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Victor III gramophone from Victor Talking Machine Co.

A gramophone or -fon (from ancient Greek γράμμα gramma , German , Written ' and φωνή phone , voice, sound, sound') is a device for recording and playback of sounds , the 1887 Emil Berliner invented (Application for Patent : 26th September 1887). As a pure player it was the mechanical forerunner of the record player . Berliner had the name Grammophon (in the English original Gramophone ) legally protected; however, it did not only develop into a generic term in German for all devices of a similar design, although in American English - unlike in British - the predecessor term of the phonograph is more preferred. In addition, Berliner also coined the term record .

The disc-shaped sound carriers for a gramophone were not only more space-saving than the cylinders of a phonograph, but they could also be produced more easily than mass copies and therefore much cheaper. This is why Berliner's invention shaped the entire world of analogue sound carriers over the following decades up to the 1980s. This not only applies to the age of shellac records, but also to the subsequent vinyl era (records made of polyvinyl chloride (PVC)).

Working principle

Sound recording

Emil Berliner with the original form of his gramophone and a zinc record

Ten years before Berliner's gramophone, the American Thomas A. Edison had already invented his phonograph - and at the same time the French Charles Cros invented a device that he called the Paléophon and that worked on the same principle with a drum as a sound carrier. Both used the subscript, while Berliner patented the side script.

Berliner's record originally consisted of a flat, wax-coated zinc disc, which, like the cylinders for phonographs, had to be manufactured individually. To record, a sound box was spiraled over the record using a spindle. The sound bundled by the funnel itself moved a membrane to which the needle was in turn attached by a lever system. This created an image of the sound in the wax in the form of a laterally deflected groove. This was etched into the zinc in an acid bath. The wax could be removed, the groove remained permanently.

The zinc disc was later replaced by a wax disc, which was then given a fine, electrically conductive layer of graphite powder or later silver. A negative copy (raised "grooves") could be made from this record using electroforming - the "father". The father, in turn, electroformed the "mother", which could be heard for the first time. This in turn was used to manufacture the “sons”, which served as dies for pressing the shellac records.

Original packaging for gramophone needles

In contrast to the phonograph, normal gramophones were only intended for reproducing sound recordings. As a result, the spindle for guiding the sound box containing the membrane was omitted. The needle, together with the membrane and tube attachment, is guided through the groove itself - the construction was correspondingly simpler and cheaper.

Sound reproduction

To reproduce the sound, the needle slides through the groove of the rotating record, is moved back and forth by the wavy line of the groove and transfers these movements to a membrane. This can only emit sound effectively if it has an impedance converter in the form of a funnel ( exponential horn ) connected downstream like a pressure chamber loudspeaker . This allows it to generate more pressure, which is converted into volume. In addition to the quality of the sound box and the needle, the size and shape of the funnel have a decisive influence on the playback quality. This means that particularly low frequencies cannot be reproduced because the diaphragm deflection and the final diameter of the horn are limited. Even particularly high frequencies cannot be reproduced because the needle with the membrane cannot follow the rapid movements. Linear, distorting resonances continue to occur: the needle with its holder, the membrane and also the funnel have natural resonances that influence the timbre. If the needle is not able to follow the groove due to frequencies or amplitudes that are too high or because the contact pressure is too low, non-linear distortion occurs (cawing noises). Both types of distortion and the restricted playback frequency band lead to the well-known sound characteristics of gramophone playbacks.

The records

A recording made on one side in Hanover in 1908 with Enrico Caruso

The beginning of the reproduction of records can be set in the year 1892, when for the first time copper negative records coated with nickel were pressed from vulcanized rubber ( hard rubber ). Shellac was used as a raw material in the record industry from 1895. Shellac records do not mainly consist of the substance that gives them their name, but primarily a mixture of rock flour, coal dust and animal hair. The shellac was only used as a binding agent. The material was originally developed for the manufacture of insulators .

