A Model for Essay #1 (Spring 1999)

"From Dictaphone to Disc: The Beginnings of the In-Home Concert"

by Janeen Kincaid

Prior to 1904, the availability of music was limited to a select few living in developed, metropolitan areas with theatres and symphony halls. All of that changed in the late 1800's with the invention of the dictaphone, the precursor to the phonograph. With the emergence of this simple marvel, the Edison Standard Phonograph ushered in the beginning of the in-home "live" concert. But in order for the world to fully appreciate the clarity and vivid color that emanates from today's Compact Disc player (CD player)—the most recent technology in recorded sound—let us first consider the phonograph.

The phonograph was originally conceived as a means of giving dictation for later transcription. The technology of recording one's voice and then playing the recording back was presented to the world in the late 1800's when the children's rhyme "Mary had a little lamb" was recorded by Thomas Alva Edison, a principle inventor of recorded sound. None of the inventors who participated in this revolution, not even Edison himself, knew what potential industry they had created until the early 1900's.

Rather than using the phonograph for dictation, many musicians and musical groups started using it to record their music so they could go back and listen to the errors they made in their practices. From this arose one of the biggest industries of the 20th century. Talented musicians started recording their music on wax cylinders for sale. Thus, was born the music industry and the mass marketing of the machinery needed to play the newly recorded music.

The Edison Standard Phonograph was released for sale to the general public in 1904 for $100.00. Considering that most men only made $40.00 to $60.00 per month, the price was exorbitant. However, for those who did not live in metropolitan areas, the cost of the phonograph was minimal overall. The amount of money needed to pay for concert tickets, appropriate clothing, food, lodging, travel expenses (not to mention, for the farmer, the cost of a hired hand to care for the farm)—all of this effort for maybe one outing to the city per year—hardly justified the effort. Thus, the phonograph began to make people more equal by bringing music into the homes of rich and poor, educated and uneducated, "cultured" and "uncultured" alike. Those who could not go to hear and see performances of the music of such composers as Debussy, Puccini, Beethoven, and even Mozart, could now enjoy these composers' compositions in their own living rooms, parlors, and dens.

Unlike the people of the early 20th century, I grew up in a house where music was always present in the form of Long Playing (LPs) records, audiocassettes, and eventually Compact Discs. My parents were not wealthy, but they made sure that my two siblings and I occasionally attended live musical performances in the form of ballets, musicals, symphony orchestras, and even a few rock concerts. When they could not take us to the concerts, there were plenty of records to listen to, ranging from classical music to the music from the Disney animations to modern music. They instilled in me a love and appreciation for good music. Having an "in-home" concert is not just entertainment—sometimes it is how I describe my place in humanity.

In the spirit of music appreciation, I own a CD player and an original Edison Standard Phonograph. I own a CD player for musical entertainment in its purest form at this time and as a product of the technological advances made by the electronics industry. I own the phonograph by chance. What was chance has become a fun way of remembering how the technology of the phonograph evolved into the technology of the CD player.

The Edison Standard Phonograph I own was the 27th generation of the phonograph as people then knew it. It was a part of the music industry and thus was a piece of equipment used for the entertainment of people. However, aside from its more immediate purpose, the design and setup of the phonograph also made it gratifying to look at. The phonograph looked like a piece of furniture and fit into the décor of even a formal room. The Edison Standard Phonograph was housed in a wooden cabinet of mahogany, oak, or cherry with a dark stain finish. Today's audio equipment is boxy and utilitarian in style and can break up the décor of a room if it is not placed strategically—often hidden within a modern "entertainment center."

On the wooden housing is a black and gold label with the words Edison Standard Phonograph. The mahogany wood housing is a rectangular box base that measures approximately 12 inches long by 8 inches high by 6 inches wide—just small enough to sit on a pedestal in the corner of a room. The housing includes a rounded cover also made of mahogany that is used to cover and protect the working mechanism of the phonograph. On the right hand side of the box is a small hole a little under one inch across. This hole serves a very important purpose. Like a motor car, the engine of the phonograph had to be cranked with a hand crank in order for it to play. As electricity was not necessarily a commodity of the time, this form of mechanics would have been very convenient.

On top of the box is fastened a metal platform that contains all of the external workings for the operation of the phonograph. These workings, if left exposed in a room, would not have disturbed the décor but rather would have added to the ambiance of the room. All of the metal, with the exception of the cylinder spindle, is painted a glossy black. The cylinder spindle itself is buffed metal, silver in color.

