Category Archives: Phonograph History

1917 Stewart Phonograph

1917DecTalkingMachineThis ad directed at dealers appeared a hundred years ago this month in the December 1917 issue of Talking Machine magazine.  It’s for a relatively inexpensive compact phonograph from the Stewart Phonograph Corp. of 327 Wells Street, Chicago.

According to the ad, thousands of them would “be sent to the boys in the Army and Navy.  It is most suitable as a gift for Uncle Sam’s fighting men.  It is easy to see that large numbers will be sold.”  Of course, those fighting men would need the optional carrying case, turning it into the “Military Special” for a total price of $11.

It turns out that the Steward Phonograph Corporation ceased business in the United States in about 1920, but most of the assets were sold to a Canadian subsidiary, which continued production of an identical unit.  It also turns out that the proprietor of the company was John Stewart, who later became one of the principals of Stewart-Warner radio.



Nipper Goes to War: 1917

1917Nov26PGHWith the nation at war, the Victor Talking Machine Company was doing its patriotic duty by cranking out phonographs and records.  This ad appeared in the Pittsburgh Press a hundred years ago today, November 26, 1917.

1917 Foreign Records

1917NovTalkingMachine1917NovTalkingMachine2A hundred years ago this month, the November 1917 issue of Talking Machine World offered some advice for phonograph retailers seeking to “reach talking machine buyers of foreign birth.” The magazine noted that dealers in cities with a large foreign element had come to realize the profitable opportunities presented by featuring foreign records. “It has been found that nothing so stimulates the sale of talking machines and records in foreign sections as the fact that foreigners can secure records of their native music offered in their native language.”

One success story was Grinnell Bros. of 243-247 Woodward Avenue, Detroit.  (It appears that the streets had been renumbered, since the previous link identifies the company’s building as being at 1515 Woodward Avenue.)  That company had great success with advertising in foreign-language newspapers catering to the many immigrants working in Detroit’s auto industry. Examples in German and Polish were shown, in addition to the Russian ad shown here. The magazine noted that the newspapers would be happy to translate the ad copy.

The image shown above appeared elsewhere in the magazine. It is a window display offered by Columbia to highlight the company’s foreign records.

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The Elusive 16 RPM Record

1957AugPESixty years ago, the August 1957 issue of Popular Electronics carried an article about the forgotten stepchild of audio recording: The 16 RPM record. More precisely, the records played at 16-2/3 revolutions per minute, and most moderately priced phonographs in the 1960’s would play the speed, along with the more common 33, 45, and 78 RPM speeds.

The 1957 article predicted, erroneously it turns out, that “the growing catalog of recorded material and new playback equipment in all price ranges proclaim that the tide may yet turn to 16 rpm and roll into the arena with quite a splash.”

A few musical recordings were issued on 16 RPM. Most notably, some records were produced for the benefit of Chrysler’s Hiway Hi-Fi experiment, which included a record player for the car. But the article noted that the speed, while longer playing, had inherently lower fidelity than higher speeds. At the time, the maximum frequency response went only to about 9000 Hz. The format was used mostly for “talking books.” The best seller was probably the Bible, which was recorded in the early 1950’s at the lower speed. If you search eBay today for 16 RPM records, the most common search result is this talking Bible.

As a kid, my record player had the setting for 16 RPM. Eventually, curiosity got the better of me, and I checked out a 16 RPM talking book from the library, just so that I could play it at home.

1957AugPE2The article does include an interesting adapter, shown here. While the mechanical details are not explained, it allows a 16 RPM record to be played on a 33 RPM turntable. Presumably, it is powered by the spinning 33 RPM platter, and gears this down to 16 RPM for the record placed on top.

1927 “Phonoscope”


This cover illustration from the June 1927 issue of Radio News is more or less self-explanatory. But unfortunately, there’s little in the way of explanation given in the magazine, and I’m not aware of this form of video recording ever having been done in practice.

The early mechanical television signals were indeed, sent over the audio channel of AM broadcast stations, so it’s not far fetched to think that the audio could be recorded on a phonograph disk. I think the main problem would be the frequency response of the disk recording. As far as I know, the upper frequency limit for 78 RPM records, especially during that era, was around 5 kHz. I doubt if much video could be packed into 5 kHz bandwidth.

The magazine mentions, with no technical detail, only that John L. Baird was then working on the system, which he called “Phonoscope.”