The earliest records designed as toys had a diameter of around 12 cm. The first regular records (called “Berliner-Platten” because of the brand name “Berliner's Gramophone”) had a diameter of 17.5 cm and, by the way, had an engraved label instead of a label. From 1902 the standard size of 25 cm prevailed (initially referred to as the "Gramophone Concert Record") and was soon supplemented by the 30 cm records. The early records were only recorded on one side and had the respective brand symbol on the back, e.g. B. on the records of the Grammophon-Gesellschaft the "writing angel". This only changed in 1904, when the company "International Talking Machine Co." with its Odeon brand first presented double-sided records at the Leipzig trade fair. Other manufacturers followed until around 1908. However, even after that - in some cases up to the 1920s - particularly valuable recordings were occasionally published on single-sided shellac records; Especially in the case of longer pieces of classical music that were spread over several records, it sometimes happened that only one side of the last record had to be recorded and one then refrained from filling the remaining page with another piece.


Depiction of a gramophone with a crank drive on a security from the French record and gramaphone manufacturer Compagnie Internationale Phonique from 1907

The drive was initially done by hand, later by spring mechanisms or electric motors . However, the latter did not come into greater use until the 1920s, because before that there were too few households with a connection to the power grid.

The spring mechanisms were designed so that they could play at least one side of the record completely at constant speed. More expensive devices also played two or three records without having to be wound up in between.

Hot air powered gramophones ( Stirling engines ) were also built. Only a few of these devices have survived today because, on the one hand, they caught fire easily due to construction defects, and on the other hand, they were already quite expensive back then and were therefore not widely used. The big advantage was that many records could be heard one after the other without having to open a spring mechanism again in between. Weight drives were occasionally used for the same reason.

Gramophone drive with spring mechanism and centrifugal governor. The speed adjustment lever (protruding upwards) adjusts the brake felt on the centrifugal governor

A centrifugal governor ensured the synchronization . It also offered the ability to adjust the speed. This was initially very different depending on the size of the records and from make to make, not infrequently among the records of the same make. The first "Berlin records" had to be played at a speed of 70 to 75 / min (which, contrary to some information in the literature, was enough for about three minutes of playing time!), The later 25 and 30 cm records with 75 up to 80 / min. The "standard speed" of 78 revolutions per minute was only agreed as the norm in the early 1920s. Several manufacturers (e.g. "Columbia" in Great Britain) stayed at 80 rpm until around 1930.


Monochord kit gramophone around 1930

In early models, the sound box was attached directly to the funnel and both were mounted on a rigid support strip, which meant that the system had an extremely high bearing weight. These gramophones are also called swivel-rod gramophones.

The crank for the first standard spring motor was on top, which earned the devices the nickname "coffee grinder". This type is shown on the trademark “ His Master's Voice ” or “ His Master's Voice ” and is therefore also known as the “Trademark Gramophone”. The vertical crank turned when a record was played.

This design was quickly abandoned, the crank was moved to the side and the sound box was attached to a lighter tonearm (actually just a sheet metal tube); this was connected to the funnel via a ball bearing. As a next improvement, a bracket was built into the tonearm, which caused the sound box to fold up slightly and a significant reduction in the weight. This was also helpful for changing the needle. It was made of steel, worn out by the still relatively high weight of the sound box after one side of the record had been played and had to be replaced afterwards. The needles were therefore mostly sold in cans of 100 or 200 pieces. With the gramophone, the volume could only be adjusted via the thickness or length of the selected needle. The different leverage to the membrane was used here.

Marga von Etzdorf at a suitcase gramophone 1932

Since the principle of mechanical sound reproduction only allowed a limited volume, which was sufficient for normal rooms, but not for larger halls, various so-called high-tone devices were developed. Instead of a normal sound box, they were equipped with a valve system controlled by the record needle through which compressed air or carbon dioxide was passed. These devices developed an enormous volume and could therefore replace concert organs or small orchestras, but were also very prone to failure.

From around 1910, the now so popular external funnels were increasingly perceived as unaesthetic and vulgar; one therefore began to relocate the funnel inside a cupboard or table top device. With wooden doors or rotating slats in front of the funnel exit, you could have an additional influence on the volume of these devices. Other manufacturers even hid the gramophone in lamps, statues or the "flower pot" of artificial plants. From this time onwards, the first gramophones with an electric drive were also manufactured, in which the annoying winding of the spring mechanism was no longer necessary. However, these devices belonged to the upper price range and were not widely used, especially since electricity was by no means available in every household at the time.

