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A Brief History of the Antique Phonograph:
A primer, a reference and just enough to make you knowledgeable!

At a joint presentation with Keith Wright, CAPS ex-president and indefatigable CAPS ambassador, Mike Bryan, shares and expands some of his 'Phono 101' .
(Image courtesy Keith Wright)

I’ve always felt that I don’t know much about phonographs, or perhaps what I really mean is that I don’t know as much as some other collectors. No doubt, others think the same way too, because knowledge is a relative term. This becomes evident when I’m making a presentation or displaying phonographs in a public setting, where my little bit of knowledge sounds positively encyclopedic to someone who has never even seen a 78 spinning on a turntable before – oh yes, there is at least one whole generation of those people. It’s on such occasions that I realize my retained knowledge has accumulated over the years from agreeing to write articles and make presentations. The preparation for these forces me to gather and check information from various sources and to ensure that I understand it well enough to articulate it in my own words…and sometimes with my own views.

There are many facets to the subject of antique talking machines and recorded sound, but when promoting our hobby to the public through articles, displays and presentations, it’s often best to stick to the basics and just tell the story of the development of the phonograph and recorded sound. I thought it might be helpful as a primer for new members and as a reference for others, to provide a kind of potted history here in Antique Phonograph News. The history can be told in many different ways and on one page or hundreds. What follows is a simple outline of the story as I have managed to understand it and tell it to anyone who asks me about my phonograph collecting hobby. OK, I don’t tell the whole of even this potted version in one conversation, but this is the knowledge from which I draw.

A Sure Way to Make You Smile – Play a Record on an Antique Phonograph

One of the easiest ways to make someone smile is to play an old record for them on an antique windup phonograph. They watch and listen in almost speechless awe as the strange machine brings back to life the music and sounds of a distant time and place. They look closer, wondering how the music can possibly get from that old black spinning record to the horn and how it can fill the room with sound.

Well, just over a hundred years ago, many others were equally fascinated by that same "talking machine" as they saw it for the first time. From the beginning of time until 1877, the only way to listen to music was to be there in front of the band, musician or singer. There was no way to capture their sound so that it could be heard again at a different place or time.

Origins of the Big Three Phonograph Companies that Changed the World

1. Edison Invents the Phonograph 1877

A young Thomas Edison with his Phonograph

That all changed when the great inventor, Thomas Alva Edison, found a way to incise the vibrations caused by sound onto a piece of tin foil wrapped around a cylinder. As he rotated the cylinder, he spoke into a mouthpiece joined to a diaphragm and stylus. The sound of his voice made the diaphragm vibrate and caused the attached stylus to inscribe a track in the tin foil. Then he rotated the cylinder again, with the stylus naturally following the inscribed track that had been made by his voice vibrations. Lo and behold, he heard his voice play back the less than profound statement he had made for such an historic moment… "Mary had a little lamb." Edison called his invention the "phonograph".

Having made this great technological achievement, Edison suggested a few potential uses for his invention, such as businessmen dictating correspondence, announcements by a talking clock, books for the blind, recording family voices for posterity and yes, even the reproduction of music. However, there seemed to be a lack of focus in developing the tinfoil phonograph into a commercially viable product to meet a specific want or need. After all, Edison’s invention had been made as a side project to the work he had been doing on telephone transmitters and he had not set out with a vision for the purpose of recorded sound, just the will to achieve it.

Also, there was a major drawback in using tin foil as the recording medium, because the sound quality was poor and a recording in tin foil could be played only once or twice before it became perforated and unusable. Nevertheless, during 1878/9, tinfoil phonographs were made in small numbers for demonstration purposes, but the initial excitement soon wore off and Edison turned his focus to other inventive projects, particularly development of the incandescent light bulb.

