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Making gramophone records

Published: 5 November 2021

Do you stream music on your phone? Trade CDs or cassettes with friends and family members? Crave the nostalgic crackle of needle on vinyl? We take these activities for granted—but recorded sound wasn’t always so readily available.

In 1887, German American inventor Emile Berliner (1851–1929) patented the ‘gramophone’, a technology for recording and playing back sound. His work, which brought together developments in telephony, radio and synthetic materials, revolutionised the way we experience sound.

With the help of images from the Daily Herald Archive, this story explores the process of making gramophone records—one of the earliest platforms for distributing recordings, and the medium that launched a multinational industry.

What is the Daily Herald Archive?

The Daily Herald was a British national newspaper published between 1912 and 1964. At one point, it was the top-selling newspaper in the world, with a monthly circulation of more than 2 million.

Every photograph and negative taken for the newspaper was stored in a picture library, categorised and filed for easy access should they ever be needed again. This amazing collection—comprising 3.5 million photographs, contact sheets and glass negatives—is the Daily Herald Archive, which we now care for at the National Science and Media Museum here in Bradford.

This story is based on a selection of images from the archive.

Mass producing recorded sound

Sound recording is the process of capturing soundwaves—unseen vibrations that travel through the air—so that they can be played again.

Emile Berliner wasn’t the first to figure out how this might be done; that credit goes to American Thomas Edison (1847–1931) and his 1877 invention of the phonograph. This was a first attempt at a technology capable of turning the energy of soundwaves into a tangible object that could be turned back into sound.

A replica of Thomas Edison’s first phonograph, 1877. Edison’s original invention recorded onto a tin cylinder. Though reliable, the sound quality was terrible
© Science Museum Group Collection More information about A replica of Thomas Edison’s first phonograph, 1877. Edison’s original invention recorded onto a tin cylinder. Though reliable, the sound quality was terrible
Edison ‘Gem’ phonograph, 1903. Though wax cylinders were commercially available, limits of the technology enabled gramophone records to replace cylinders by the 1920s
© Science Museum Group Collection More information about Edison ‘Gem’ phonograph, 1903. Though wax cylinders were commercially available, limits of the technology enabled gramophone records to replace cylinders by the 1920s
Emile Berliner with a model of his first gramophone machine Wikimedia Commons
Emile Berliner with a model of his first gramophone machine, c.1910–29

The process of recording sound using a phonograph involves the following:

  • Soundwaves travel through the air and transfer energy to a thin diaphragm, causing it to vibrate
  • A stylus—in more familiar terms, a record needle—attached to the diaphragm transfers the vibrations and cuts the shape of the soundwave into a recording medium (like the tinfoil on the cylinder of the replica of Edison’s first phonograph shown above)
  • Running the stylus back over the cut groove reproduces the sound
  • A ‘sound horn’—like the one shown in the photograph of Berliner on the right—serves the dual purpose of funnelling the soundwaves toward the diaphragm and amplifying the recording during playback

After his earliest experiments, Edison used wax cylinders as the recording medium for the phonogram. The problem was that this technology relied on vertical incisions that created a ‘hills and dales’ terrain in the groove—and a danger that the stylus would skip out of the groove whenever it crested a ‘hill’!

Diagram showing lateral cut and vertical cut recording grooves; the latter are deeper Wiki LIC, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Diagram of a lateral cut (top) vs. vertical cut (bottom) recording groove

Berliner adapted the basic principles of Edison’s technology but offered refinements that improved the overall quality and efficiency of early sound recording. His novel process relied on lateral incisions created by the stylus vibrating from side to side. The uniformly deep lateral grooves that resulted kept the stylus from jumping, but also reproduced sound with a greater dynamic range.

An early Berliner gramophone, c.1890. The first commercially available gramophones were produced by a German toy company, Kammerer und Reinhardt of Waltershausen, and distributed only in Germany and England
© Science Museum Group Collection More information about An early Berliner gramophone, c.1890. The first commercially available gramophones were produced by a German toy company, Kammerer und Reinhardt of Waltershausen, and distributed only in Germany and England
A Berliner 7-inch gramophone record, 1898. Notice how the inscription in the centre of the record leaves no doubt about its origins
© Science Museum Group Collection More information about A Berliner 7-inch gramophone record, 1898. Notice how the inscription in the centre of the record leaves no doubt about its origins

The advantages of Berliner’s process went beyond sound quality and into commercial potential. Records:

  • Were made of a tough shellac with a long lifespan
  • Were thin, flat, and easy to store
  • Had blank spaces in the centre where information about the recording, copyright, and trademarks could be recorded—critical details in a developing industry that was highly competitive and full of illegal imitations!

