July 3, 2014

The Time Machines


The Antique Phonograph Society celebrates the dawn of recording history at their annual show and sale in Buena Park

Readers of this publication are well aware that aficionados of recorded sound may seek out LPs, 45-rpm, and/or 78-rpm records — as well as the vintage machinery to play them — all of which may be 50–60 years old these days. A somewhat smaller fraternity pursues records and phonographs dating back a century or more. These antique “talking machines” usually wind up with a crank and the records play without the use of electricity. With no volume or tone controls on these ancient phonographs, the music has an eerie “presence” that collectors liken to a time machine. Pre-1924 discs were recorded acoustically, with only the power of the artists’ lungs or their instrument to generate sound waves forceful enough to engrave themselves in wax. These early aural “fingerprints” have an immediacy and “personality” that largely disappeared once electric studio recordings became commonplace.

The earliest phonographs that were available to the public may be divided into two general categories: those playing disc (flat) records and those playing cylinder records. After a slow start, cylinder records made of various waxy formulas became available in small numbers in 1889, along with a very few expensive models of “talking machines” to play them. Similarly, the flat disc record first appeared in 1889, but these and the unsophisticated hand-propelled machines that played them were marketed as playthings.

By the mid-1890s, prices had dropped enough for middle-class families to begin buying cylinder phonographs and records, as well as the rapidly evolving disc-playing machines (called “Gramophones”) and flat records. Cylinder and disc records coexisted as competing products until 1929, after which time the 78-rpm disc predominated until the appearance of LPs in 1948 and 45s in 1949. Even so, the venerable 78 persisted as a viable product for another decade.
Many collectors seek out particular music such as jazz, or certain artists such as Blind Lemon Jefferson. Others buy records solely for their artifact value. For instance, most cylinder records are 4” long and 2- ¼” in diameter. Variations from this configuration — and the specialized phonographs designed to play them — are avidly pursued, regardless of what may be recorded on them. Some collectors focus on the hundreds of types of phonographs, keeping only a token few records to demonstrate their machines.

Many record collectors have no interest in machinery; they purchase only those phonographs necessary to play the particular types of records in their collections. Other collectors want only cylinder type machines and records. Some collectors buy only “external horn” talking machines, similar to that seen in the famous RCA Victor trademark of Nipper listening to “His Master’s Voice.” Whether your interest is mechanical, historical, woodworking, or musical, collecting antique phonographs and records offers broad appeal.

The Antique Phonograph Society is a worldwide organization dedicated to promoting the enjoyment of antique phonographs and records through its quarterly journal, The Antique Phonograph, and its annual show and sale scheduled for August 9-10 in Buena Park, CA. This show will have thousands of early records available.

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One Comment

  1. Yes! Finally something about Website That Plays Music.

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