2. The Columbia Phonograph Company

Columbia cylinder Graphophone
(Image courtesy Arthur Zimmerman)

Alexander Graham Bell, an inventor and associate of Edison, was keen to develop the phonograph further. Bell shared the same New York City office building as Edison and some of the same investors, too. After inventing the telephone in 1876, Bell was somewhat jealous that it had been Edison, and not he, who had made the breakthrough in recording and playing back sound. Edison had been equally peeved that Bell had beaten him to the invention of the telephone and that’s why he had been working on improving the telephone transmitter. It is ironic that it was this project that prompted Edison’s brainwave leading to the invention of the phonograph.

Bell’s opportunity to improve on Edison’s invention came in 1880 when he was awarded a prize by the government of France for his invention of the telephone. He used the prize money to fund a laboratory for research on sound technology, hiring his cousin, Chichester Bell and Charles Sumner Tainter, to do the work. They experimented to find a more permanent recording medium than tin foil and came up with a cardboard cylinder coated with wax, into which the vibrating needle was able to cut a groove that could be retraced by the needle for repeated playback. Bell and Tainter also designed phonographs adapted to play the small diameter of their cylinders and, in order to distinguish them from Edison’s machines, they named theirs the "Graphophone". Their company name was The American Graphophone Company, but later, after merging with its American sales agent, it became the Columbia Phonograph Company.

Turning down an offer to collaborate with Bell on joint development, Thomas Edison renewed his phonograph activities in the mid 1880s, developing a more durable all-wax cylinder and experimenting with different ways to power the phonograph by battery, treadle and even water. The eventual winning mechanism, though, was the spring motor which would be used by Edison and his competitors to drive their phonographs for many years to come.

3. Berliner’s Gram-o-Phone and the Victor Talking Machine Company

Emile Berliner with Disc Gramophone

During the 1880s, Emile Berliner, another inventor who worked on telephone transmitters, began experimenting with sound recording techniques. He followed the same basic principles as Edison, but used a flat disc instead of a cylinder. Edison had thought of, but rejected, disc records because of their inner groove distortion. The machine that Berliner designed to play his flat records he named the "Gram-o-Phone". By the way, in North America today collectors tend to use the term "phonograph" for all "talking machines", but in Europe the term "phonograph" is applied to cylinder-playing machines, while disc-playing machines are referred to as "gramophones", as per the original designations.

Berliner produced his first commercially-available gramophone as a toy in Germany. Soon he introduced new models in the USA, but turning a disc by hand with a crank created uneven playback. Berliner realised that his gramophones would be no more than novelty items unless he could power them with spring motors like Edison and Bell/Tainter machines. So he teamed up with New Jersey machine shop owner, Eldridge Johnson, whose company began providing motors for Berliner’s first spring-driven gramophones in 1896.

The following year, Berliner introduced the "Improved Gram-o-Phone" that is known today as the "Trademark" model, because of its appearance in what was to become one of the world’s most recognised trademarks. In the trademark, Nipper the dog is seen listening to his master’s voice speaking from the gramophone’s horn.

By 1900, Emile Berliner’s business was well established, but the company that marketed his gramophones became unhappy with the business arrangement and commenced legal action that led to Berliner being prohibited from making or selling his machines and records in the USA. So he headed north and set up shop on St. Catherine Street in Montreal and it wasn’t long before he established factories around the city to manufacture his Berliner gramophones and records.

As a result of the injunction against Berliner, Eldridge Johnson, who had been manufacturing Berliner’s machines, now had to establish a new company so that he could continue making and selling them. As the dust settled in 1901 after all the legal wrangling, Johnson renamed his new company "The Victor Talking Machine Company".

Berliner remained a shareholder in The Victor Talking Machine Company and maintained close ties with it. By about 1910, Berliner ceased making gramophones in Canada, becoming the sole Canadian distributor of U.S.-made Victor machines while remaining strong as a producer of records.

Although the phonograph had been invented in 1877, it didn’t become a mass market item until about 1900. In the intervening years, many companies had tried to cash in on Edison’s invention and get around the patents registered by Edison and the companies that were to become Columbia and Victor. These emerging "big three" companies, however, managed to sue most upstarts out of existence for patent infringements and then made some cross-licensing deals between themselves, so that they could focus on meeting burgeoning consumer demand, rather than be distracted with constant litigation against each other.

