The Phonograph/Gramophone

Thomas Edison
1878 - 1930

The Phonograph was invented by Thomas Edison in 1878, building off of several prototypes most notably the Phonautograph, which was a machine designed to ‘write’ audio rather than play it back (Rutgers: The Edison Papers), (UCSB: Cylinder Archive). The phonograph and all it’s predecessors utilized the same basic mechanical configuration: a condenser apparatus, initially a brass or wood cone, a diaphragm, and a stylus. These three items acted in sequence to convert sound waves into grooves in a record, which could then be played back by reversing the process (Turner, 1983). Initially these ‘records’ were made in tinfoil and wax, typically wrapped around cardboard cylinders. This was later followed by plastics like shellac and celluloid, in both cylinder and disc form the latter invented by Emil Berliner in 1889. (UCSB: The Cylinder Archive), (Library of Congress: The Gramophone), (Sterne, 2003).

The early phonographs were less concerned with audio fidelity and music playback and more concerned with the practical and business applications of audio playback. As such early records were beset by all kinds of sound artifacts that generally rendered them unpleasant to listen to. For example because early recording techniques relied exclusively on analog signals, which were relatively quiet compared to the noise of the needle in the grooves of the cylinder, the recording was often obfuscated behind the 'scratching' and the ‘noise’ of the needle running through the recording medium. In addition to this, wax and tinfoil have very low thresholds for dyanmic range and frequency response, as well as very short lifespans. Which meant that a recording could only be played back a set number of times before degrading beyond playability. The advent of plastics in the recording process greatly improved upon the signal to noise ratio hardware problem, but remained limited by the acoustic nature of the recording process (Sterne, 2003).


"Tinfoil Phonograph.” Tinfoil Phonograph - The Edison Papers. February 20, 2012. Accessed December 2, 2015."

"The Phonautograph and Precursors to Edison's Phonograph." Precursors to Edison's Phonograph | UCSB Cylinder Audio Archive. Accessed December 3, 2015.

Turner, Gerard L. Nineteenth-century Scientific Instruments. London: Sotheby Publications ;, 1983.

“Tinfoil Recordings" Precursors to Edison's Phonograph | UCSB Cylinder Audio Archive. Accessed December 3, 2015.

"The Gramophone." Emile Berliner and the Birth of the Recording Industry: Home Page. Accessed December 3, 2015.

Sterne, Jonathan. The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003.