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Welcome to Fred's Antique 

Phonograph Page.

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It is in five sections, showcasing the phonographs I have been accumulating over the past few years, plus over two hundred and fifty high quality downloadable recordings of Edison records and cylinders. (Don't worry, it's all legal. These guys haven't been in business since great Granddad was a baby) Most of the material is on the Edison Diamond Disk Phonograph which is my personal favorite, although nearly equal time is given to my others. 

 

Why I find them fascinating.

Anyone who knows me knows I love the past and probably spend way too much time wishing I were living somewhere other than now. The phonograph is for me a device that supplies more of an emotional link than a picture or history book can in that it captures the feel of the times, or at least what I feel it to be. (Of course, had I lived through the Great Depression or World War II and experienced how badly they sucked, I would probably be thankful for here and now.) The sounds of people long dead now, singing or playing their instruments come back in a small way and communicate more than mere words; they speak from a time before rampant crime, terrorism, and nuclear insecurity haunted everyone. They lived in a simpler more innocent world and it thus has a comforting sound.  The phonographs have a beauty and artful appearance of their own that no modern sound system can possibly match.

Owning an antique wind up phonograph is trés chic in many ways. It proves to be quite a conversation piece when friends come over. Amazingly most people have no idea that for the first fifty years of sound recording, everything was completely mechanical, and they are quite taken by the uniqueness and beauty of those glorious antiques that give an auditory window to the past. Even some who have navigated to this page may not own or have experienced one. To those I give an opportunity to experience the sights and sounds and even technical details to enable one to enjoy them in as close a way as possible to the real thing; an experience that only an owner of a wind up phonograph can have. In fact here is a link to a record [Edison record "That Old Gang of Mine" - Hare and Jones August 1923] that has reached the end of the phonograph's spring tension and is winding down. I know of no other site that has this frivolous addition.

 

A brief history of the phonograph:

We must begin with the Phonautograph. For 20 years starting in 1857 it was possible to record sound, and in fact many sounds were recorded using this device that could write sound by using a pig's hair to "write" vibrations on paper. It was considered a scientific instrument for the study of acoustics and hoped that it might be possible to interpret the little squiggles it made on smoked paper and use it as a kind of short hand. Alexander Graham Bell actually used the tiny bones and diaphragm removed from the ear of a dead man to do this "writing", reasoning that sound could only be true if through an actual ear. The Phonautograph was not designed to reproduce the sounds it recorded. In recent years some of the few remaining "recordings" have been collected, and using computers have translated these into sounds, with some spectacular results. 

The Phonograph did not originate from the Phonautograph, however. Surprisingly, it actually started with the telegraph. The telegraph was first demonstrated in the mid 1830's, but real use of it did not start until about ten years later. Use of this marvel of technology steadily picked up in the 1850's and 60's. Before long there was too much traffic over the "bandwidth" of the existing telegraphic infrastructure. Some of the great minds of the day turned to the task of squeezing as much out of it as possible to make it more efficient. Two interesting approaches were by the fledgling Thomas Edison and somewhat obscure Alexander Graham Bell. Bell worked on the "Harmonic Telegraph" which would have the telegraph sound at different frequencies, presuming that the human ear would be able to separate the different tones so many messages could be sent simultaneously. Edison however thought that a key punch system on a revolving paper disk could be recorded at leisure and then transmitted at a super fast rate to a mechanism that would punch the identical pattern on the other end. (A kind of early software compression I guess). Then Bell developed the telephone, which made the telegraph seem a little outdated. Edison had also been toying with the idea, but Bell beat him to it. The two would never get along after that. Edison then had an idea about how to apply his theories of recording the dots and dashes into a paper disk. Perhaps, instead of Morse code, why not sound? Tin foil is more pliable than paper and the shape of a cylinder would give a constantly moving surface area, unlike the natural slowing of the diminishing area of a disk spinning in toward the center. This led to his recording sound on a tin foil cylinder.

So in 1877, Thomas Edison did it. It worked the very first time!! At it's debut, it made quite a media splash as thousands clamored to hear this new fangled "talking machine". But the hoopla soon died down and few businesses saw a need for it. It may surprise many to know that ultimately his intention was to build a dictating machine for businesses. The idea of it being an entertainment device, while speculated, did not seem plausible to Mr. Edison. Edison ultimately decided it was a failure. On top of this, his corporate spies were informing him that Alexander Graham Bell was now working on the electric light. Edison turned his attention away from the phonograph to pursue this, which as we all know he accomplished.

Ironically, Bell and his cousin Chicester and their friend Charles Tainter soon turned to the phonograph, now being neglected by Edison. They made substantial improvements and offered to go in with Edison, but he refused them with great rudeness. At this point the story becomes a little tangled as the group headed by Bell went on to make a commercial success of it, forcing Edison to return to phonograph development to make up for lost time. The problem was now both sides had important patents the other needed to function. Eventually both sides worked out deals that allowed common use of all their ideas. The two phonograph powers then set about monopolizing the invention to keep anyone else out. 