Format Wars

"Bottom of the line" of Edison internal horn cylinder players

It was mentioned earlier that Edison had no clear vision for the phonograph’s use. There were others, however, who recognised its potential for providing entertainment and that’s what launched the industry into a golden age lasting from about 1900 to 1910. There would be an insatiable appetite for recorded music that Columbia, Edison and Victor met with continuously improving technology in phonographs and in the records themselves.

Edison continued to develop the cylinder record format, finding ways to increase its playing time from the 1901 wax two-minute Gold Moulded Records to the 1908 four-minute Amberol records and then in 1911, to the more durable four-minute Blue Amberol celluloid cylinders.

Columbia’s beginnings were in the cylinder format, but the company recognised the growing potential for flat disc records, so it produced machines and records in both formats until about 1910, using the name "Graphophone" on both cylinder- and disc-playing machines.

Victor stayed with its flat record format, which proved far easier to mass produce, ship and store than cylinders. Well before 1910, it was clear that the format war would be won by the flat disc record, but Edison continued to introduce new cylinder players for several years after that and produced cylinder records right up to the demise of the Edison Phonograph Company in 1929. Edison did acknowledge the increasing dominance of the disc format by introducing his own version of disc phonograph and records known as Diamond Discs. The records were uniquely thick and heavy, quite unlike regular 78s, engineered to reduce turntable rumble. The Diamond Disc record grooves were cut vertically (often referred to as hill-and-dale), so that a special stylus would track over the hills and dales in the groove to pick up the vibrations and reproduce them as sound. Regular 78 RPM records were cut laterally and played with a needle that tracked along the sides of the V-shaped grooves to pick up and reproduce the sound.

The External Horn Novelty Wears Off

In the early days, a newly acquired phonograph was proudly displayed as a status symbol, its ostentatious brass or colourful horn ensuring that it could not be missed by friends and neighbours. By about 1910, though, the novelty was wearing off and a preference developed for more discrete and elegant "inside-horn" phonographs that looked more like pieces of furniture with their doors, grilles and hinged lids. Some were small table-top models, such as the Edison Amberola 30 and the Victor Victrola series. Others were made as floor models, standing four to five feet tall with record storage below and the sound from the record player emanating through a fancy grille or open doors.

As the patents of Columbia, Edison and Victor began to expire, the market for phonographs became attractive to companies with peripheral involvement in the industry, such as cabinet makers and piano retailers. By about 1915 they were able to buy generic mechanical parts and hardware to install in cabinets of their own design and manufacture, mostly in the floormodel style. They would sell these phonographs under their own brand name, many starting with Phono… or ending with …ola. Some of these brands didn’t reach far beyond their local market while others, such as Brunswick, Cheney, Sonora and Silvertone, were more widely distributed.

Interest in the phonograph was temporarily diminished with the introduction of commercial radio in the early 1920s. Indeed, although portable suitcase-style wind-up phonographs, introduced in the teen years, would be made for many years to come, the radio effectively signalled the end of the acoustic wind-up phonograph era.

Collecting Antique Phonographs for Fun

Victor V in oak cabinet with wooden "spearpoint" horn for sale at a recent CAPS auction
(Image courtesy Arthur Zimmerman)

Some antique phonograph collectors developed their interest from childhood memories of listening to their parents’ or grandparents’ phonographs. Others have stumbled onto one of these strange machines, couldn’t help smiling at the sound, and just had to take it home. Then there are those who have grown up in the age of incredibly convenient and clear digital sound, but who are blown away by the beauty of antique phonographs with their rich oak and mahogany cases and atmospheric, nostalgic music.

