Sound recording was first developed for office use, but the commercial possibility of recorded music was soon realized, and increasingly sophisticated equipment was introduced in the search for faithful sound reproduction.
The first phonograph, invented by Thomas Edison in 1877, recorded sound on cylinders covered in tinfoil or wax, but these could not be mass-produced and had a fairly short life. This problem was solved in 1887 by an American, Emil Berliner, whose gramophone played flat, waxed zinc discs. Many copies could be made from a master, and they gave much clearer sound.
A new clockwork mechanism regulated the speed of the hand-cranked turntables, and in 1896, records made of shellac, a substance derived from a type of resin secreted by an insect, were introduced. This soon became the standard material for records.
Sound was amplified by a horn, up to 1.8m / 6ft long. The larger the horn, the better. They were made of aluminium, polished brass, painted tinplate, wood or papier mache. In 1904, a German company incorporated the horn in the casing, and exterior horns more or less disappeared by the 1920s.
Some gramophones were portable, and provided entertainment for summer picnics as well as the troops in the trenches in World War 1. Their usual home, though, was the living room, and many early models were housed in handsome wooden cabinets made to match the rest of the decor. In the 1920s and 1930s, cases were made from anything from tinplate or steel to oak or cheaper wood covered with fabric. Some were very elaborate, while others were basic, functional boxes. The great majority were intended for table-top use.
Electrical recording was introduced in 1924, but gramophones soon lost ground to radios, which provided a much cleaner sound. Manufacturers responded by combining the two in a radiogram. These had to be housed in a fairly large cabinet, and proved quite expensive, so the first record players were introduced. These just played the records, and had to be wired into a radio for sound.
All-electric gramophones, separate from the radio, with their own amplified speakers, were quite rare in the 1930s, but became standard in the 1940s and 1950s. In the same period, 45rpm and 33rpm vinyl discs were introduced, and the production of 78rpm shellac records ceased in the early 1960s.
The gleaming brass and swelling shape of the horn and a well-made cabinet covered with rich mahogany or walnut veneers made early wind-up gramophones attractive, as well as entertaining, additions to Edwardian living rooms. To modern day collectors, these good looks can be as important as the quality of the sound.
Good horned gramophones are quite valuable and tend to be sold at auction or by a few specialist dealers. Later mechanical models, and early electrical ones, can be found at fairs, in flea markets, and occasionally in bric-a-brac shops. Many were relegated to the attic when variable speed record players, capable of taking 45rpm and 33rpm vinyl records, as well as 78s, were introduced in the 1950s.
Early gramophones can be very handsome objects, and are decorative pieces in their own right. Some people are prepared to collect them for just that purpose, but most collectors want to play records on them.
The 78rpm format provided remarkably clear sound, and the vast majority of
78rpm records cost no more than a nominal sum, though they are difficult to find, particularly ones dating from before World War 2, in good condition. Records from the first 20 years or so of the century, when most horned gramophones were made, tend to be rare.
You'll also have to buy a supply of needles. Some metal needles could be used many times before being discarded, but several were recommended for one-time use only. Fibrous needles could be resharpened for further use. Needles came in loud, medium and soft forms the volume of the music was altered by changing the needle. They can be bought relatively cheaply, though those still in the attractive little enamel boxes in which they were originally sold are quite sought after.
Machines with battered wooden cases command lower prices, while a damaged or dented horn will affect not only the looks, but also the sound of a gramophone. Keep a lookout for reproduction trumpet or morning glory brass horns, and always ask to hear a gramophone in action before you buy.
Wind-up gramophones are quite simple objects mechanically. Anyone who enjoys tinkering could probably restore a ruin to reasonable working order, if the parts are still there. Springs are particularly difficult to replace. Home repairs are definitely not recommended, though, for valuable machines.
A large selection of music was available on 78rpm records, which are still available from dealers and flea markets, and of course we sell them here. Contemporary catalogues give an idea of the range.