Meanwhile, a German named Emile Berliner decided he wanted a piece of the action. He realized he needed to find a way to get around Edison's and Bell's patents, and soon found a solution. Edison's recording method used a vertically moving stylus on a cylinder. Berliner came up with the lateral or side to side groove method and the disk record, which Edison did not have a patent for in the US. Also a disk was very easy to copy using Berliners method. Berliner soon made quite a success of it even though his records were inferior in sound quality and very noisy. Unfortunately through various crooked legal entanglements, the explanation of which would make this too long, Berliner lost his sole usage of this process to a former employee of his and as a result various phonograph companies began to spring up and started making money! 

Then arose a man named Eldridge Johnson who had worked for Berliner and fought for the legal right to use the lateral recording on disk method. Eventually Johnson won and bought out the aging Berliner. He started a new company which he named Victor to celebrate his court victory.

As Victor grew the stage was set for the clash of the Titans, Edison verses Victor, and ultimately neither were still in the field of battle when the smoke cleared. Edison had the best sounding equipment, but he made the fatal mistake of personally deciding what music the company offered, usually according to his own taste; a poor decision for an aging geek who was almost deaf and clearly never hip. Johnson at Victor however would record whatever people would buy and had no problem with paying for famous talent, which Edison hated to do. Only room for one celebrity at Edison! Johnson was a far better showman than Edison or Bell or anyone else in this new industry. As a result Victor soon gained market dominance in spite of inferior sounding technology. Still Edison had a large slice of the pie in spite of himself for years.

In 1908 in response to customer complaints that the phonograph's protruding horn was unsightly, Johnson "borrowed" (ala Steve Jobs with Xerox) the idea of a furniture maker who made the horn a part of the cabinet but didn't patent it. This Johnson called the Victrola. Technologically it was a step backward in sound quality, but it was attractive and soon sold like hotcakes. "It is better to look mahhhvelous than to sound good!" Edison the eternal technogeek, however feeling high quality sound was more important than appearance, stubbornly refused to consider making his own internal horn machine, and he refused to give up the cylinder record. (He continued to sell them until July 1929 a few months before his decaying phonograph empire folded, twenty years after everyone else had given them up.) He was correct in reasoning that the constant speed that the cylinder provides versus the declining area of a disk as the needle neared the end of the record made for better sound. Disks are of course easier to use and store and people preferred them in spite of their technological disadvantage. Victor and the public enjoyed the fact they were very cheap to make.

The Victrola took the world by storm. Sales quickly began to drop off for Edison's external horn cylinder machines even in spite of the introduction of the beautiful Cygnet horn. Edison's own employees began working on an internal horn disk machine in secret lest Edison find out. When he did, much to everyone's surprise he threw his support behind the project. By now even he could see the hand writing on the wall. In 1912 Edison's own internal horn disk playing machine arrived on the market: the Edison Diamond Disk Phonograph. This proved to be one of his best decisions. The Edison disk phonograph soon greatly improved sound quality and with it Edison had his greatest and last phonograph success. Sales took off although Edison continued to dictate the musical taste of his customers. It was so good however in sound quality that Edison could pack large concert halls and have performers stand next to an Edison Diamond Disk Machine on a dark stage while the audience tried to guess if it was live or it was an Edison. It is a well documented fact that most people could not tell the difference! These were the famous tone tests. Here is an ad for one of them. All went well for both companies even during the "World War" when money was tight. With the end of the war and the first few years of the roaring 20's, massive profits filled the coffers of all record companies, but DOOM was already on the horizon, and it was:

           

It began to sweep the world and the phonograph could not compete with live free programming. Electrical recording brought major gains in sound quality in the middle of the 1920, but it was already too late to save the ship. Victor turned to electronic recording with it's line of Orthophonic Victrolas in the mid twenties, but Edison did not start until June 30 1927. For Victor the use of electronic recording was a quantum leap of sound quality, but Edison was already of such high quality sound that many of his acoustic recordings were as good or better than early electronic Victor records. Thus Thomas Edison could not see the need to switch from acoustic (playing into a recording horn using no electricity) to electronic recording. Plus the nearly deaf Edison turned up Victor's phonograph until he could hear it and of course at that level the sound was distorted.  In all fairness to Edison it must be admitted that electronic recording generally was in it's infancy and needed improvement. But by the mid 1920's the handwriting was on the wall anyway; the entire phonograph industry was loosing money by the barrel, and in October 1929 the last Edison Diamond Disk left the presses. Edison had already greatly curtailed the manufacture of the Diamond Disk phonograph itself in 1927 offering only a few lame looking models by then! Victor and all the rest also went under or were bought out by radio companies at bargain basement prices. Radio Corporation of America, RCA, bought Victor in 1929 and it became RCA Victor. The radio company that had destroyed Victor and Edison resurrected Victor, but the death of Edison's Diamond Disk was irreversible. Whereas Victors entire business was phonographs, Edison had numerous other businesses incorporated in his empire, and even turned to radio himself and he had no real need to sell off the Diamond Disk technology (If it had been possible) to survive financially. It is a pity, since it was the best. 

