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The Phonograph
The invention of the phonograph and other sound reproduction machines began a new way of producing historical archives. Expressions of the human voice were no longer limited to their abstraction as words on the page, and the artistry and passion of a musical performance could be preserved outside human memory. People could bring the sounds of the world into their homes, and a global culture began to arise out of the mixture of influences that a broad diversity of recordings could provide. Before radio and sound motion pictures, the phonograph and other "talking machines" reigned for several decades as the great modern innovation in audio culture and entertainment.
Leon Scott's Phonautograph
The first successful sound recording device was developed by Leon Scott de Martinville in 1855. Scott's "phonautograph" used a mouthpiece horn and membrane fixed to a stylus that recorded sound waves on a rotating cylinder wrapped with smoke-blackened paper. There was no way at the time to play the sounds back, but the Frenchman's device was a crucial foundation for the developments that would come two decades later. Scott's phonautograph was manufactured and sold as a laboratory instrument for analyzing sound beginning in 1859.
Edison's Phonograph
In 1877 Thomas Edison designed the "tinfoil phonograph" and directed John Kruesi, one of his top laboratory mechanics, to build a prototype. The device consisted of a cylindrical drum wrapped in tinfoil and mounted on a threaded axle. A mouthpiece attached to a diaphragm was connected to a stylus that etched vibrational patterns from a sound source on the rotating foil. For playback the mouthpiece was replaced with a "reproducer" that used a more sensitive diaphragm. Edison recited "Mary Had a Little Lamb" into the mouthpiece for the first demonstration. Even though he expected success he was startled to hear the "tinny" version of his own voice echo his performance. Edison prepared an encore presentation for the editor of The Scientific American, a close friend, who wrote the following in the Nov. 17, 1877 issue:
It has been said that Science is never sensational; that it is intellectual, not emotional; but certainly nothing that can be conceived would be more likely to create the profoundest of sensations, to arouse the liveliest of human emotions, than once more to hear the familiar voices of the dead. Yet Science now announces that this is possible, and can be done.... Speech has become, as it were, immortal.
The invention of the first "talking machine" is most commonly attributed to Edison, in part because of the publicity that attended his celebrity and the theatrical power of his demonstrations, and in part because previous inventions had earned him the means to have the device built. The first to build a phonograph, of course, was Kruesi. The first to conceive of a workable design was most likely the Parisian Charles Cros, who delivered viable plans for a machine that would use discs to the French Academie des Sciences in April of 1877. This occurred several months before Edison happened on his idea while working on a telegraphy device designed to record readable traces of a Morse code signal onto a disk.
In January of 1878, investors created the Edison Speaking Phonograph Company to oversee the manufacture and exhibition of the talking machines. Edison received $10,000 and periodic royalties. He continued to refine the tin-foil phonograph through mid-1878, feeding a popular enthusiasm for stage demonstrations of the "magic" machine which could imitate any language, cough, or animal sound that a skeptic from the audience could produce in an attempt to expose the "trick."
By October of the same year, however, Edison was coaxed away from the phonograph by an offer of substantial backing to pursue the invention of an electric light. As the novelty of the phonograph exhibitions waned, the audiences tapered off and the invention went through a dormant period nearly a decade long before it would transcend its status as a curiosity.
The Bell-Tainter Graphophone
The late 1870s and early 1880s were full of inventive breakthroughs and rapid advancements in communication technologies that came from a number of well-organized laboratories. Fast-shutter motion photography, the first crude motion pictures, the electric light, the telephone, and vast improvements in the telegraph were all developed within a few years of the phonograph. Alexander Graham Bell had invented the telephone in 1876, and Edison had become financially independent by designing a carbon transmitter for Bell's invention a few months before he began designing the phonograph.
While the two inventors' ability to inspire each other never yielded a particularly amicable partnership, it did fuel a competitive drive in both men that would entangle their lives for decades. The telephone won Bell the $10,000 Volta Prize from the French government, which he used to establish a laboratory for experimenting with electrical acoustic devices. He gave his cousin, an engineer named Chichester Bell, and Charles Tainter, a scientist and instrument maker, the project of improving the phonograph. The Bell-Tainter "graphophone" released in 1887 displayed some key improvements to the Edison model. Cylinders were made entirely of wax instead of cardboard and tinfoil, which allowed for longer and more clearly defined recordings. The graphophone also used a loosely mounted "floating" stylus for clearer conversion into sound, and it resolved the pitch fluctuations associated with Edison's hand crank by using a foot treadle or an electric motor.
Early Recording Industry
By this time Edison had renewed his interest in the phonograph and pursued improvements of his own, most notably replacing the tinfoil sheath with a coating of wax and developing a battery-powered electric motor to drive the instrument. He insisted the phonograph should be more than an amusement, and advocated its dignified use as an office dictation machine. Amid competing patents and corporate plans for the talking machines, and against Edison's protests, a market for their use arose again. Very few office stenographers warmed to the newfangled dictation method, but by 1891 coin-operated phonographs installed in corner drug stores and cafes that charged a nickel for approximately two minutes of music began to take in an average of $50 per week.