On the metal platform that the workings are fastened to is an engraved plate that gives the patent and registered trademark details for this particular phonograph. On the very front of the platform, located to the left, is a small knob (it extends up out of the internal workings). This knob controls the speed at which the cylinder spindle rotates. To the right of this knob (also projecting up from the internal workings) is a popsicle stick shaped lever. This lever releases and locks the brake. When it is pushed to the left, the internal brake holding the cogs and gears still is released and the spindle rotates. The rotation of the spindle is what allows the wax cylinder to play.

Directly behind the speed knob and brake lever is a one inch high face plate. This plate serves two purposes. First, it allows a swinging arm (located behind and to the right of the cylinder spindle) to lock into place against the right side of the plate. Second, it allows the mechanism that holds the stylus to run along its top edge in sequence with the movement of the third rod. This movement will be explained later.

Rod 1 is what holds the cylinder spindle upon which the wax cylinder is placed. To the left of the spindle is a wheel that guides a leather belt. This belt is attached to another wheel in the internal workings, and is ultimately what causes the spindle to turn. The previously mentioned swinging arm allows one to put on and remove a cylinder. By pulling the swinging arm to the right the cylinder spindle is unlocked and freed to allow a wax cylinder to be placed on the spindle. On the end of the cylinder spindle is a male fitting and on the swinging arm is a female fitting. These fittings come together and lock the cylinder spindle into place. If the cylinder spindle is not locked into place, it will not rotate.

The second rod is where the arm is connected. (On a record player this part is called an arm at whose end is connected the needle. For ease of explanation the same terms will be used with some modification). If you imagine the shape of a capital "T," the whole bottom part of the arm is the top of the capital "T." The second rod runs through the top of the "T," and to the left of this piece is attached a one and one half inch flat metal rod. Extended up from the cross of the "T" is the upper arm, which is about one half inch in the length. The upper arm bends to form an elbow and the elbow curves to become a straight piece like the forearm. At the wrist of the forearm is attached an "O" ring. This ring holds the combined stylus/diaphragm/speaker piece. On the front of the "O" ring is a small piece of metal that rides along the top of the face plate. To the left of this piece of metal is what looks like a kickstand from a bicycle. This "kickstand" holds the arm and stylus up away from the wax cylinder until everything is ready for the cylinder to play. When everything is ready, the brake is released and the spindle spins. At this point the kickstand is lowered and the stylus falls into place and starts "reading" the grooves of the wax cylinder.

The one and one half inch long flattened metal rod that is connected to the arm works in conjunction with the third rod. This rod is like the shaft of a screw, only this rod is about three and a half inches in length which is approximately the same length as a wax cylinder. The piece of metal that is connected to the cross of the "T" has a small metal pad on its end that has corresponding grooves to the third rod. These grooves are approximately the same number of grooves that are on a standard two minute wax cylinder. This third rod works to keep the stylus from moving to quickly over the wax cylinder, as this can damage the cylinder.

The stylus is part of a larger piece, which includes a diaphragm and a speaker. This piece is attached to the "O" ring of the arm. Just like a diaphragm found in the human body, the diaphragm on the phonograph pushes the vibration from the stylus reading the groves on the cylinder out in the form of sound. The sound travels up into what ultimately becomes the speaker on the phonograph and extends out from the diaphragm. The speaker is three and one quarter inches in length and one half inch in diameter. This tube, besides being the speaker, also acts as the volume control. When you listen to the phonograph with just the stylus piece and no amplifier the volume is soft. To amplify the sound further an attachment that looks like a gasoline funnel (it is actually called a trumpet) is connected to the speaker tube and you receive magnified sound. With the trumpet, the sound can be heard in a dance hall. As a result, dancing and dance halls increased in popularity as is evidenced by the era of the 1910's through 1920's and the Flappers. (As a side note, when motor cars became accessible to the general public, people started using the trumpets for this particular phonograph as gasoline funnels).

The internal workings of the phonograph are made up of cogs, gears, Barely 122 years after the first phonograph was built and 81 years after the first phonograph for the general public was released for sale, the world now enjoys the advanced technology of the CD player (released in 1985). Edison could have hardly foreseen the future impact of his invention yet his simple phonograph has evolved into technology that allows us to enjoy a concert in the comfort of our own homes. It would be unwise for us to forget the humble beginnings of the current technology that most of us take for granted. It is the birth of this type of technology that links nations to each other and makes the world a truly global place. It is this type of technology that allows us as human beings to enjoy the colors and cultures of Africa, Asia, Europe, Australia, and the Americas. From "Mary had a little lamb" to "Le nozze di Figaro," from the Three Tenors to the Five Divas—the creative pioneers of humanity have given us the means to have the music of the world at any time and in any place.

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Page Last Updated: 1 February 2003.