Ultimately the reason for the relative success of Victor and the failure of Edison lay in the fact that Victor saw itself as an entertainment company, and sought out the best artists, whereas Edison saw itself as a technology company.

 

A Brief History Of Electronic Recording

 

This requires a brief paragraph of what electronics and it's history actually is. It beings with, you guessed it, Thomas Edison. His only true scientific discovery (He was an inventor, not a scientist exactly) was the "Edison effect". While working on a practical means of supplying electricity to the masses he decided the best way was by direct current or DC. (It is much safer and simpler, but requires huge wires which is why it failed.) Generators make electricity naturally by spinning a coil around fixed magnets which has as its end product alternating current or AC. He needed a way to convert from AC to DC. He discovered that electricity would flow from a hot plate to a cold one, but not the other way, thus producing DC. This was the Edison Effect. Later in 1908 Lee Deforest, who worked for Bell Labs, was trying to find a way to amplify telephone signals. Back then a telephone signal decayed with distance and could only be coherent from about New York to St. Louis, and even then it was mostly noise. The telegraph however had no such limitation. Lee Deforest theorized and then proved that the addition of a section of fine steel screen wire between the hot and cold plates could control the flow of voltage. A tiny change in voltage in the screen (called a grid) could leverage a flow many time greater than the original signal. Electric signal amplification, and with it the science of electronics was born.

The Brunswick corporation was the first to attempt electronic recording in 1921, with decidedly bad results. The microphones used actually had a horn attached to gather sound! The result was a record that had an extended dynamic range which no one could hear on acoustic playback equipment, and they had the same horn distortion as an acoustic recording. The recording level was usually overblown adding to the problem. These early recordings impressed no one at the time and led to some bad press about the entire process which probably influenced Edison himself. Microphone technology soon improved somewhat by gaining sensitivity and loosing that stupid gathering horn and began to show some real potential, although they would continue to be the weak link for many decades. Victor after a few years decided to completely embrace the technology and bet it's future on it with a new line of records and phonographs called Orthophonic. The biggest and best Victrola record players were now made with aluminum diaphragm reproducers (able to handle the increased dynamic range) and massive built in horns to try to get some bass from acoustic playback equipment. Victor and the others except Edison soon began offering electronic record players. As a historical note, Brunswick was the first company to come out with the all electronic record player to play their electronic records in early 1925 called the Brunswick Panatrope.  Edison never did allow the creation and marketing of an electronic Diamond Disk record player. The Edison corporation did however produce a radio/record player named the C-2 in late 1929 as a part of the Edison Radio division which had a clever reproducer that would change from steel needle lateral to diamond disk vertical. Unfortunately this was released in the midst of the 1929 panic that began the depression and it failed miserably. Amazingly it was sold WITHOUT the vacuum tubes it needed to run. Only four or five are known to exist today. One recently appeared on ebay and went for nearly $5000 which I think was less than it was worth. At that price however, you can be assured it is not in my living room!

Here is an amusing and surprisingly technical explanation of the reason behind the electronic recording process in the early 1920s from a Brunswick record sleeve that surely sounded convincing to a non-tech public. Unfortunately it really stretched the truth. No 78RPM record ever had this much frequency range, not even the two extremely rare and unusually great sounding New Orthophonic 78s from the late 1950's I recently came across! If they had they could have rivaled CDs! One thing to note is that it show the highest recording frequency as being 2000hz and yet the highest reproduced frequency as being 4000hz! 

    The Edison Connection

At first Edison refused to put money into research for electronic recording. Why, when this was the wave of the future and he himself had actually paved the way for the entire science of electronics by the Edison effect. There were probably several big reasons. 1) Many thought it was just a gimmick  and would NOT be the wave of the future. Edison was the main advocate of this idea. (Same mistake was being made at the time about "Talkies" 2) Edison's records were already better than Victors early Orthophonic electronic recordings and he could not hear the advantage. (Since he was nearly deaf he would turn up the volume to the point that distortion would occur). 3) It might have been to him an admission that for the last fifty years he had been poring money into a now obsolete method. 4) Edison's record branch was already loosing money, so if you are as big a tightwad as he was, it seemed pointless, especially after the recent expensive failure of long playing records. At any rate, he finally relented and allowed the development of electronic recording in mid-1927, the first Edison electronic recording being made June 30 of that year. This also coincides with a marked shifting of interest in the phonograph as he let other people actually decide what was being recorded. Unfortunately this came too late to make any real difference. These electronic recordings begin with serial number 52089 and some are unquestionably the best recordings made up to that time period. On the other hand, and this is my own opinion and I am sure many will disagree, that with the exception of two, the electronically recorded Edison records I own have a distorted raspy sound. (The two electronic Edison's that are the exceptions are so good they sound like early high fidelity.) Almost all of the late Edison acoustic recordings and even some earlier, to my ear, have a purity of sound and a "presence" that his electronic recordings in general lack. In that one respect for his technology The Old Man was right, but the future was not his. One can only imagine how great the Edison process fully developed for the electronic age might have sounded in the 30's and 40's.