Phonograph: Definition & Components

Instructor: Matthew Bergstresser

Matthew has a Master of Arts degree in Physics Education. He has taught high school chemistry and physics for 14 years.

A phonograph is a fairly simple device, that has made a big impact in the world. This lesson will go through the components of a phonograph, and how it works to record sound.

'Mary Had a Little Lamb'

Can you believe that ''Mary had a little lamb'' was the first thing recorded by a phonograph? It's true. It was recorded in 1877 by Thomas Edison when he was 29 years old. He had been working to improve Alexander Graham Bell's telephone because, up to that point, the transmission of a voice was not very clear. Tinkering with a way to record was a side project that Bell was working on, and he invented the phonograph. A phonograph is a device that allows sounds to be recorded onto a spinning cylinder or disk, and then used to replay the recording.

Let's Record

Get out your guitar, or warm up your voice, and we'll pretend we are recording a song on an old phonograph. When you make noise, the sound waves get funneled into the horn, which is a funnel-shaped device. The sound waves reach the diaphragm, which is a small membrane that vibrates in response to detecting the sound waves. A needle is attached to the diaphragm, and would move along with it cutting a groove into a thin sheet of metal. A crank turns the drum to which the thin sheet metal is attached.

To record your greatest version of ''Freebird'' or the complete Bach cello suite you would have to have someone set the needle on the foil, and turn the crank. If this was a modern recording device you would now see some sort of red light blinking; you are recording live! The louder the noise the more the diaphragm would move, and the deeper the indentation made by the needle into the foil.

French-made phonograph from 1898

Playing it Back

You know you messed up after the third measure of ''Freebird'', but recording live is difficult. To hear what you recorded, you reverse the process. The needle goes back into the grove where the recording started, and the crank is turned. The needle moves up and down in the groove making the diaphragm vibrate. The diaphragm disturbs the air creating a sound wave that gets amplified by the horn on the way out towards your ears.

Advances in the Phonograph

Generally, improvements are made with any new invention. About ten years after the original phonograph was made, Edison swapped the metal foil with a wax drum. This adjustment allowed several minutes to be recorded versus only a few seconds. Later, another inventor, Emile Berliner, dropped the phonograph's wax drum, and used a flat disk. This flat disk is called a record, and he named his device the gramophone.

Eventually the record was made where the grooves were cut into it in a spiral pattern. Many of these types of records can be commonly found today. In fact, in is making a comeback for certain types of lovers of music.

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