By the early 1900s, Berliner had settled on a winning combination of wax, shellac, and metal stamps as the foundation of his patented record-making process—a process suited to an industrial scale.

A new industry in England

Berliner concentrated his life and work in the United States of America, but he helped found an international industry by sending representatives abroad to set up affiliated businesses. On 23 February 1889 his representative in England, William Barry Owen (1860–1914), partnered with Edmund Trevor Lloyd Williams (1859–1946) to register The Gramophone Company. His Master’s Voice (HMV) soon became the company’s major recording label.

There is probably no other instance of a trade-mark proving so popular as to eclipse the title of the firm which registered it. But it is a fact that millions of people the world over know the Gramophone Company’s products only as ‘His Master’s Voice’...

The Daily Herald (29 December 1932)

Sound horns are iconic of early sound reproduction. The strength of this symbol is owed to a painting by Liverpool-born artist Francis Barraud (1856–1924) that featured a terrier named Nipper listening attentively to ‘his master’s voice’ through a gramophone horn. In 1899, Barry Owen purchased the painting, along with its copyright, for The Gramophone Company’s Covent Garden location. The image of ‘Nipper’ has since become one of the most recognised trademarks in the world.

Gramophone with model of dog © Science Museum Group Collection
Early HMV gramophone, 1897, pictured with model of ‘Nipper’

By the 1920s, three other competitors had set up shop in the United Kingdom: Columbia Records, Pathé Frères, and Aeolian Records. Another major, Decca, was founded in 1929. Together, the companies catered to a market that reached close to 50 million sales annually by the close of the 1920s. Even with the competition, as contemporary commentator Ogilvie Mitchell attests in his book The Talking Machine Industry (1924), The Gramophone Company remained preeminent.

Crowd at public record playing session © Mirrorpix/SMG Images
A public record playing session hosted by His Master’s Voice. James Jarché, 1932

The fortunes of the industry changed with the Great Depression. Record sales shrank by about 80% in 1930, forcing even the most successful companies to reassess their viability. In March 1931, The Gramophone Company merged with Columbia Records to become one of the giants of the 20th century recording industry: Electrical and Musical Industries (EMI). 

Recording in wax

The first step in making a record involved preparing the recording medium: plate-sized wax discs known as ‘blanks’.

Continuously filtered in large vats at the record factory to ensure it stayed bubble-free, liquid wax was poured into circular moulds to cool and harden, and then turned on a lathe to ensure a perfectly smooth surface. Imperfections could spoil a recording!

Once the carefully packed discs arrived at the recording studio, technicians placed the wax blank on a turntable. As the turntable spun it also moved sideways under the ‘cutting head’, the stylus slicing a groove into the wax from the outer edge toward the centre.

Man watching closely as a stylus cuts grooves into a wax disc © TopFoto/SMG Images
A stylus cuts grooves into a wax disc. James Jarché

The turntable spun at a standard 78 rotations per minute (RPM)—at least in theory—to create recordings of about 3 minutes per side. This is how early gramophone records came to be nicknamed ‘78s’.

Once cut, the wax discs—now ‘masters’—were returned to the record factory for inspection and processing. In the photo below, we can see two technicians carefully inspecting the grooves of the wax master to ensure the absence of obvious flaws that might spoil the recording.

Two men study the grooves cut in a wax disc © TopFoto/SMG Images
Two men study the grooves cut in a wax disc. James Jarché

Making stamps

A technician places master records in a cupboard © Science Museum Group Collection
A technician places the prepared master records, or stamps, into a cupboard

Wax masters were ‘positive’ recordings, meaning that their grooves were suitable for reproducing the recorded sound. The problem was that the wax was delicate; running a stylus over the groove could ruin the recording.

The solution? Create a ‘negative’ or mirror image of the grooves that could be used to stamp the recording into a more robust material for playback.

Wax masters were dusted with graphite (a conductor) and then submerged in a bath of copper sulphate and sulphuric acid for several hours. This ‘electrolysis’ process built up a layer of metal on the outside of the wax master, aptly called a ‘shell’. The result was a copper negative with ridges that could be used to stamp grooves into a record.

To help ensure the longevity of the stamp, the copper was plated with nickel and a heavy steel backing was affixed to each stamp.

Once the metal stamp was ready, the wax master’s job was finished: it could be planed down and shipped back to the studio for another round of recording.

