Héctor Lorenzo Lucci

Phonograph vs gramophone

he American Thomas A. Edison was the man who made and patented for the first time a means for recording sound and later playing it back at will. He called it phonograph.

It was from that year, 1877, when other people, such as engineers, artists, merchants, scientists, singers, workers and money lenders, under the enthusiasm generated by that almost magic invention of the century, joined this enterprise to help. They were the first to give an impulse to these talking machines. During thirteen years since the birth of the phonograph, three types of material were used for recording and playing sound, which were tried, besides Edison himself, by hundreds of American, British, French and Italian researchers.

The tin foil was the first, later a paraffin-coated cardboard tube followed, and in 1890 the wax-cylinder, would be the happy responsible for starting commercial phonographic diffusion. During those years hundreds of opinions related with the invention, the perfection, modifications, commercialization and, even the concessions granted by Edison himself, were put forward.

While all this was happening, a German citizen named Emile Berliner, settled in the city of Washington, filed and patented in 1888 a talking machine which also recorded and played back sound. But instead of using a cylinder, it had a flat recording disc and a stylus which cut a spiral groove from side to side (lateral cut recording),while in the cylinder, the stylus moved up and down in vertical cut recording (hill-and-dale). This talking machine was called gramophone by Berliner.

The advantages of this invention were evident in comparison with those of the phonograph and its cylinder. While with only one take, the gramophone managed to press thousands of copies from a sole matrix, the phonograph instead needed, for example, to make 500 cylinders, to perform 25 times the same task and directly and simultaneously record them in 20 phonographs. Undoubtedly, it was clear that the young record will soon be in favor, because of the lower production cost, of both elements: talking machine with much simpler mechanism and record of less complicated production, but as it was and will be at any time, Berliner's invention had to face more difficulties, similar circumstances to those of its challenger, the cylinder.

The early commercial discs produced by the small Berliner Gramophone company were made of ebonite (hardened rubber), a material he named vulcanite. Their diameters were of 5 inches (experimental size), recorded in 1894 and issued for bargain sale on an early stock list in November that year, where 7-inch discs(standard size) were also included. The vulcanite discs did not achieve producing the sound reached by wax-cylinders, and this caused that, even though cheaper, they did not become quickly of commercial significance.

It was in a factory of buttons for clothes where an attempt to press some discs with the material used for that article was made and the result was optimal. The basis of the formula of this material was nitrocellulose lacquer or shellac, a product used until the final days for 78 r.p.m. discs.

The year 1901 began a definitive stage for universal phonography,when through patent-pool agreements the three main companies, decided to join their rights for commercial use. Such firms were in North America: Edison National Phonograph, Victor Talking Machine Company and Columbia Phonograph Company.

In May 1902 were for sale in Europe, the first 10 Gramophone records with recorded numbers by Enrico Caruso in the city of Milan and they were of a diameter of 10 inches (25 cm), only one face and on its label, the first logotype registered by that company, the «Angel». These ten discs were worldly responsible for encouraging many singers and artists to record their voices, because they had been reluctant until then to put their voices into a solid object to make them everlasting.

Columbia corporation decided to increase the manufacturing of machines and discs, and a few years later totally abandoned making cylinders and their devices whose name was The Graphophone, modifying it for disc machines as The Disc Graphophone.

In France, the Pathe brothers did the same, stopping in 1905 cylinder manufacturing and starting to make discs and their devices, but still keeping the vertical cut recording method for playback with a sapphire stylus instead of a steel conical stylus. Edison loyally backed by all his collaborators in that industry, tried with all his talent and effort to show the superiority of cylinder over disc and achieved a truly admirable wonder. Around 1902, even with his wax-cylinder of 2-minute playback, he had to challenge discs which already reached 3 minutes, and in 1904, 12-inch discs (30 cm) allowed 4 minutes playback. This made that in 1908 he modified the phonograph mechanism and so he reached, always with his wax-cylinder, 4 minutes playback. But in 1912 he made his final move by offering to the world recorded music lover, his unbreakable celluloid cylinder of also 4-minute playback and with a guarantee of 3000 playbacks with an admirable sound quality. That very year he introduced a player model Opera of an excellent category but of a high price. Edison realised he no longer could compete with the gramophone and the disc, so in 1913 he put forward his Edison Diamond Disc, which was a celluloid disc for playback in an adequate device, while keeping the principle of vertical cut recording. The Edison company also continued to manufacture recorded cylinders until 1929.

Music, singing and word still keep today those pioneer methods of recording. That is why out of the «versus», none of them was defeated, because after more than a century from their births, both,phonograph and gramophone, either one or the other, with a few drops of lubricant oil and the records, by washing their «faces» with cold water and soap, are once again before us with their sound just like they did with our grandparents.