With the older generation passing on, estates being cleared and others just downsizing, there’s no shortage of antique phonographs coming onto the market today. Prices range from a couple of hundred dollars upwards and both cylinders and flat 78 RPM records are easy to find. In common with all forms of antique collecting, it helps to do some research before jumping in. It’s worth being able to recognize a fake machine from a real one, whether the machine is working properly, whether it has all original parts and what is a fair price to pay. There are antique phonographs for every taste and budget; for example, the small, low-cost external-horn machines like the Edison Gem and Columbia Q cylinder players that once made it economical for everyone to own a phonograph…. and then spend far more than the cost of the machine on buying records over the years. These are still economical buys today. Then there are the Edison Home, Standard, Fireside and Triumph, all popular external-horn cylinder players that can easily be found for a few hundred to over a thousand dollars. Victor external-horn disc machines such as the Victor I, II and III tend to be a bit pricier, but some Columbia disc machines can be bought for under $1,000.

When it comes to inside-horn phonographs, these can be found quite often in antique markets, usually in the $300 - $700 range. The Edison Amberola 30 cylinder player or its larger siblings can be good buys. Victor tabletop and floor-model disc machines are often seen, but sometimes in need of some light cosmetic restoration that is always worth the effort. Original and reproduction spare parts can usually be found for Columbia, Edison and Victor phonographs. Some of the more exotic top-ofthe- line phonographs made by the "big three" companies are rare and desirable today, because they were made in small quantities. Eventually many other brands appeared, as creative techniques were found to avoid the "big three’s" patents or the patents expired. Berliner and Zonophone were both forerunners of the Victor brand, while others such as Busy Bee, Yankee Prince, Aretino, Lakeside and the European Pathé and Excelsior brands are also sometimes found in Canada. Phonographs labelled as HMV and Edison Bell are European versions of Victor and Edison machines, respectively, that have arrived in Canada with their immigrant owners.

The Benefits of Joining a Phonograph Club

The auction tables were overflowing at a recent CAPS meeting
(Image courtesy Betty Pratt)

It is always a little sad to find phonographs that have been neglected at one point or another during their long lives, but the good news is that they can be restored. It’s also good to reflect that once they are back in original condition, they will most likely live on forever as treasured antiques, not just the old junk that they once became when they were merely old and outdated.

There is a surprisingly large number of people interested in antique phonographs and records. Some have huge collections, while others are content with one phonograph and a selection of classical, hot jazz, vaudeville or early blues records. Many of them like to learn from and share their interests with others, so they join the Canadian Antique Phonograph Society (CAPS). The club’s 250 members receive a bi-monthly newsletter full of interesting and entertaining information on phonographs, the inventors, restoration, records, performers and much more. Those within driving distance of Toronto can attend eight meetings a year where upwards of 50 members gather on a Sunday afternoon to have fun together, enjoying an entertaining presentation, some social time and an auction of phonographs, records, parts, books and anything to do with this hobby. The members’ section of the CAPS web site at << www.capsnews.org >> gives access to years of the club’s newsletters, with an index making it easy to find articles on a wide range of phonograph-related topics.

Some of the 55 members and guests at a 2012 CAPS meeting
(Image courtesy Betty Pratt)

Joining CAPS is the best way to learn from the experience of members who are always keen to help new people make the right choice if they are wanting to buy a phonograph, learn how to look after it and fully enjoy it. Some develop an interest in the history, learning about the inventors, the technical developments, the recording artists and record companies. They are fascinated to see history repeating itself in the format wars with similar tactics being used to introduce Blu-ray discs as with Edison’s Blue Amberols in 1911.

The great thing about collecting antique phonographs and records is that they don’t just sit there looking pretty; they perform and are fun to watch in action as they bring to life the sounds from a different age, captured for ever in the records’ grooves. It’s almost like sitting outside a room where it’s still 1905 or 1922 inside and hearing the music coming through the walls.

So there you have it – a brief history and more knowledge about the early phonograph than 99.735% (according to my own estimates) of the population. Perhaps you’ll be able to use this to inspire interest in others, particularly young people, who always seem to smile when they hear a record played on an antique phonograph and start asking questions.


  1. "Discovering Antique Phonographs 1877-1929" and "The Talking Machine An Illustrated Compendium 1877-1929" by Timothy C Fabrizio and George F Paul
  2. "The Berliner Gramophone, An Illustrated History" by Mark Caruana