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Dead medium: Phonograph History Part 1
From: (Stefan Jones)

A History of the Phonograph, with Special Emphasis on Dead Phonograph Formats

Compiled by Stefan Jones

Most of this material and all quotes come from *THE FABULOUS PHONOGRAPH* by Roland Gelatt, J.B. Lippincott, NY, 1955. Although the book ends when 78 rpm records were still in production, "Hi-Fi" was a suspicious fad, and Stereo was still over the horizon, Gelatt's book is a great read and has great insights as to *why* recording formats, even technically superior ones, can become Dead Media. I would love to hear what Gelatt would have to say about the last fifteen years.

A Note on Terminology:

"Phonograph" is the proper name for Edison's original tin- foil cylinder sound recorder and player, and for the much more practical wax-cylinder player-recorder he commercialized and sold until 1929.

The lateral-groove-inscribed-disc playing machine we most often think of as a record player is more properly called a "gramophone," after the original designed by Emile Berliner. The basic technology reigned virtually unchallenged, with relatively minor improvements, from 1901 to the 1980s.

I will use "record player" to refer to all types of machines that play back sound recorded and reproduced via a vibrating needle.


The PHONOGRAPH was invented by Thomas Alva Edison in 1877. The first model used a vertically vibrating needle to inscribe a "hill and dale" pattern in a sheet of tin foil wrapped around a cardboard cylinder. Edison, ever the publicity hog, exhibited the machine to the staff of the *Scientific American*. A few hundred (?) of the temperamental machines were built and sold for use by traveling exhibitors. A fair number of the celebrities and potentates of the day had their voices recorded, but the tin foil recordings were not durable and no commercial recordings were ever offered.

The GRAPHOPHONE, a much improved phonograph that used wax-covered cardboard cylinders, was developed by Chichester A. Bell and Charles Sumner Tainter in 1881. After being rebuffed by Edison, whom they thought would be delighted with their work, they set up limited production in a plant in Washington D.C.

Edison knocked-off the graphophone, and introduced his own improved phonograph. Bell and Tainter in turn stole an Edison innovation: solid wax cylinders. Both firms vied for leadership in a non-existent market for office sound recording devices.

Just as lawsuits threatened to eliminate one or the other machine, investor J.H. Lippincott bought out both firms. He tried to lease the machines to businesses via a franchise system. To Edison's chagrin, the biggest customers were drug stores, who turned the phonographs into crude jukeboxes.

The D.C. area franchise, the Columbia Phonograph Company (!), began recording and selling wax cylinders containing music and recitations.

Lippincott was struck with paralysis in 1890 and his virtually moribund empire was taken over by Edison. Edison still refused to cede that the phonograph's killer app was music.

The resurgent American Graphophone Company and Columbia threw off their shackles to go it on their own; they introduced reasonably priced home graphophones. Edison followed suit, introducing cheap home units and commercially recorded cylinders.

Stefan Jones (