The History of Record Players, Turntables, and Vinyl Records

  • By: Andrew
  • Date: April 27, 2022

Music is a staple for all of human civilization, and it plays a large role in culture and history. In the scope of all of human history, it is astounding that we have only been able to record sound for the last century. It is nearly impossible to imagine a time of not being able to listen to your favorite song at will, and it is obvious we have come a long way from live music being the only way to enjoy it.

Record players were invented in 1877 by Thomas Edison. After Edison’s invention of the phonograph, other inventors improved his design to make the machine more effective. In the 1950s when vinyl records were mass-produced, record players became the main method of listening to music.

The history of record players is fascinating, and there is much to be known about it. Although every individual has experience with the record player, there are few that know about its rich history. If you want to learn more about the history of record players, turntables, and vinyls, then you will want to continue reading below.

Table of Contents

The Phonautograph

Although Thomas Edison is credited with the invention of the record player, it is important to note that he was inspired by other inventions.

One of these includes the phonautograph, which was invented by Edouard-Léon Scott de Martinville, twenty years prior to the phonograph. Without the phonautograph and knowing that recording sounds were possible, Edison would have found it difficult to invent the phonograph.

Edouard-Léon Scott de Martinville had the idea of recording sound. In layman’s terms, he viewed recording sound the same as photographing a word. Although no one had done it yet, he knew it was possible.

Scott began to work on his creation, and by 1857, an association for new technologies, SEIN, became interested in his concept. Scott began working with them and eventually others to make the phonautograph. By 1860, Scott had successfully made a machine where self-recording was possible.

The Phonograph

Due to the phonautograph that was invented by Edouard-Léon Scott de Martinville, it was known that recording sounds was possible. However, playing back these sounds had not yet been done. Sounds were visualized and produced on paper, however, they could not yet be heard. It was not until twenty years after the invention of the phonautograph that sounds could be played back.

In 1877, the phonograph was invented by Thomas Edison. The invention was a cylinder that was wrapped in tin foil and that was turned by hand with a crank. The machine consisted of two different needles, one that was for recording sounds to the tin foil, and the other that was used for replaying the sounds originally recorded. Although the tin foil was far from ideal, it was the best option currently known. Indentations were made into the foil, and it was effective at its purpose. Over time it underwent revisions that made it even more worthwhile.

It was not until Edison reversed his original process that he was able to hear the words he recorded play out loud. Edison first recorded the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb”, which was an impressive feat for its time. In 1878, he became officially patented with the invention. The patent was well deserved, as Edison carved the way for future record players.

Despite how important this invention was, it was not Edison’s most profitable discovery. The phonograph was not nearly as popular as Edison expected. Edison suspected that the phonograph would do well and was surprised when it did not. He was proud of his invention, however, he moved on to other projects in hopes that one of them would succeed.

Although the phonograph was not especially popular, it laid the foundation for record players. Other inventors took what Edison did with the phonograph, and perfected it in a way that made it desirable to the public.

Thomas Edison’s invention was undoubtedly a monumental discovery. Because of him, other inventors now knew that the playback of sound was possible. After Edison’s invention did not prove to be as popular with the public as expected, others took it upon themselves to improve the machine so more people would be interested in it.

One of these inventors was Alexander Graham Bell. Bell’s intentions were to improve the design of the phonograph and make it more effective for users. Edison and Bell had always been competitors. They oftentimes played off of each other’s inventions, and it was no different with the phonograph. Bell once wished to work with Edison on the improvement of the phonograph, but Edison stubbornly refused.

Because of Edison’s refusal to collaborate, Bell was forced to work on the improvements himself. Bell sought a more durable machine, which is exactly what he got. The current design was using tin foil, and this was less than desirable. The tinfoil was fragile, and so Bell immediately wanted a better medium. Rather than using foil, Bell used wax, which proved to be successful in terms of durability.

There was fierce competition when it came to the phonograph. Everyone was surprised by how Edison made it possible to playback sounds, and so they were all trying to perfect the machine. This made is as to where multiple credible inventors were competing against each other at the same time. Because of the phonograph, Edison had created a culture of competition amongst fellow inventors. It was only a matter of time before one of them hit the mark and would further escalate the capabilities of the record player.

The Gramophone

According to the Library of Congress, Emile Berliner is credited with the invention of the gramophone. Berliner was fascinated by Edison’s invention of the phonograph, and also by the graphophone. He used a combination of the techniques that were used for these machines and also used his own unique methods to create what is now known as the gramophone.