A worker uses a hydraulic press to press heavy metal backings onto records © Mirrorpix/SMG Images
Hydraulic pressure is used to press heavy metal backings onto the stamps. Leslie Cardew, 1932

Preparing shellac

Until at least the 1940s, when wartime shortages prompted adoption of vinyl, gramophone discs were pressed in shellac. The exact formulation varied by manufacturer, but The Gramophone Company of Hayes, Middlesex, reportedly used a mixture comprising:

  • 65% slate powder
  • 27% shellac (a resin secreted by female lac bug—Kerria lacca—and harvested from trees in India and Thailand)
  • 8% filler comprising manilla copal, wood resin, carnauba wax, and carbon black

The slate powder was important as it caused the record stylus (and not the groove of the record!) to wear away.

The photo below shows a worker feeding the shellac mixture through hot rollers, making it pliable and ready for pressing.

A worker feeds shellac through heated rollers © TopFoto/SMG Images
A worker feeds shellac through heated rollers

Pressing records

The heated shellac was then placed between the stamps and pressed using a vice under firm hydraulic pressure. Each stamp could press about 1,000 records before wearing out.

A worker presses prepared shellac between stamps © TopFoto/SMG Images
A worker presses the prepared shellac between the stamps

Preparing for distribution

Once pressed and hardened, stacks of records were individually trimmed, wiped clean, placed in sleeves, and boxed for distribution to an increasingly avid public.

Distribution gallery

Changing technologies

The photos featured in this story date from 1925 to the early 1940s. From its introduction at the turn of the century to the advent of vinyl and ‘long play’ (LP) records in the 1940s, little changed in the record making process. Indeed, Berliner’s gramophone technology is recognisable in the manufacture of records even in the 21st century.

But that doesn’t mean there weren’t innovations along the way!

Flexible records

Filmophone Flexible Records were flexible cellulose discs that, like a standard gramophone record, were 10 inches in diameter, double-sided, and designed for playback at 78 RPM.

Unlike brittle shellac records that might shatter if dropped, Filmophones were quick and cheap to produce. Unfortunately, each record could only be played about a dozen times before wearing out. Though Filmophone released nearly 400 titles between 1931 and 1932, very few of these delicate discs survive to the present.

Filmophone machine on display at an exhibition © Mirrorpix/SMG Images
Filmophone machine on display at an exhibition in the Olympia. Leslie Cardew, 1932

Lacquer discs

In 1934, blank lacquer-coated discs hit the market and created new possibilities for sharing sound. In principle, lacquer discs worked like a wax blank, but the more robust medium enabled playback without certain destruction of the recording (though the recordings, admittedly, didn’t last forever).

Commercial versions of lacquer discs were widely adopted by broadcasters and in the mastering process of recording studios. And for DIYers, the availability of blank discs for personal use offered exciting new possibilities for communication. The Daily Herald’s caption for the photograph below describes how ‘The latest method of sending Xmas greetings to friends abroad is to make permanent Gramophone records of your message at home or in a small London Studio equiped [sic] for that purpose’.

Woman recording message onto a record © Mirrorpix/SMG Images
Woman recording a Christmas greeting onto a gramophone record. Leslie Cardew, 1933

Record making in action

This British Pathé silent film, c.1918–24, documents the entire process of making a gramophone record, from singing into the recording horn to punching a hole in the middle of a brand-new record!

‘They shall have music’

During the early years of the 20th century, making gramophone records and building gramophone machines were inseparable ventures. Records featuring performers like Dame Nellie Melba, Enrico Caruso, Luisa Tetrazzini, Edward Lloyd, Sir Edward Elgar, Noël Coward, and other favourites of the era were the ultimate enticement to purchase a gramophone player of one’s own—with the bonus of providing a perpetually renewable income source for record labels.

Companies like HMV offered ongoing refinements to the new devices, quickly shrinking the dominating units that were fixtures of middle-class sitting rooms down to affordable portable units that were suitable for personalised listening—a trend that continues to the present as listening technologies become ever more portable and customisable.

They shall have music - gallery

The commercial model established through gramophone production and record sales in the early 20th century is being challenged by new ways of listening and sharing sound in the 21st century. And yet it’s difficult to overstate the effect of Berliner’s gramophone machine and the industry it sparked. From something ephemeral and available only in our memories, sound was given permanence, enabling us to interact with our senses, our memories, and each other in ever-changing ways.

Further reading

Online

Books

  • Pekka Gronow, ‘The Record Industry: The Growth of a Mass Medium,’ Popular Music 3 (1983), p53–75
  • Peter Hall and Colin Brown (eds), Hayes on Record: A History of the People and Processes Involved in the Manufacture and Development of Vinyl Record and Music Cassettes at Hayes, Middlesex, 1992