When it comes to late 19th- and early 20th-century technological innovations, no individual had a greater impact than Thomas Alva Edison, the Wizard of Menlo Park. For example, Edison invented the world’s first machine to record and reproduce sound in 1877. He called his invention a phonograph. In 1878, he patented the device and made about 500 machines before turning his attention to the light bulb. That work would lead to the formation of a little company we know today as General Electric.

Edison’s purely mechanical device consisted of a rotating wax cylinder whose grooved surface transmitted sounds through a stylus and into an amplifying horn. Emile Berliner had a better idea. His gramophone, which he patented 10 years after Edison’s phonograph, played flat shellac records, which were cheaper to produce than Edison’s cylinders and moved from side to side in their groves rather than up and down.

Other late 19th-century luminaries were also interested in the phonograph. In 1885, Alexander Graham Bell’s cousin Chichester Bell and an inventor named Charles Sumner Tainter developed the graphophone, which was basically an improved version of Edison’s cylinder-based machine. That challenge rekindled Edison’s interest in his phonograph. In 1889, he formed the North American Phonograph Company, which became the National Phonograph Company in 1896.

These antique Edison phonographs are highly prized by collectors today. One of the first products offered by National Phonograph was the Edison Home Phonograph, which was a nickel-plated machine in a mahogany case that held wax cylinders, each of which contained about two minutes of music. The Gem was introduced in 1899. Unlike the Home, this model was tiny, with a horn that was bigger than the machine itself.

Meanwhile, the graphophone design had become the basis for the Columbia Phonograph Company, whose leading turn-of-the-century model was the Columbia Eagle. For high rollers, Columbia offered the Graphophone Grand, which cost a whopping $300 in 1898.

Other cylinder manufacturers include Vitaphone, Euphonic, and Ecophone. Also collectible are the cylinders and phonograph attachments made by Gianni Bettini, whose focus was less on the mechanics of coaxing sound from a cylinder than on improving that sound for listeners.

Berliner may have been slower out of the gate than his competitors, but his disc-based machine would prove more enduring, setting the standard for the playback of audio recording...

Berliner eventually lost the right to sell his own invention in the Unites States, so he set up shop in Montreal. In 1900, he registered a painting of a dog listening to "his master’s voice" as his company’s trademark. "Nipper," as he was known, would become one of the most famous images in the world. Naturally, the Berliner gramophone in the painting would become one of the most collected.

Though Berliner continued to make gramophones and records in Montreal until 1924, it was Eldridge Johnson’s Victor Talking Machine Company (1900-1926) that really propelled Berliner’s invention into the mainstream and brought the era of the cylinder to a close. By 1910, cylinder players had all but vanished from the marketplace.

One of Victor’s key innovations was to get rid of the bulky sound horn, which customers found to be an intrusive presence in their homes. In 1906, the first Victrola was introduced. It basically took the player’s sound horn and pointed it toward the floor so that is was hidden within the machine’s cabinet. By opening or closing the cabinet’s doors, sound volume could be increased or decreased.

The first Victrolas had cabinets manufactured by the Pooley Furniture Company of Philadelphia. They had flat tops, which meant the gramophone was set deep into the cabinet, making use of the gramophone itself awkward. Though the Pooley flat tops are now highly collectible, the domed-top models that followed were more practical to early 20th-century consumers.

Lower-priced tabletop Victrolas followed—by 1913, the company was producing 250,000 tabletops per year, including some new Electrolas that did not require hand cranking but did require access to electricity, which most people still lacked. By 1917, Victrola production topped half a million. Though very popular with customers, Victrolas are less popular with collectors of antique phonographs today, in no small part because there were just so many of them made.

The party for Victor, though, would not last. In the 1920s, increased competition, electrically amplified sound, and, above all, radio all conspired to kill the Victrola, which is why in 1929, the Victor Talking Machine Company was sold to RCA and RCA Victor was born.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Victor-Victrola Page

Victor-Victrola Page

Paul Edie's reference site on The Victor Talking Machine Company and its 'Victrola' phonograph ('His Master's Voice… [read review or visit site]

Rene Rondeau's Antique Phonograph Museum

Rene Rondeau's Antique Phonograph Museum

A collector since age 12, René Rondeau's site showcases the early history of recorded sound, with great photos and… [read review or visit site]

Vinyl Divas

Vinyl Divas

Vinyl Divas pays homage to international female opera singers of the LP era. Chronicling more than 800 singers, the… [read review or visit site]

The Vintage Knob

The Vintage Knob

The Vintage Knob is an extensive resource on all types of audio electronics organized by manufacturer, from Aiwa to… [read review or visit site]

317X

317X

Despite its mysterious title, 317X is plain and simple—an online gallery of vintage LPs, with a 1950s vintage fee… [read review or visit site]

Mybeatles.net

Mybeatles.net

Jesse Barron's collection of Beatles 45s, picture sleeves, magazines, books, and memorabilia. Browse singles and al… [read review or visit site]