Something of a commercial recording industry had started up in 1890. Musicians would record on several phonographs at once, repeating their performance until enough cylinders were produced to satisfy demand. Wax was a poor medium for capturing music of any quality and the cylinders could only hold two minutes of music, but the entertainment value of having a wide variety of recordings to choose from made the new industry quite attractive nonetheless.
Numerous "phonograph parlors" popped up to exploit the invention's lucrative possibilities. A customer could speak into a tube to request one of as many as 150 titles and listen to a recording played on the floor below that was piped into two ear horns at the customer's private desk. The leisure culture that the parlors spawned soon included individual coin-operated kinetoscopes that flipped photographs past a viewer, creating the first common motion picture illusions. The phonograph proved to be a useful advertising medium. Machines that could be activated by the touch of a button were mounted in conspicuous places, in keeping with the logic of an 1894 promotional statement: "Nobody will refuse to listen to a fine song or concert piece or oration, even if interrupted by the modest remark, 'Tartar's Baking Powder Is Best', or 'Wash The Baby With Orange Soap'."
It became clear that the phonograph was meant to be part of the entertainment world. Thomas Macdonald, the manager of a graphophone factory, developed an inexpensive and reliable clockwork motor. This enabled the Bell-Tainter camp, now doing business as the Columbia Phonograph Company, to launch a full-fledged retail venture with a clockwork-driven machine they called the "Graphophone Grand."
Berliner's Gramophone
While the cylinder machines were finally enjoying a period of wide public acceptance, a device that had already gone through several years of development was introduced to the U.S. market. Emile Berliner's "gramophone," which used discs pressed in hard rubber instead of cylinders, was launched with minimal backing in 1893. The plan behind the first small-scale release was to attract more substantial backers by demonstrating the unique advantages of the gramophone. The discs were much cheaper to produce and any number of copies could be made from a zinc master. Berliner based his model on Scott's phonautograph and Cros's disc machine design. Berliner described the process this way:
Gramophone: a talking machine wherein a sound is first traced into a fatty film covering a metal surface and which is then subjected to the action of an acid or etching fluid which eats the record into the metal. This record being a continuous wavy line of even depth is then rotated and not only vibrates the reproducing sound chamber but also propels the same by the hold its stylus retains in record groove. The original record can be duplicated ad infinitum by first making an electrotyped reverse or matrix and then pressing the latter into hard rubber, celluloid or similar material which is soft when warm and quite hard when cold.
Eclipsed by the cylinder machines' new heights of success, Berliner's gramophone was slow to attract attention. By 1896 Berliner's company had finally found some backers and were able to release the Baby Grand Gramophone, a spring-driven machine which could legitimately compete with the cylinder models.
The Major Talking Machine Corporations
There were now three major selling agencies that would dominate the sale of home machines for years to come: The National Gramophone Company, which sold Berliner gramophones; the Columbia Phonograph Company, which sold Bell-Tainter graphophones; and the National Phonograph Company, which sold Edison phonographs. Corporations that held and manufactured under patent rights added to the tangle. Among these were Volta Graphophone, associated with Bell-Tainter machines, and the Victor Talking Machine Company, which was Berliner's partnership with Eldridge Johnson, the man who had developed the gramophone's spring drive.
The commercial success of the machines in the late 1890s sparked a number of corporate lawsuits and patent battles, and fueled several new technical innovations. The Berliner people developed a new disc-stamping process and Duranoid, a shellac-based plastic material that proved far superior to rubber. Edison's camp came up with a machine that could play two cylinders with one winding of the spring drive. An inventor named Harold Short developed a compressed-air amplifier. Some odd new twists on turn-of-the century talking machines included an intriguing variety of handsome and at times bizarre cabinets and horns, a disc design that allowed for 12 minutes of play and moved the stylus from the center outward, a method of linking the sound patterns to a mouthpiece so people could plug their ears and "listen with their teeth," and records made of chocolate that could be eaten when they were too worn out to play.
Worldwide Recording Boom
As executives of the Gramophone Company sought greater international influence, they sent a young musician and talent scout named Fred Gaisberg to the great cities of Europe and Asia with an elaborate and bulky assemblage of recording equipment. Gaisberg's tireless enthusiasm for recording all manner of church and military music, street and tavern acts, and folk performances provided an enormous variety of recordings the company could offer gramophone enthusiasts.
The talking machines were enjoying a tremendous surge in popularity among Europeans near the turn of the century. It was easy to persuade local acts to record, but the Gramophone Company was presented with a formidable challenge when it sought to record Europe's great opera stars. Most of the singers scoffed at the idea of being associated with an amusement gadget, but a new wax engraving process improved recording quality dramatically and by 1901 the Gramophone Company made sixty records by four stars of the Russian Imperial Opera. This coup prompted Gaisberg to pursue the great young tenor, Enrico Caruso, whose name became, in Gaisberg's words, the "decoy that brought other hesitating celebrities to our recording studios." Caruso's records would yield over $2 million by the end of his career about two decades later.
