Time warp: The turntable

The death of vinyl has been foretold for decades, yet it continues to thrive in select communities. Collectors, golden-earned audiophiles and the club scene are keeping alive the technology that, when first developed 150 years ago, would go on to replace the pianoloa in the living room and launch the business that is the modern music industry.

Thomas Edison developed the first record player in 1870s and the first famous recording – ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ – was made onto a cardboard cylinder wrapped in tinfoil, not a flat disc. Edison called his invention the phonograph and saw a future for it as an office dictaphone. It had a mouthpiece for recording into which was replaced by a ?reproducer? for playback, with the cylinder capable of holding up to four minutes of audio. And without the benefit of today?s mass duplications facilities, each recording had to be custom made; musical works often needed to be performed many times by artists, and in the company of up to 150 phonographs.

During the same period that Edison was working on the phonograph, Alexander Graham Bell patented a similar machine, the gramophone. It did pretty much what the phonograph did, but recorded to wax cylinders instead? and so began history?s first consumer technology format war.

Both types of machine underwent various improvements over the next 30 years, moving from hand cranks to batteries, and from a fixed to a floating stylus. In the early 1890s, a horn for amplifying the music was added and 12 cm flat recording discs, the precursor of vinyl records, were invented. Called gramophone discs, these and the machines that played them were cheaper to mass-produce and therefore cheaper to buy, and by 1930 it was curtains for Edison?s cylinder recording.

The 1950s introduced long play (LP) records that could store entire symphonies, and small, cheap 45s recorded with radio hits that could be played at home whenever someone wanted, or taken to parties. Together, these went a long way to popularising the record player and by the 1960s they were common in most households. The following decade was the golden age of hi-fi, and during this time record players became sophisticated and accurate music reproduction equipment. The Technics SL-1200 and the Linn Sondek LP12 (current model pictured) were notable models from this era and incarnations of these continue to sell well today, the former with DJs and the latter with audiophiles.

This was vinyl?s peak, however, and subsequent decades saw audiocassette and CD players replace the turntable as the preferred music playback system in people?s homes. They were more robust, portable and convenient; they could be installed in a car and, to most ears, they also sounded better. To improve sound quality, a Japanese company developed a turntable that uses a laser rather than a diamond stylus to read the grooves in a record, and while hip hop and the rave scene of the 1990s revived interest in LPs and spawned ?turntablism? ? where DJs use turntables as musical instruments, scratching cutting and blending tracks from several decks to make new sound mixes ? the record player?s day in the technology sun had passed.