History of the Record Player Part I: The Early Years

The record player and, subsequently, the turntable have a long and varied history, filled with near-deaths and massive, unexpected upsurges. Conceptually, the record player has lived through many iterations - from the early phonautograph, to the turntable, and even up to the modern vinyl revival coinciding with the nostalgia boom, which comes from the resurgence in popularity of older forms of technology and media. We’re going to look at the history and development of the record player up to and beyond that Technics SL-D2 that may be gathering dust in your attic, just waiting to be taken for a spin.

In the first installment of this series, we’ll cover the record player’s conception and evolution up to the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, where its golden age truly begins. But first, let’s cover some vocabulary basics:

Often, “turntable” and “record player” are used interchangeably by consumers, but they are a little bit different. The turntable is a part of the record player, which, as its name suggests, turns the vinyl disc. This is the part where the stylus comes in contact with the groove on the record for an analog transference of sound, but it can’t actually make any truly audible sound without a phono preamp and speakers.

Record players, on the other hand, are usually defined as all-in-ones - the whole kit and caboodle. They contain amplification systems and speakers all within their cabinets. These were released to the public before lone turntables, but became less popular with audiophiles as higher-fidelity options, like turntables with external receivers and speakers, were made available. And obviously, record players wouldn’t cut it for DJs in club situations.

Turntable Beginnings

Now that we’ve got some clarification, let’s move on to why you’re here: the history lesson. The earliest version of the turntable was actually a scientific instrument, designed and crafted by Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville. What de Martinville called the phonautograph was patented in France in 1857, and is widely considered the first sound recording device. However, the phonautograph had one caveat: it couldn’t play sound back. Instead, it would inscribe airborne sound onto paper that could be studied visually.

Because of this, the phonautograph was well-known in the scientific community and used most commonly in laboratory settings. Nobody really thought to use this kind of technology for audio recording and playback. That is, until Edison created the phonograph.

The phonograph, introduced to the world in 1877 in the Scientific American, not only could record sound but replay it as well. Edison’s phonograph functioned by inscribing audio information onto a sheet of heavy tinfoil wrapped around a cardboard cylinder for later retrieval and playback. Not the greatest sounding mechanism in the world, but it was a start. In fact, Alexander Graham Bell took Edison’s design and improved upon it, using wax instead of foil to record sound waves and calling the machine the graphophone.

The real breakthrough for record players and record design came from German-American inventor Emile Berliner, who built the gramophone and patented it in 1887. This provided the blueprint for the modern record player - it read grooves off of a flat disc rather than a cylinder, which was far easier to produce and was thus more marketable. At this point, the need for records becomes obvious. Because of his creation of the gramophone, Berliner is credited with the creation of the modern record as well, which was initially made from hard rubber, and then shellac before finally being manufactured from vinyl.

Commercial Expansion of Records and Record Players

The first commercial record player was released in 1895. The consumer-friendly gramophone dominated the market thanks to firms like the Victor Talking Machine Company and their Victrolas. While the industry boomed for a short time, the invention of the radio threatened to overtake and destroy the success of record players after World War I. However, the technology that was used to create the radio streamlined the process of mass-producing records by using electronically amplified disc cutters.

After this, the consistency of record and record player production and fidelity skyrocketed through the ‘30s and ‘40s. Then came Columbia Records’ introduction of the modern 12-inch LP in the late ‘40s, which spun at 33 1/3 rpm and replaced the typically shellac-made 78s. Later on, the 7-inch 45 rpm single would make its debut. The history of records and record players progressed in tandem from this point on; as record players became ubiquitous, marketing picked up for record singles and LPs, thereby birthing Top 40 radio. Yes, you have record players to (indirectly) thank for Top 40 and commercial radio.

All of these changes took place right at the advent of stereo and high fidelity recording. The ability to reproduce a stereo recording on disc came into being in the late ‘50s, allowing record companies to mass-produce records in stereo. Finally, this boosted the sales of record players and shot the industry up into its golden age.

Many different subjects come into play in the history of the record player, leaving their own singular mark. Science and laboratories, rival inventors, radio technology, Top 40 radio - each plays a unique part. In our next installment, we’ll talk more about the development of higher fidelity turntables, DJs and turntablism, and how the invention of CDs caused the downfall and near-destruction of the record player. Tune in next week for the History of the Record Player Part II: The Golden Age.

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