Association of Vogue Picture Record Collectors

Association of Vogue Picture Record Collectors

This great site, from the Association of Vogue Picture Record Collectors, offers detailed background information an… [read review or visit site]

The Remington Site

The Remington Site

Since 1999, the Remington Site has offered classical music collectors a glimpse into Remington Records, an independ… [read review or visit site]



Clubs & Associations

Discussion Forums

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Antique Victor Victrola V-v Phonograph Talking Machine Vtg Crank Reproducer OakBettini Edison PhonographNear Mint 1901 Columbia Q Phonograph W/10" Nickel Horn & Reproducer In Orig. BoxRare Very Old Mechanical Portable? Phonograph Gramophone Cylinder OperatedRare Vintage Columbia Edison 5" Concert Cylinder Phonograph Gramophone RecordsRare Vintage Jack & Jill Childs Toy 78 Rpm Record Player Gramophone PhonographEdison Home Phonograph Model A - First Version (works)Edison Cylinder Phonograph Model C Reproducer, Oil Can, Box And Misc PartsZonophone Zon-o-phone Concert Grand Phonograph Horn Mount Support Arm Part Thorens Swiss Gramaphone Turntable Vintage Talking Phonograph Seeburg Redhead Jukebox Phonograph Cartridge By Pickering, GoodEdison Amberola 30 Cylinder Phonograph Sn 39923 - In Great ConditionVintage 1959 Rca Shp-12 Record Player Orthophonic Mid Century Modern ProjectAntique Meissner Vintage Tube Radio Phonograph Restored And WorkingVintage Phonograph Gramophone Needle Tin Lord NeedlesVintage Philco Tube Radio Record Player Model 42-1001 Wood Case Antique Talking Machine Toys Kameraphone Early Wind-up Portable Hand Crank Phonograph PortablePhonograph Victrola Gramophone Gadgets - Victor Pathe Reproducer AttachmentDansette Coffee Table / Record Player Legs Vintage / Retro 1950's / 60's Rare Antique 1897 Wax Cylinder Record Player "the Graphohone" (columbia #644718)1906 Casto Phonograph Parlors Trade Token Bute Montana & Salt Lake City UtahC1903 Thomas Edison Cylinder Phonograph Banner Label Model H Original SolidCirca 1900 Cygnet Horn Crane, Edison Phonograph, Excellent ConditionRare Victor Talking Machine Exhibition Reproducer In Case 84552bOld Swiss Gramophone Excelda Working 78 Rpm Record PhonographAntique Key For Victrola Hand Crack Record Machine1905 Standard Aa Open-works 7-inch Crank Phonograph - Restored! Made By ColumbiaVictor Victrola Vv-iv Windup Phonograph Record Player 318084e ~ As IsVintage Rca Victor Talking Machine Company 10" X 7" Record Player Porcelain SignLarge Lot Of Phonograph Record Player Needles & Store Display CaseVintage 41 Rca Victrola Console Tube Radio Phonograph Record Player Cutter LatheRare Repeat-o-graph Phonograph Victrola 78 Record RepeaterEdison Phonograph Front Mount CraneEdison Standard Wood Case From A Model A Cylinder Phonograph Edison Cylinder Phonograph Crane Mounting Bracket Parts LotVictor Talking Machine Phonograph PartsAntique Phonograph Recorder PartRestored! Bluetooth! Braun Atelier 1 + L11 Speaker Tube Radio Record Player RamsAntique Brunswick Phonograph Reproducer - For Parts Or RebuildVintage 1970's Tamco Vw Bus Soundwagon Musical Toy Record Player Leophone Gramophone Turntable Vintage Talking Phonograph - Parts Or RepairAntique Rca Edison Victor Disc Cylinder Phonograph Reproducers, Cranks & Parts Man With His Victor Victrola Phonograph Record Player Horn Postcard RppcBeautiful Rare Vintage Edison Cylinder Records W/canister-many Match PhonographAntique Hollow Barrel Brass Letter "a" Initial Victrola? Vintage Skeleton KeyEdison Green Oak Longbox Home Model A Cylinder Phonograph Banner Case - CompleteAntique Victor Talking Machine Exhibition Reproducer Victrola1926 Victrola Record Player1900 (dated) Cabinet Photo Edison Phonograph Recital Party Brass Horn & CraneEdison Amberola 30 Cylinder Phonograph Record Player Crank Vintage Original Vintage Edison Model C19 Phonograph Cabinet Key (key Only)Rare Victor - Victrola Nipper Logo Linotype Newspaper Print Block Circa 1920’s. Rexoport Phonograph Mechanism 1920`s(working Order)Lot Of 40 Antique Assorted Edison Cylinder Phonograph Records W/ Boxes 1920s Phonograph Needles Tin Zonophone EmptyPhonograph Gramophone Needle Tin Victrola Tungs-tone Stylus With NeedlesEdison Cygnet Horn Phonograph CraneEdison 2+4 Gear Change For Home PhonographEdison Phonograph Cygnet Horn Adjuster And Spring