From the mid-1920s onwards, suitcase gramophones that were easily transportable (and therefore also usable outdoors, e.g. at picnics) were popular. These usually also had the funnel in the housing with a sound outlet on the rear part of the device, with the cover being used as an additional reflector. Often there was a compartment in the lid to hold plates, which could be taken with you without breaking. In addition, there were also very small and compact devices, often of an original design, which could be housed in a box or a small box. However, they had to be laboriously put together before use and often only met the most modest demands in terms of volume and sound.

The gramophone was also available for hobbyists or small workshops in the form of individual parts or inexpensive kits. The technology was delivered, the housing had to be created by the customer based on a template provided. Many music stores made their "own" devices this way.

The gramophone experienced its heyday towards the end of the 1920s, after which records were increasingly removed electrically and played back via an electrical amplifier. From this time onwards, various manufacturers also offered sets with which a gramophone could be converted into electrical sound pick-up; either you simply replaced the sound box with an electrical pickup or you installed a complete additional tonearm. Suitcase gramophones, however, were still popular until the early 1950s. It was only with the introduction of singles and LPs from vinyl , small, lightweight, rugged, low-power transistor amplifier were the suitcase gramophones replaced by electric suitcase record player. Vinyl records cannot be played on a gramophone. Because of the soft material, its narrow grooves are destroyed by the steel needle.

Today gramophones are traded on the antique market. The early funnel models are particularly sought after and correspondingly expensive, which is why replicas of these are often offered, especially devices with the brand name "His Master's Voice" can be found frequently. It should be noted here that especially cheaper replicas, due to inadequately processed sound boxes, usually cause irreparable damage to the records during playback and are therefore ideally suited as decoration. In addition, they often have other processing defects compared to "real" devices, which connoisseurs can easily consider Identify replicas. Such devices are frowned upon by collectors and are often referred to as "Crapophones" ( English crap = crap).

One of the largest German collections of phonographs and gramophones with hundreds of exhibits is owned by the Viersen collector Volkmar Hess. In order to make this accessible to a larger part of the public, part of the collection is permanently in the “International Phono u. Radio Museum ”in Dormagen (North Rhine-Westphalia).

From brand to genre

Emil Berliner's gramophone factory in Hanover

Players comparable to Berliner's gramophone were soon produced by other companies under different brand names. One of the first was the zonophone , which was manufactured in 1901 . It was produced by the International Zonophone Company of the American Frank Seaman, who had previously been Berlin's sales manager. He left the Berlin Gramophone Company in a crisis triggered by patent disputes.

A distinction must be made between the gramophones and the devices for deep writing records, which look the same to laypeople, but have different design features. These include the Edison Diamond Disc phonographs as well as the devices for the Pathé brothers' record system .

See also


  • Stefan Gauß: Needle, groove, funnel. Cultural history of the phonograph and the gramophone in Germany (1900–1940). Böhlau, Vienna / Cologne / Weimar 2009, ISBN 978-3-412-20185-2
  • Friedrich Kittler: Grammophon Film Typewriter . Brinkmann & Bose, Berlin 1986, ISBN 3-922660-17-7 (English edition: Gramophone Film Typewriter , Stanford 1999)
  • Friedrich Kittler: Writing-down systems 1800/1900 . Fink, Munich 1985, ISBN 3-7705-2881-6 (English edition: Discourse Networks 1800/1900 , with a foreword by David E. Wellbery . Stanford 1990)
  • Martin Fischer: The fascination of shellac . Battenberg, Regenstauf 2006, ISBN 3-86646-008-2 .
  • Herbert Jüttemann: Phonographs and Gramophones . Klinkhardt and Biermann, Braunschweig 1979, ISBN 3-7814-0166-9 ; 4th edition: Funk-Verlag Hein, Dessau 2007, ISBN 978-3-939197-17-1 .
  • Advances and inventions of the modern age. The gramophone . In: The Gazebo . 1891 ( full text [ Wikisource ]).

Web links

Wiktionary: Grammophon  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations
Commons : Gramophone  - collection of images, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. Patent US372786 : Gramophone. Published November 8, 1887 .
  3. Is my gramophone real or a fake?
  4. Accessed December 31, 2017 .
  5. International Phono + Radio - Museum Dormagen am Rhein e. V. Accessed December 31, 2017 .