In today’s world of easily accessible music, the average avid listener has a computer folder with a copious number of mp3s, enough to make Jack Sparrow blush – well, alright, enough to make music labels go bankrupt. While this isn’t a lecture on the pitfalls of downloading music illegally, it’s only to put things in perspective before asking: Where would today’s digital world of music be without the gramophone?
“What’s that”, you ask?
You know…that contraption with the huge horn sticking out, on which you put round discs and listen to scratchy music? You’ve seen it in dusty antique stores or in granny’s photos. If that doesn’t ring any bells, at least this should sound familiar – the Grammy award represents a gramophone.
The invention of the phonograph or it’s phonetically reversed transatlantic counter-nom – the gramophone, is primarily the brainchild of none other than Thomas Edison, the inventor of the telegraph and a major contributor to Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone. That also explains the origin of the name itself – Phono-graph. Get it? Anyhoo…while tinkering Tom was playing around with the two tele-s in 1877, he came up with a way to record his voice on a cylinder covered in tinfoil. He also figured a way to play his recordings back. “Mary had a little lamb”, were the first words ever recorded. Guess he didn’t know any “One small step for Man” speeches back then.
So he was a genius, but a smart one at that. Wasting little time, good ol’ Thomas established a company to sell his new contribution to science. He envisioned that someday this invention would be used to help blind people in the form of audio books and to record telephonic conversations amongst other things. Didn’t I just say he was a genius? But he was a bit like every ‘brilliant scientist’ stereotype – he got bored of his new toy quickly and abandoned it to move on to ‘brighter’ things – his next creation was the light bulb.
A decade later, Edison would return to the phonograph, which had undergone quite a few changes by then, thanks to Charles Sumner Tainter, an assistant of Alexander Graham Bell. Charlie’s modifications would gradually lead to the Dictaphone. But both these pioneers weren’t alone in their efforts to create a lean, mean, sound machine.
A German citizen in Washington called Emile Berliner came up with a musical contraption of his own. Edison, the shrewd fella, was not one to share his blueprints, so Berliner did him one better. He came up with the gramophone, which differentiated from the phonograph in that it used a flat recording disc instead of a cylinder. The most obvious advantage of the disc was that it could be easily reproduced.
Berliner played around with various materials for the discs. Earlier versions were made of vulcanite, which is basically hardened rubber. The audio quality of these ‘rubber’ discs was far from decent, but that changed…in a button factory of all places. One of the materials used for making buttons was ‘lacquer’, which proved to be a pretty good alternative. The rest, as the saying goes, is etched in history.
This lacquer material, also known as shellac, was pretty much the material used to make discs till the last days of the 78 r.p.m. Gradually records would give way to the audio cassette and eventually CDs/ DVDs leading to the digital phase we’re so familiar with today.
It’s undeniable that the gramophone or phonograph was the grandfather of music recording and reproduction. And the course of music’s history could have easily changed tracks. Just imagine – if Berliner hadn’t created flat discs, we wouldn’t have CDs or DVDs today. Think of carrying little cylinders around with music on them, maybe wearing them on your fingers, which would be kinda cool; you’d have music on your fingertips! But today’s music IS available at a touch or rather ‘click’ away. So the next time you switch on your mp3 player and tune in to crystal clear music at 128 kbps, remember there was a time when a ‘scratch’ and a ‘hiss’ was music to your ears.