Ask anyone under the age of 30 if they have ever heard records being played from a record player and you might get a blank stare. Okay, you might want to give them the benefit of the doubt, and use names such as “turntables”, “record changers” or “decks”, but the reaction will probably be the same. So, what about these so-called “record players”?
Well, record players, and by the way, they used to be called gramophones or phonographs, were first invented in the 1870s. Not surprisingly, the inventor of the machine was none other than Thomas Edison. The same man from Menlo Park, California who invented the light bulb as we know it, invented the phonograph. Americans of all ages don’t really know how thankful they should be to him. Edison invented it in 1877, in which he learned heavily on research done more than twenty years earlier by Edouard Leon Scott de Martinville. Soon after Edison’s invention, none other than Alexander Graham Bell improved on the phonograph. Yes, that same Alexander Graham Bell who invented the telephone. These inventors sure have a way of spreading the wealth around!
By the late 19th century, the phonograph, or gramophone, had become widely accepted across the country, and improvements on the machine were common. This invention would change how sound and music were perceived. In the past music had to be heard at a live performance, and obviously, was not easily accessible. With the new device, a record player, a person could listen to his favorite music wherever and whenever he wanted. A real beneficiary of the record player was the producer of the music, as well as everyone else involved in its production.
The word itself “phonograph” was first used, but various names have been used through the years since the Edison days. For the record, so to speak, Edison record onto a tinfoil sheet wrapped around a cylinder through an up-down motion of the stylus. In 1889, however, Emile Berliner developed a disc coated with a compound of beeswax and benzine to record sound through a spiral motion of the stylus. That design worked better.
By the end of the 19th century almost all major American cities had “phonograph parlors”, where a person could listen to music from a machine similar to a modern day jukebox. In 1890 a process was invented to make duplicate, mass-produced copies of a phonograph record, which allowed the “phonograph parlors” to thrive.
However, it was in 1940 that vinyl was introduced as the recording material, allowing for more room for recording. For example, a long play vinyl record could contain an entire symphony. By the 1960s almost all American households had record players.
The record player was used widely until the 1980s when the eight-track player, and the less expensive cassette player were introduced. The record player was on its way out. Soon, the adoption of CDs as a way to record music was developed, which was a further blow to the record player.
However, record players are still used today despite the popularity of digital music. To some, record players offer greater fidelity and sound quality.
Of course, to collectors, record players have never gone away.
Just a few examples to prove that point. In a 2008 Heritage Auction, a vintage Victor photograph, owned by the gospel singer J.D. Sumner, dated 1902, sold for nearly $900.
An Elvis Presley “Autograph Model” Portable Manual Record Player from 1956 was sold at auction for $1625.
However, in July 2012 a vintage Beatles record player from 1964, one of only 5000 produced went for $4000. This Beatles phonograph was in working order, and has a picture of the group on the top and inside lid. It is indeed a rarity today and a real nice addition to any Beatles collection.
Even though, record players are not in many households today, but they have served an important role in American history.