The Victrola

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Physical Description of the Victrola

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The portable Victrola is designed as a container for the playback of sound. It is contained in a hard suitcase for the purpose of mobility and the protection from possible damages that would arise from being in transit. There is a handle which is semiotically associated with a brief case, and affords the ability to carry it in motion. The exterior of the portable Victrola cannot be differentiated from any other briefcase. The crank is located on the side of the machine that juts out when in use. The crank can be taken out, and stored in the case. On the corner of the case there is a container for storing needles. There is a place to store the records in order to carry around many at a time. The horn is not visible, and cannot be accessed.

Material Affordances of the Portable Victrola

The portable Victrola has a partially predetermined volume. There is no tool for the mechanical adjustment of volume within the device itself. However, if one were to close the container slightly, the sound would diminish. Although this is ostensibly an inconvenience of the device, in other competing phonographs, where the user is given control over the volume, the clarity of the recording is simultaneously altered. The fixed high volume level of the portable Victrola suggests that it was meant be used outdoors. In competing formats such as the gramophone, the adjusting spring could be tightened or loosened allowing variation in volume and clarity and the tone would become less clear as the volume grew louder. (Jonathan Sterne, The Audible Past, 215) However, in the Victrola, the user can increase the volume by replacing a sharp needle with a dull one. This creates a louder volume, accompanied by a less articulated tone. Thus it is up to the user to decide how s/he would prefer to hear the recording. In this manner pre-recorded sound could be expressed in a multiplicity of ways, and afforded consumer preference and active involvement in the perception of the recording. In a sense, there was a collaboration between the studio engineers, and the listeners. By eliminating certain aspects of the original recording event, and augmenting others, the user could partially manipulate the way in which the recording was heard. For example, Jonathan Sterne notes that if one were to point the machine towards the wall, the bass sound would increase. The portable model of the Victrola afforded it to be positioned according to the user’s preference, and placed in an infinite variety of acoustic situations. The user of the Victrola had to mechanically wind the machine in order for it to work. The more that the machine was wound, the longer it would play. However, the duration of the recording itself determined the length of the playback, and therefore the length of the sonic expression was mechanized.The portable Victrola allowed the user to hear the record being played back at different intervals of speed. Therefore it was up to the listener to determine how s/he wanted to hear the recording. However, the device symbolically suggests that the middle level would be the most accurate and truthful expression of the original sound recording event.

Material Substrate and Sonic Representation

If one were to listen to the early phonographic recordings, one would notice that they sound somewhat flat or “tinny” and contain “pops and hisses.” This is due to the process and materials used to record the sound. The early recordings on wax surface were unsuccessful in capturing the heavy bass notes, and notes from the top end of the spectrum. “Loud sounds would force the stylus to the edge of the groove and sometimes beyond it, ruining the record.” (Sterne, 200) In the earliest recordings, music was captured by the phonograph’s horn and then channeled to the recording stylus. Sometimes the elements captured the sound accurately, and other times the material used in the construction of the instrument, the room’s size and dimensions, noise from outside, would all get incorporated into the recording. The earliest phonographic recordings were impractical, in that they could only hold two minutes worth of sound. (Steffen, 27) Wax was used as the material substrate for recording, because it allowed for a more defined and sharper recording, because the grooving was closer together than that of tinfoil. However, recordings on wax were significantly softer then tin foil. (ibid, 28) This phenomenon leaves it up to the listener to imagine the music as if it were without the "pops and hisses," as a smooth coherent whole.

Precursors to the Victrola

The Victrola is situated in a technological history of automated devices that mediated sonic performance, from the the music box, to the piano roll. The mediation comes from machines meant to read inscriptions and codes and thus to mechanize a sonic event. The automation would produce “live music” and could only be repeated using the machines that were present. The Musical Box was one of the first automatic instruments. It was manufactured in Switzerland in 1814 and was the first use of the cylinder in the production of music. There was a winding lever, and a “fan-shaped governor” to regulate the speed. With one winding, the instrument could run by itself for two hours. (Science > Vol. 12, No. 306 (Dec., 1888), pp. 286-288) The Victrola is a remediation of the Musical Box, using much of the same technology in its process of automation. The winding lever is present in the mechanical Victrolas, as well as the ability to regulate speed. The telegraph is another invention that directly preceded the creation of the phonograph. It was invented by Samuel Morse in 1844 and was the first invention to provide instantaneous communication of information through space. The telegraph created the possibility of disembodied communication, where face-to-face interaction was no longer necessary for interaction. It is possible to see the first instantiation of disembodied performance as the telegraph operator could make patterns that were broadcasted elsewhere.

