A phonograph, gramophone, or record player, is a device which is designed to play back recorded music. For almost 100 years, phonographs were essentially the only way for consumers to enjoy recorded music at home, except for the radio; record players began to be supplanted by cassettes, compact discs, and other recording and storage methods in the 1980s. However, working record players can be found in some homes, and they are the tool of choice for some musical artists, since they provide a unique level of flexibility which is not offered by other music playback devices. Some people also prefer the sound of a recording played on a phonograph.
To use a phonograph, someone places a grooved disc on a turntable which rotates at a constant rate. A stylus known as a needle is placed onto the disc. As the disc rotates, the stylus moves in response to the grooves, which are actually recorded soundwaves. With the use of a horn connected to the stylus, it is possible to hear the sound. Modern phonographs connect speakers to the needle for further amplification.
Various early attempts at the phonograph were documented in the 1800s, but the credit for the first one usually goes to Thomas Edison, who patented a working phonograph in 1877. Edison's phonograph had all the basic components of later record players, although the turntable had to be cranked by hand. Edison's phonograph also recorded sound on a cylinder, rather than a disc; many early phonographs used cylinders, and it was not until the 1890s that disc recordings were developed.
The history of the phonograph is quite fascinating. Before the advent of phonographs, there was no way to capture sound; the development of methods to inscribe and play back these cylinders and later discs marked a radical transition in society. For the first time, people could listen to music in the comfort of their own homes without requiring a band. Early phonographs may have been expensive and inaccessible to the lower classes, but they paved the way for the ubiquitous music playback devices seen in the hands of people young and old today.
Pressed discs of various musical performances continue to be produced today, and they are sold in specialty music and record stores for people who still own record players. Edison might have trouble recognizing a modern record player, since a number of features have been greatly improved since his day, but he could probably figure out how to spin a few tunes.