Revolutions in sound recording
Revolutions in sound recording

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Revolutions in sound recording

2.3 Berliner experiments with plates

Emile Berliner was a young German immigrant to the USA with an interest in science. Whilst working in several menial jobs he educated himself in basic physics and chemistry, eventually building a small laboratory at his boarding house. Experiments with electricity and acoustics led to his invention of a new telephone transmitter, which he sold, enabling him to set up as a full-time inventor. He became interested in recording sound through studying a device called the phonoautograph. This apparatus inscribed sound vibrations as a lateral trace onto lamp-blacked paper using a diaphragm and stylus. Berliner thought that this lateral motion could offer superior recording quality to Edison's vertical method (see Section 2.4). He also decided to use a disc, which he called a plate, rather than a cylinder as the recording medium. The plate was placed onto a turntable over a central spindle that fitted into a hole in the middle of the plate. The turntable was then rotated at a fixed speed. This overall design was sufficiently different from the phonograph to allow it to be patented in 1887 using the name gramophone.

Note: In the USA, phonograph is the generic name given to all record-playing equipment. In the UK gramophone is more generally used, although phonograph may be used when referring to cylinder players.

Berliner made his plates from a tough rubber-based compound called vulcanite, allowing the groove to be sufficiently deep to ensure the soundbox was guided by the groove, eliminating the need for the phonograph's complex feed-screw mechanism. The deep groove also allowed cheap, replaceable steel needles to be used in place of the delicate jewel stylus found in the cylinder machines. This made the gramophone, illustrated in Figure 8, cheaper to manufacture than the competition. In 1894 Berliner's United States Gramophone Company released their first single-sided (which means the sound was recorded on just one side) 7-inch (18-cm) diameter disc.

The Royal Scottish Museum, Edinburgh ©
The Royal Scottish Museum, Edinburgh
Figure 8: The Berliner ‘Seven Inch’ hand-cranked gramophone

An important point to note is that unlike its rivals, the gramophone had no means of recording sounds – it was designed from the outset only to play back pre-recorded sounds. This demonstrated a high degree of faith by Berliner that people would be happy just to listen to sounds (and music in particular) in their own homes.


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