GRAMOPHONES: How It All Started

Berliner Gramophone, 1888 - photo by Charm

From Thomas Edison’s first attempt to create a music recording and playing device in 1877, which he referred to as a phonograph, to Alexander Graham Bell’s graphophone, inventors had been trying to find an effective way to record sound. Edison’s phonograph did record sound but it was of comparatively poor quality and could only play a piece once. Fortunately, Emile Berliner invented the first-ever sound recorder, which was called the gramophone.

1888 May 16, Gramophone from Emile Berliner – photo by

In contrast to Bell’s graphophone, which utilized unwieldy wax cylinders for recording, Berliner’s gramophone used flat records made of glass. The gramophone itself had a needle to read the groove etched on the record’s flat surface. This action would produce sound vibrations that were amplified through built-in speakers.

Berliner then formed the Gramophone Company to sell and distribute his products worldwide. He patented his gramophone technology in the US in 1887 and 1888. The gramophone proved to be more practical than its earlier counterparts and made it possible to mass-produce records.

After working on further improving the design of the first gramophone, Berliner teamed up with Eldridge R. Johnson, who designed the gramophone spring-driven machine. Berliner then invested in Johnson’s Victor Talking Machine, a company that manufactured records of different dimensions, allowing four-minute recordings to be played repeatedly. This is how the record players of yesteryear came into existence.

The World Famous “His Master’s Voice” – Trademark Model

His Master’s Voice Gramophone – photo by Bidspirit

In 1899, during one of his visits to their office branch in London, Berliner caught sight of a painting of a terrier listening to his master’s voice coming from the horn. He found out that the painter, Francis Barraud, used his little dog Nipper as the model of the painting. In the painting, Nipper was listening in to a cylinder phonograph. William Barry Owen, the American founder of the Gramophone Company in London, asked Barraud to modify it to illustrate one of the company’s improved gramophones.

Berliner then reached out to Barraud and asked for a copy, which he then brought back to the US and had patented. He then passed it to Johnson who used it on the paper labels of the discs and on the catalogues of Victor records. This image soon became a very famous trademark for the recording industry. Currently, EMI Records is the only company using the “His Master’s Voice” trademark as a marketing brand of the HMV shops.

Gramophones in Focus: Types of Gramophones

From 1887 until World War II, gramophones maintained a strong presence in households across the world. Below are some of the most notable models of gramophones. To show how it evolved through time, the models below were grouped into six categories based on their appearance and mechanisms: the wind-up gramophone, the horned gramophone, the hornless, the tabletop, the picnic, and the cabinet.

Wind-Up Gramophones

Wind-Up Gramophone With Horn – photo by Homelia

Sometimes referred to as a phonograph, a wind-up gramophone works by winding up the motor using the handle located at the side of the cabinet. It doesn’t need electricity and there’s no need to plug it in to make it work. The wind-up gramophone can usually play up to ten songs before the machine had to be wound up again.

The wind-up gramophone is best paired with a ten-inch record, which can play a song lasting two and a half minutes. This was also the reason why most songs then are only this long because really, why will you create a song if you can’t put it on record and sell it?

Horned Gramophones

Remember that famous painting of a dog listening in on the horn of a gramophone? Well, the horned gramophone in the painting is probably the most famous model of a gramophone. The horn acts as the speaker that amplifies the sound coming from the vibration created by the needle. The longer the horn, the louder the sound will be.

The most common model of the horned gramophone is referred to as “back-supported.” The horn can be larger and much more decorative because its full weight does not rest entirely on the machine’s needle. The most sought-after type, which is considered extremely rare, is when the horn of the gramophone is being held up by a flying buttress, which makes it appear as if the horn is flying.

Hornless Gramophones

An HMV hornless gramo­phone: Model 3, dated April 1918, with Gramophone Co. – photo by The Saleroom | Lot 590

The size of a gramophone’s horn determined how loudly it could play music – that is until a “hornless” gramophone was manufactured. The horn was still there but smartly concealed. Users either opened the two doors to amplify the sound or closed them to decrease its volume. These doors are located at the point where the sound comes out. Another term that collectors use to refer to this model is “lidless” since the turntable itself is exposed.

Tabletop Gramophones

Like the hornless gramophone, the horn of the tabletop gramophone is also concealed. But what makes this model different from the hornless one is that it has a lid that you can use to close the machine. Once the lid is closed, you can use the gramophone as a piece of furniture.

Picnic Gramophones

From the word “picnic,” it can be deduced that the picnic gramophone is small and portable, which suggests that you can bring it everywhere you go.

Cabinet Gramophones

The cabinet gramophone occupies a large space and is free-standing. There are two tubes where the sound goes through to converge in a large chamber, which boosts the volume.

The HMV Brand

HMV, which is the household brand for gramophones in the 1900s, managed to come up with a variety of gramophone models in the time that gramophones were still popular.

Below are some of the most famous models that HMV carried:

HMV Model 100

An HMV Model 100 portable gramophone with original carrying handle – photo by British things

Being HMV’s first portable modern suitcase type, HMV 100 retains the tonearm that is shaped like the neck of the goose and “exhibition” sound box from earlier designs. The good thing about this model is that the tonearm can be raised to play something or dropped to easily store it into a suitcase-type case. With a single spring front-wind motor, exhibition sound box, manual brake, and a 10” turntable, this model was in HMV’s catalogue from 1924–1925.

HMV Model 102

First introduced in 1931 and available until 1960, this is probably the most famous and most successful portable gramophone model of HMV. It is, in fact, marketed by HMV as “The World’s Finest Portable.” Having a longer internal horn, a better sound box, and a wider tonearm, it was able to handle the higher volume of the recordings that were produced later. Coloured HMV Portables are favoured by collectors as only the wealthy could afford this model.

HMV Model 58

As one of the last “hornless” gramophone models produced by the Gramophone Company, the HMV 58 was a large gramophone that was in production from July 1922 to November 1923. This model has a 12” turntable, Exhibition soundbox, and a gooseneck tone-arm that enhances the sound produced.

Other Gramophone Brands

Thorens Graphonette Gramophone

A Thorens ‘Graphonette’ in wood case with detachable tone-arm and 5-inch turntable – photo by The Saleroom | Lot 261

It’s amazing how this portable picnic gramophone transforms from when being packed away to when assembled for playing. You can store everything inside the wooden case, with the 5” turntable stored face down, and then assemble it for when you want to use it. You can also put the bottom of the tonearm into a socket on the wooden horn. This machine has a small single spring motor, combined controls for start and stop and also to control speed, and a Sonata sound box.

Decca Model 120

The Decca 120 is a front-wind machine with a large patented Dual Audioscopic bifurcated horn. Combined with the Meltrope III soundbox, the Audioscopic horn produces an impressive sound. For controls, this gramophone model has an auto stop and a manual brake.

G&T Monarch Senior

Introduced in 1905, the Monarch Senior has a triple-spring worm-drive motor, 12” turntable, a G&T exhibition soundbox, and a circular brass horn. G&T ceased production in 1907.

Gramophones Today

Only a few of these once popular gramophones are in existence, so they are a good investment, especially if in excellent working condition. Gramophones and vinyl records are still preferred by today’s audiophiles over digital players. They claim that the being produced by gramophones and old-school record players are superior to those coming from digital devices.

The invention of the gramophone has played a huge role in the way we listen to music today. It is a testament to how science can do great wonders for the arts and vice-versa. It’s no surprise that the Grammy award, which honours major contributions in the music industry, was named after this device. Gramophones made recorded music accessible to anyone.