By 1896, the gramophone was available for purchase. The Berliner Gramophone Company of Philadelphia was created, and its goal was to sell and distribute the product.

However, on September 29, 1897, a tragic fire occurred at the laboratory of the gramophone company. All the gramophones were burned, and all the equipment had to be replaced. This was an unexpected setback for the gramophone, and it was difficult for the company to recover.

Although the fire was a setback for the gramophone, the company eventually recovered. The gramophone become a success and was eventually sold throughout the world. The gramophone caught the attention of many, and Berliner began to face many competitors. Despite multiple lawsuits revolving around the gramophone, its invention remained influential. Due to Berliner’s gramophone, the record industry was transformed.

When Were Vinyl Records Popular?

Records existed long before the classic vinyl. What we know today as a vital part of the record player did not always exist. Instead, other types of records were used until the vinyl was discovered.

Before vinyl records, shellac records were used. However, shellac records were only able to hold two songs. One song could be recorded on each side, which made records in general very ineffective. Those who were passionate about music made it work, but they longed for a more practical way of listening to music.

Thankfully, Peter Carl Goldmark came to the rescue in 1948. Goldmark invented the Long Play records, which allowed more music to be held on records than ever before. Not only did he allow for more music to be held on a single record, but he also increased the overall sound quality. Vinyl records quickly replaced the original shellac records, and thus began the popularity of records.

The Downfall of the Record Player

Record players transformed how music lovers could listen to music. They were now able to listen to music whenever they wanted with ease, as long as they were in their home. However, individuals could not yet listen to music when they are on the go. Although they could listen to music in the comfort of their homes, there still was room for improvement when it came to listening to music in various locations.

The downfall of the record player came when the Sony Walkman was invented. On July 1, 1979, the Walkman demonstrated how it was a breakthrough technology.

The compact size of the Walkman made it possible for individuals to listen to music wherever they were at. They quickly replaced the need for record players as cassette players could be used anywhere. Record players were more inconvenient as they were so large and could only be used in homes.

The Sony Walkman dominated the 1980s and 1990s. Everyone had one, and those of all ages could use them. Not only the younger generation used them, but individuals of every generation could. The cassette player became a way for all lovers of music to bond, as they could be used anywhere and everywhere.

After the Walkman, the CD started to gain popularity. CDs were invented in 1979 just like the Walkman, but they did not become available to the public until 1982. The CD was extremely effective, even more so than the Walkman. During the 1990s, CDs began to climb in popularity. Once more people learned about them and realized how much music they could hold, they stopped using cassette players. By the 2000s, CD players replaced cassette players. This was of no surprise, due to how much storage is available on CDs.

The CD player overtook both record players and cassettes. Rather than having cassette players, cars became furnished with CD players. No matter where you were, you could find a place to play your CD, and that continued to be the main form of listening to music until online music was invented.

Record Players Today

In most cases, once newer technology is invented, the old one never comes back. It goes extinct, because the more advanced machines overpower the old ones, and there is no reason to downgrade. New technology is always up and coming, and individuals try to not live in the past. They want to continue moving forward and it is not common to go back and use old technologies.

This is true for nearly every source of technology except for the record player/turntable. After nearly everyone had gotten rid of their original record player, individuals started to miss it. After thirty years of using more advanced technologies to listen to music, individuals started to long to listen to their classic vinyl records. They wanted to once again hear its classic sound, and it became a source of nostalgia for the older generation.

Although the older generation wanted to use record players/turntables because it was what they grew up with, the rising generation had an alternative motive. For them, vinyl records were new and had the classic vintage aesthetic that is becoming increasingly popular. The younger generations did not live in an era where record players were popular, but thanks to its now high marketability, they can feel as though they did.

Nearly every artist today releases a vinyl version of their album. Artists know their vinyls are in high demand with younger generations, so they use this to their advantage. Now they can sell their albums digitally, on CDs, and on vinyl records. This allows them to get three times the amount of sales that artists used to. According to The Manual, 2020 was the first time in years that vinyl records outsold CDs. This is a surprising time in history, as no one would have ever expected that vinyl records would be able to maintain being such an influential part of history.

While younger generations still use more updated forms of technology, it is no question that they enjoy record players. They listen to them almost as often as individuals did in the ’50s. Record players and vinyl records making a comeback prove how influential their creations were, and makes it difficult to doubt that they will never go out of style.

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