Phonograph records? What’s a phonograph?



 

 

Okay, I’ll admit it. I’m kind of old. Old enough to remember things young people haven’t even heard of, like phonograph records and especially the old Victrola phonograph, or “talking machine.”

Living in Chicago our main home entertainment in the middle 1940s was the radio, usually a console radio. But my Wyoming grandparents had a Victrola, and it was the center of attention for family gatherings. I really don’t remember much about it. It stood several feet high from the floor— and was an electronically amplified unit sold after 1925.

It had a covered top and played 78 rpm records. When I was a little kid nearly all phonograph records were 78 rpm. They were big, 10 inches in diameter, and fairly fragile- -if you dropped one it would break.

This Victrola had an electronic amplifier to play the sound but was driven by an old-fashioned clockwork motor. Before the electronic amplifier a Victrola played records acoustically, mechanically amplifying the vibration of the needle on the record.

A reason for the 78 rpm speed was that it turned with enough energy to drive the acoustic sound more loudly. The faster speed also was more tolerant of variations in turntable speed. As I recall, the phonograph had a speed adjustment to fine tune the speed as needed. It was powered by a mainspring motor that had a big hand crank to wind it up.

We kids would have liked to have a shot at cranking the Victrola, but the grown-ups wouldn’t let us. They thought we would overwind it and break the mainspring. And we probably would have, very innocently of course.

By the time I had my first phonograph, in the 1950s, the technology had changed a lot. The record player now had four speeds—78 rpm, 45 rpm, 33 1/3 rpm, and 16 rpm. Most of our records were the 45s and it was electrically powered and electrically amplified.

Today it’s hard to imagine those old phonographs. They gave way to audiotapes, compact disks, and digital media such as MP3 players that don’t even have moving parts. In fact, our smartphones can play music downloaded from the Internet.

We love our music, and it’s great fun to be able to play it. The old acoustic Victrola was just an early, but important, step in getting us there.

WARREN DOMKE is a columnist for the Pleasanton Express.

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