Mirrorphone, 1942


Shown here on the cover of National Radio News, June-July 1942, is the Mirrorphone from Western Electric. The magazine noted that the magnetic tape recording device was being used by radio announcers, actors, and in speech classes as an aid to speech improvement.

It recorded the subject’s voice onto a steel tape, which was presumably in n endless loop. A switch provided for immediate playback, allowing the speaker to detect and correct errors of pronunciation, emphasis, or tone.

The recorder automatically erased previous recordings.

The magazine noted that the device was in use by a number of radio stations, dramatic groups, and speech classes to train thousands of new telephone operators and secretaries in government agencies and war industries.

More information about the Mirrorphone, along with photos, can be found at this link.

Recording a Record for Servicemen, 1942.

1942June8ChiTrib75 years ago today, the June 8, 1942, issue of the Chicago Tribune carried this ad from the Marshall Field department store.

So that customers could express their gratitude to the men in the service, the store had a “canteen” on the second floor containing 576 different gift ideas that were, after “consultation with the War Department and the boys themselves,” were guaranteed to please the serviceman. The ad invited customers to “spend very little, or quite a lot, but send the boys something regularly.”

The store’s prices included free shipping by railway express to any military or naval post, station, camp, or ship.

One suggestion to include in the box to the boys was a phonograph record. For just a quarter, you could record five minutes on two sides of a 6 inch phonograph disk so that the boys could hear a voice from home.

1917 Dictaphone

1917June6ChiTribA hundred years ago today, the banner headline of the Chicago Tribune, June 6, 1917, reported that 308,809 Chicago men had registered for the draft. It predicted that the total for the country could pass ten million, with 640,000 of those in the State of Illinois alone.

Whatever the exact numbers, it was clear that many American men would soon be under arms, and that labor shortages would probably result. It wasn’t surprising then that one company made the best of the situation by promoting in the same paper its labor-saving device: The Dictaphone.

The ad (which was itself dictated into a Dictaphone, it was claimed at the bottom) proclaimed that “the man-power of the country is enrolling in defense of the flag–but business must go on.”

The ad reminded the businessman that “you have always needed The Dictaphone,” but these times of stress and pressure made the need even more acute.

The businessman who had already adopted The Dictaphone “knows where he stands. He has a flexible, efficient, provably better way to handle his correspondence.”

The ad promised that “The Dictaphone will more than make good your loss of experienced, able office personnel who may be called to the colors.”


1917 Edison Phonographs

1917May31ChiTribA hundred years ago, a phonograph was within the price range of many Americans. For example, the ones shown in this ad started at $18.75, and most shops allowed weekly or monthly payments. However, that’s not to say that those interested in conspicuous consumption couldn’t show their wealth by spending a great deal more.

The ad shown here appeared in the Chicago Tribune a hundred years ago today, May 31, 1917.  The well healed could certainly display their wealth in the form of a phonograph, since the one at the bottom sold for $2000.  In today’s money, that would be something along the lines of $40,000.

1957 Hi-Fi Phono Oscillator


Maybe your MP3 player sounds a bit better than this gentleman’s hi-fi turntable from 60 years ago, but I bet you can’t build yours from scratch, like this guy did.  This one, shown on the cover of the 1957 edition of Radio-TV Experimenter, is entirely homemade, and despite the homemade appearance, probably did sound as good or better than anything on the market at the time, and would probably have sounded good even by today’s standards.

It was actually a phono oscillator, and transmitted the signal through an FM transmitter.  Since the audio quality of the FM signal was better than the recording technology of the day, the fidelity was limited only by the quality of the record.

Sound quality was paramount in every detail.  As is plainly visible, the tone arm is indeed made out of wood.  In particular, the wood is basswood, chosen because it had less mechanical resonance than other woods.  Metal would have been inferior, because of the capacitive effect with the leads running through it.

The pickup was homemade, not as a cost-saving measure, but because the design shown here was superior to the ceramic cartridges then commercially available.  It used a capacitive pickup.  The only commercial component was the sapphire-tiped needle, which was pushed into a rubber plug.  A copper plate was carefully positioned next to the needle to complete the capacitive pickup.

The tone arm was cut with a jigsaw, and the article contained precise instructions for balancing it.

The electronics, probably the easiest part to construct, consisted of a small FM transmitter employing a single 6C4 tube.  The example shown here was to be used for 45 RPM records, but the article noted that by adjusting the size and using an appropriate needle, it could be built for 33 or 78 RPM records.