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Extraordinary Times

The Origin of the Sound Recording Industry
Disc Improvements

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"People are apt to look for wonders in the sphere of the supernatural...But by far the greatest wonders are everyday occurrences."

-Emile Berliner


While Bell and Tainter were still developing their Graphophone, another inventor began to make improvements in sound recording that would revolutionize the industry. German-born inventor Emile Berliner began experimenting with new recording techniques as a result of his work on a microphone for Alexander Graham Bell's telephone.

Berliner determined that the method of recording used by the cylinder machines, which punched the pattern of sound vibrations into the floor of the recording medium (the wax, or tinfoil, covered cylinders), was fundamentally flawed. He found that sound waves captured in a lateral, rather than vertical, motion, cut into the walls, rather than the floor, of the wax medium, resulted in higher quality recordings. He improved his design further by replacing the cylinder with a flat, circular disc.

Berliner also designed a process that allowed the reproduction of a disc record from a master copy, or matrix. Zinc discs, coated in wax, would accept the original recording. Then, an acid bath would remove the wax, leaving an imprint of the sound waves in the metal master disc.

Records could then be pressed from this metal "negative", as long as the master disc held up. The process was not perfect, and eventually the master would begin to degrade, limiting the number of copies that could be made. But the development enabled the mass-manufacture of recordings, and signaled the beginning of the music entertainment industry.

Released in 1887, Berliner's disc-playing Gramophone was heralded as a great scientific achievement. He demonstrated his record making process and machine to the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia soon after, and made new records for astounded audiences in front of their very eyes.

But despite Berliner's fascinating demonstrations, funding for the Gramophone's commercial production was hard to come by, and it still lacked a critical element that severely limited its marketing potential.

The Gramophone had to be hand-cranked (at a reccommended 150 times per minute!) in order to play the records. No one could figure out how to maintain the proper cranking speed, and even the slightest jolt would dislodge the needle from its groove.

While it was inexpensive, and boasted a new form of record, the Gramophone needed help if it was to become a socially desirable product. Berliner began to search for an alternative means of power for his machine, and the search soon led him to Eldridge R. Johnson.

 

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