The first machine able to record sound was the phonautograph, devised by a Frenchman, Leon Scott de Martinville, in 1855. The device recorded sounds on smoke-blackened paper wrapped around a cylinder. Unfortunately, there was no way to replay the sound.
The phonograph, invented by Thomas Edison in 1877, recorded sound on cardboard cylinders covered in tinfoil. When the mouthpiece used to create the recorded was replaced by “reproducer” with a sensitive diaphragm the sound could be played back.
Sound was amplified by a horn up to two metres long – the longer the horn, the better the sound.
In 1887, Chichester Bell (a cousin of the inventor of the telephone) and Charles Tainter developed an improved version of Edison’s phonograph which used wax cylinders rather than Edison’s tinfoil ones. Bell and Tainter founded the Columbia Phonograph Company.
Edison’s cylinders, whether wax or tinfoil, could not be mass-produced and, so, were soon superseded by the flat, waxed zinc discs developed by Emil Berliner for his 1893 gramophone. Many copies could be made from a master disc and they gave a much clearer sound. Both of these were, in turn, superseded by shellac records, developed by Berliner’s company, from 1896. (One novel innovation in the 1890s was records made of chocolate, which could be eaten when they wore out.)
Most early models were housed in wooden cabinets designed as pieces of furniture.
Early gramophones were hand-cranked with a clockwork mechanism regulating the speed of the turntable.
Technological developments during the First World War made electronic recording, amplifiers and broadcast radio possible. The electric gramophone was developed in the 1920s, about the same time as radio became popular. This led to the development of the radiogram which combined both a radio and record player in the one cabinet
The Great Depression severely damaged the recording and gramophone industries as people were unwilling to spend money on recordings when they could listen to radio for free. Record players without radios were quite rare through the 1930s but became standard after the Second World War.
It was not until prosperity returned after the War that interest in recordings was revived by new formats capable of longer and higher quality reproduction. 33rpm and 45rpm vinyl records were introduced in 1949 and production of shellac 78rpm records ceased in the 1960s. Stereo records were introduced in 1958.
By the 1950s, most record players were portables, designed for table-top operation.