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Canadian Historical Sound Recordings


The Talking Machine

Photograph of the replica of Edison's tinfoil phonograph (CSTM; 1981.0681)

Replica of Edison's tinfoil phonograph (CSTM; 1981.0681)

In 1877, Thomas Edison invented the phonograph, the world's first sound recorder and reproducer. To make a record, the user spoke into a mouthpiece, causing variations in air pressure, or sound waves, to set a small diaphragm vibrating. Attached to the diaphragm was a stylus that indented the vibration pattern in a sheet of tinfoil wrapped around a rotating cylinder. To replay the record the user placed the stylus in the groove it had made and rotated the cylinder again. As the stylus rode over the "hills and dales" of the groove, the diaphragm vibrated as it had before, generating sound waves that approximated the original. This process of converting sound waves into a more or less permanent physical pattern that can be used to regenerate the original waves remains at the heart of all sound recording systems.

Initially, entrepreneurs sold or rented phonographs as dictating machines, but with little success. Around 1890, they discovered profits in placing coin-operated machines in bars, arcades and drug stores. Their popularity increased the demand for pre-recorded music and comedy, but it was only in 1901 that an economical method was found for making multiple copies of cylinder records. To feed the emerging market, manufacturers introduced cheaper models that were affordable to many middle-class households. Unlike their earlier electrically driven machines, these were run by spring motors wound up by hand.

Photograph of the Edison's first SPRING MOTOR model, 1896-1901 (Peter Lindell/CSTM; 1976.0147)

Edison's first "Spring Motor" model, 1896-1901 (Peter Lindell/CSTM; 1976.0147)

The Edison Opera A was the high point in the evolution of cylinder players. Combined with the new, hard celluloid Blue Amberol records, it offered the best recorded sound quality of the years before the First World War. Nevertheless, consumers increasingly rejected cylinder machines in favour of disk players after the turn of the century. Edison stopped making cylinder record players in 1929 but recording on reusable wax cylinders remained common in dictating machines until the end of the Second World War.

Photograph of the Edison Opera A phonograph, 1911-1913 (CSTM; 1976.0129)

Edison Opera A phonograph, 1911-1913: the highest fidelity of its time (CSTM; 1976.0129)

The cylinder phonograph invented by Edison owed its eventual demise to a crude device patented by Emile Berliner in 1887. Berliner recorded sound on a wax disk rather than a cylinder. And instead of the stylus making a groove that varied in depth, the stylus moved laterally, zigzagging with changes in the sound wave. This was an important development because it allowed Berliner to make many cheap copies from a wax "master" by electroplating a metal "stamper" and then imprinting the grooves in a softer material. Initially Berliner used rubber but eventually he settled on shellac, a natural plastic that could be softened by heating but would harden when cooled. The earliest Berliner machines were turned by hand and played a tiny record (about the size of a modern CD) that played for no more than two minutes. They were little more than toys.

Photograph of Emile Berliner's early gramophone turned by hand, circa 1890 (CSTM; 1977.0123)

Emile Berliner's early gramophone was turned by hand, circa 1890 (CSTM; 1977.0123)

It was only in 1896, after Berliner had switched to shellac records and had installed spring motors in his machines, that the "gramophone" began to compete with cylinder players. After the turn of the century, disk players gradually surpassed cylinder machines in popularity. This was due to the ease of record manufacture and storage, to the louder (though rougher) sound of disk records, and to the mass appeal of popular singers and opera stars that the disk record makers recruited. In 1906, in a further marketing coup, Victor Talking Machine, which had taken over Berliner's patents in the United States, introduced the Victrola. The Victrola's horn was hidden inside the cabinet, which had been redesigned to harmonize with the decor of genteel parlours.

Photograph of the popular Victrola IX available from 1911 to 1926 (CSTM; 1970.0192)

The popular Victrola IX was available from 1911 to 1926 (CSTM; 1970.0192)

The production of records and players began in Canada in 1899, when Emile Berliner opened a subsidiary operation in Montréal. The first of Berliner's many Canadian competitors opened for business in 1907, and as the basic patents on sound recording began to expire during the 1910s, an increasing number of manufacturers entered the fray. Many of these built on established expertise in wood fabrication by importing metal components from the United States and installing them in locally-made cabinets. Weakened by the introduction of radio broadcasting in the early 1920s, the acoustic phonograph industry collapsed entirely with the onset of the Depression in 1929. Henceforth, the only acoustic record players built in Canada were portables.

A Short History of Sound Recording and Record Players