Tuesday, October 24, 2006

The Record Player

I have written about parts of the history of records many times. I covered the invention of shellac, paraffin, vinyl and all the speeds at which they spin. Today I cover the history of the record player that spun them round and round, the turntable. The device has been changed a lot by many different pairs of hands so I'll just his some highlights...

When Edison first invented audio recording, it was on a wax cylinder. (as opposed to when other engineers invented it) From the start, the recording device was also a playback device. It was hand-cranked and for all intents and purposes is was the great grandfather of all such devices that followed it. But like all things, the beta is many steps short of the production model.

It had huge design flaws, including irregular playing speed, the labor of manual cranking, and the wear that irregular torque can have on motorized parts and steel needles wore out quickly. It had no amplification, and was thus difficult to hear and the fidelity... well, it was the best there was at the time and it worked. It worked well enough that thousands of Americans were willing to turn the crank to wind it up. A battery-driven model didn't debut until 1887.

But Edison didn't patent the record player. Even though he had developed the cylinder, it was Alexander Graham Bell ( who was working on a similar model.) Bell made it to the patent office first in 1876. But at that time Edison wasn't seeing it's future too clearly. He still saw it as an office dictation machine. It wasn't until 1890 that he began to record musicians with the intent to sell pre-recorded music. But lacking a patent never slowed down Edison. He kept at it, and his name was on patents for almost every improvement to the device for the next three decades.

He added the aforementioned battery, then in 1895 Edison added a horn to amplify the signal. It was to be the only amplification until 1925 when electrical amplification as invented. The significance can't be emphasized enough. Previous to the horn, the records were essentially only listened to on headphones. More here.

The including irregular playing speed plagued the device until Emile Berliner worked on improving the playback machine with Elridge Johnson. Elridge Johnson patented a spring motor for the Berliner gramophone. The motor made the turntable revolve at an even speed and there was no more hand cranking. The spring was wound and then the record played. More here

It was this version that played records for us on the earliest experimental radio stations. But thank goodness it wasn't the one we were stuck with. Models continued to improve.  In my radio days, I used an old 3-speed direct drive GE model. But at the end the Technics 1200 had replaced it as that third speed (78 rpm) became totally unnecessary.