Innovations Through World War I
A global culture of recording enthusiasts continued to expand through the years of World War I. Technological advances included a pleated and varnished paper diaphragm speaker which could replace the horn, more durable cylinders and discs which also facilitated longer and better quality recordings, and a way of installing a tone arm mount for the stylus in a box lid that made possible the "Decca," the first truly portable talking machine. Hundreds of portables were sent to the British front lines to relieve tedium and jangled nerves, and post-war Decca sales literature portrayed the machines as war heroes:
I was 'Mirth-Maker-in-Chief to His Majesty's Forces'; my role being to give our Soldiers and our Sailors music wherever they should be. In that capacity I saw service on every Front--France, Belgium, Egypt, Palestine, Italy and the Dardenelles; right in the Front Line and away back in Camps and Hospitals. All told, there were 100,000 'Deccas" on Active Service from start to finish of the War.
And now that the War is over, I still pursue my calling but under pleasanter conditions...
The recording industry experienced unprecedented growth after the war. In 1914 the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) was formed to ensure that its members were paid for the use of their work. By 1920 more than 200 manufacturers had taken advantage of lapsed phonograph patents and went into production.
Recording in the Jazz Age
The corporate push to expand the range of music coincided with the emergence of a few white musicians who began to emulate black New Orleans jazz. Soon after the Original Dixieland Jazz Band cut the first jazz record in 1917, the "authentic New Orleans sound" found its way into white homes and became a national craze. As music historians Russel Miller and Roger Boar put it, "...before radio and talking pictures, gramophone records were the trend-setters, the star-makers, the catalyst jazz needed to take the country--and later the world-- by storm."
During Prohibition, speakeasies and dance halls, often run by gangsters, built a thriving culture around black jazzmen from New Orleans who brought their sound to Chicago. To capitalize on the talent pool while maintaining the decorum of segregation, record companies created cheap 'race record' subsidiaries of their established labels to sell the music of black artists exclusively in black residential areas. Jazz musicians were usually more than happy to record. Whites who hungered for jazz could always find it. Records allowed the improvised sound that inspired a passion for dancing in some and puritan rage in others to burst across geographic and racial borders and leave its mark on all forms of popular music.
Through most of the jazz era, recording artists had to crowd around and sing or play directly into the mouths of large metal recording horns. They also had to redo from the beginning any performance with a glitch in it. Recorded music had to do without drums, which made the recording stylus vibrate too much. As radio began its meteoric rise in the early 1920's the contrast in quality between tinny crackling records and clean, live broadcast sound prompted many to predict that recording machines were in their declining years.
Radio and Electronic Recording
Research in "wireless telephony" conducted during World War I yielded viable microphones and amplifiers that made the radio broadcast boom possible. When the recording industry began to apply these technologies and embraced electronic recording in 1925, the studio experience and the quality of recordings improved dramatically. Individual microphones replaced shared recording horns, and artists could now overdub mistakes. Electric amplification made it possible for studio acoustics to emulate the atmosphere and clarity of live performances. A much-expanded frequency range allowed for the improved definition of sharper treble and the weighty force of deep bass.
These innovations sparked another surge in enthusiasm for recorded music that now appeared to complement the popularity of radio. A number of radio-phonograph combination machines were marketed successfully. The grandest symbol of corporate confidence in the alliance was RCA Victor, the result of the Radio Company of America's acquisition in early 1929 of the Victor Talking Machine Company.
Depression and Decline
Later in the same year, however, the predicted death of the phonograph seemed to suddenly become a reality. The industry ground to a halt almost overnight in October when the stock market crashed. People saw little point in spending bread money on records when the radio continued to provide free entertainment. In November, eighty-two year old Edison and his corporate allies discontinued production of records and phonographs. Cylinder records had already begun a sharp and steady decline since the advent of electronic recording. The Edison announcement finally rendered them extinct. Thomas Edison died in 1931.
In 1927, 987,000 machines were produced and 104,000,000 records were sold. In 1932 those numbers dropped to 40,000 and 6,000,000 respectively. With the exception of a few die-hard collectors, consumers not only quit buying records, they also began to think of the whole phenomenon of "canned music" as part of an outdated culture. Free live radio and the first sound motion pictures (the first feature-length "talkie," The Jazz Singer, was released in 1929) seemed to provide more vibrant, immediate and modern cultural outlets. Millions of machines and records found their way into attics and junkpiles. In decades to come, of course, recording would be revived and go through even more dramatic technological, cultural and corporate transformations. However, the Depression, the death of the phonograph's inventor, the drastic decline in consumer interest, and the competition from new forms of audio technology marked the end of the beginning for talking machines.
Copyright 1994-99 Jones International and Jones Digital Century. All rights reserved.
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