played for longer time due to the fact the medium was harder and thinner, which allowed more grooves to be added adding to the record combined with a slower rotating speed. The LP was a great contribution to monopolisation and advancement of the record industry (it could hold and entire symphonic long-performance), and the metamorphosis process from a tinfoil wrapped up or a wax-coated cylinder to the thin solid waxed LP is an important technological success achieved through hard labour, years of analysis and experimentation.

Thin solid waxed LP

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

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

RCA 7 inches 45 rpm commercial

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

In 1965, Philco replaced the transistor in the 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 and transduce through the speakers.

The continuous developments and innovations by record companies and manufactures in the recording industry has opened up the 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 new audio formats has been created such as the magnetic tape and reel-to reel, and with the advent of the digital we have been introduced to the compact disc, mp3 and wave files to mention a few. The creation and developments of speakers have also been propelled by the innovations of the phonograph; music charts, DJ and the club culture which generates billions of pounds, television programs and film have also been influenced by it. Many audio industry equipments such as headphones, mp3 players, audio digital workstations for audio production, samplers and synthesisers are here today thanks to phonautograph/phonograph.

The turntable gave birth to the turntablism which has become an art form in itself specially in hip hop culture. Disco and dance music has benefited from it and many other sub-cultures have born from the use of turntables.

The digital recording equipments we use nowadays for recording and reproducing music are here thanks to phonograph.



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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