Vinyl record player history dates back to November 21, 1877 when Thomas Alva Edison
announced his invention of the first phonograph, a device for recording and replaying
sound. He demonstrated the device for the first time on November 29 (it was patented
on February 19, 1878 as US Patent 200,521).
Edison's early phonographs recorded onto a tinfoil sheet phonograph cylinder using
an up-down (vertical) motion of the stylus. The tinfoil sheet was wrapped around
a grooved cylinder, and the sound was recorded as indentations into the foil.
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Vinyl Records Still Live
Edison's early patents show that he also considered the idea that sound could be
recorded as a spiral onto a disc, but Edison concentrated his efforts on cylinders,
since the groove on the outside of a rotating cylinder provides a constant velocity
to the stylus in the groove, which Edison considered more "scientifically correct".
Edison's patent specified that the audio recording was embossed, and it was not until
1886 that vertically modulated engraved recordings using wax coated cylinders were
patented by Chichester Bell and Charles Sumner Tainter. They named their version
Emile Berliner patented his Gramophone in 1887. The Gramophone involved a system
of recording using a lateral (back and forth) movement of the stylus as it traced
a spiral onto a zinc disc coated with a compound of beeswax in a solution of benzine.
The zinc disc was immersed in a bath of chromic acid; this etched the groove into
the disc where the stylus had removed the coating, after which the recording could
be played. Berliner's lateral disc record was the ancestor of the 78 rpm, 45 rpm,
331/3 rpm, and all other analogue disc records popular for use in sound recording
through the 20th century.
Christmas 1925 brought improved radio technology and radio sales, bringing many phonograph
dealers to financial ruin. With efforts at improved audio fidelity, the big record
companies succeeded in keeping business booming through the end of the decade, but
both sales of vinyl record players and records plummeted during the Great Depression,
with many companies merging or going out of business.
Booms in record sales returned after World War II as standards changed from 78s to
vinyl long play records, which could contain an entire symphony and 45s which usually
contained one hit popularised on the radio, plus another song on the backside.
By the 1960s, inexpensive portable vinyl record players and record changers which
played stacks of records in wooden console cabinets were popular, usually with heavy
and crude tone arms. Even drug stores stocked 45 rpm records at their front counters.
Rock music played on 45s became the soundtrack to the 1960s as people bought the
same songs that were played free of charge on the radio. Some vinyl record players
were even tried in automobiles, but were quickly displaced by 8 track and cassette
High fidelity made great advances during the 1970s, as vinyl record players became
very precise instruments with belt or direct drive, jewel-balanced tonearms, some
with electronically controlled linear tracking and magnetic cartridges. Some cartridges
had frequency response above 30 KHz for use with CD-4 quadraphonic 4 channel sound.
A high fidelity component system which cost under $1000 could do a very good job
of reproducing very accurate frequency response across the human audible spectrum
from 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz with a $200 vinyl record player which would typically have
less than .05% wow and flutter and very low rumble (low frequency noise). A well
maintained record would have very little surface noise, though it was difficult to
keep records completely free from scratches, which produced popping noises. Another
characteristic failure mode was skipping a groove, causing section of music to repeat
separated by a popping noise, though less unpleasant than effects caused by defective
Records themselves became an art form because of the large surface onto which
graphics and books could be printed, and records could be moulded into unusual shapes,
colours, or with images (picture discs). The vinyl record player remained a common
element of home audio systems well after the introduction of other media such as
audio tape and even the early years of the compact disc as a lower priced music format.
However even as the cost of producing CDs fell below that of records, CDs would remain
a higher priced music format than cassettes. They were not uncommon in home audio
systems into the early 1990s.
By the turn of the 21st century, the vinyl record player had become a niche product
as the price of CD players which could accurately reproduce the full range of music
free from pops and scratches fell far lower than high fidelity tape players or turntables.
Nevertheless there is some increase in interest of vinyl record players as many big
box media stores stock fairly functional turntables as well as professional DJ equipment
stores even as all but the most expensive stereo receivers now omit the phono input.
The list price of first-run CDs remains above £10, while used records are very inexpensive,
and some are rare and sought after. Some combination systems include turntables with
a CD and radio in retro-styled cabinets, of much higher quality than the inexpensive
record players common in the 1960s. Records also continue to be manufactured and
sold today, albeit in very small quantities when compared to the disc phonograph’s