What Is the History of the Phonograph?


Quick Answer

The phonograph, invented by Thomas Edison in 1877, was intended as a recording device to complement the telephone. After working with the telegraph, another Edison invention, he noted that the messages could be written down and delivered at a later date. With the telephone, people had to actually be home to answer the phone to get the message. The phonograph would allow the message to be recorded and played back later. The first phonographs had cylinders. Later models played records.

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Full Answer

Edison's first phonograph used tin foil for the cylinder and a cutting stylus to record the sound. The sound waves caused the stylus to vibrate, recreating the sound waves. While Edison was perfecting his light bulb, other inventors started playing with the device, hoping to improve it. The tin foil wore out after a few plays, so Charles Tainter, working with the Alexander Graham Bell Company, a rival, changed the cylinder to wax and used a more flexible stylus. They called their new and improved machine the gramophone.

Edison got back in the phonograph race and by 1894 was creating his own improvements. At first he opposed using a flat disc, the precursor to the record. Instead he mass produced wax cylinders. Seeing that other inventors were leading in the flat disc direction, by 1913, Edison began producing wax records.

The design of the phonograph also changed through the years. The early, hand-crank models with the big sound horns were called victrolas. Electric models came out and people started calling them record players. That led to phonographs that could play at different speeds and could play different sized records. Stereo sound was later added to improve quality.

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