Stenography and the Encoding and Decoding of Messages

Stenography can be seen as a precursor to the earlier forms of audio/visual representation, as well as a cultural paradigm from which Edison’s initial intention for the phonograph developed. Stenography, also known as “short hand,” was a system of representation used prior to the phonograph, and was replaced by the phonograph. Its function was to capture live testimonials, and transcribe them verbatim. Eventually stenography evolved into phonography, which was a more advanced version of the former. Stenography was taught to students, and used widely by teachers. It was taught to students because it was known to utilize intellect as well as mechanical dexterity. (Headline: One of the Marvels of the Nineteenth Century. Sound Recording Itself; Article Type: News/Opinion Paper: Porcupine's Gazette, published as The Pittsfield Sun; Date: 10-31-1861; Volume: LXII; Issue: 3189; Page: [1]; Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) In combination with still photographs, stenography was used as a method of recording history. (Gitelman, 25) It attempted to capture and edify aspects of oral expression, and evolved to focus on the vocal element as opposed to the spelling of the word. (Gitelman, 25) The logic of capturing oral expression was extended into the subsequent invention of the Phonoautograph. This device was invented by M.L. Scott and purported to visibally fix sound on a tablet. In the representation of sound on a tablet, each sound could be seen as visually distinct. Human voice was able to be distinguished from the sound produced by musical instruments. The acoustic vocabulary of tones and frequencies were employed to show how different sounds were represented visually on the tablet. This is a remediation of stenography as it attempted to capture the ephemeral sonic event, and to represent this event visually in a semiotic system. However, stenography employed writing, and the language used was the alphabet. It relied almost exclusively on the human labor of the stenographer. The Phonoautograph relied on the interface between sound and machinery much like the camera did with visual material substrate. There was an attempt to transcribe the graphic representation of sonic waves back into words, thus mimicking the process of stenography, however, this proved to be impossible, as all words looked visually different. “It is difficult to imagine the importance of the discovery, whether in respect it be in respect to the unimpeachable accuracy of the process, the entire absence or trouble and expense in reporting any articulate sounds, or the great saving of time, and exhausting labors of parliamentary reporters.” (Porcupine’s Gazette)The Phonograph extended the notion of converting oral experience into evidence. (26) The notion of short-hand used in order to capture oral experience is seen in the 18th. Century. “..The fallies of imagination and the falutary advise of wisdom and experience would die with their professors, and be unavailing to posterity.” “By it we can make the copious effusions of animated oratory our own, catch the beautiful or the sublime, from the lips of the speaker we admire.”Headline: On the Art of Common, and That of Stenography or Short Writing; Article Type: News/Opinion Paper: State Gazette of South-Carolina; Date: 12-17-1793; Volume: LV; Issue: 4296; Page: [3];) The Phonograph solved the problem of stenography in that it got rid of the anxiety of inaccuracy due to fallibility of the stenographers. Stenography evolved into another form of writing called Phonography, which was intended for teachers. The use of the word Phonography first appeared in 1845. The art of Phonography was “intended to benefit mankind.” (Headline: Pursuit of Knowledge; Article Type: News/Opinion Paper: Sun, published as The Pittsfield Sun.; Date: 07-15-1847; Volume: XLVII; Issue: 2443; Page: [1]; Location: Pittsfield, Massachusetts)

The Early Phonograph

In the late 19th century, there were many competing formats for sound recording and reproduction. The Victrola took the successful elements from of the technology employed by both the early phonograph, and the gramophone. The phonograph was invented by Edison in 1877. Edison came up with the idea for the phonograph initially, while thinking of ways to speed up the telegraph. He wanted to speed up the process of the telegraph in order to increase the amount of messages and the speed at which they could be sent. In doing so he realized that he had to rid the process of the human component, as people could only work at a finite speed. In order to automate the process, he saw the necessity for recording the coded messages. (Steffen: From Edison to Marconi) The initial phonograph was used in order to permanently record the human voice and other sounds, from which the sounds could then be reproduced and rendered audible at another time. (phonograph patent) Like the photograph, the phonograph engaged in the freezing of a moment of time, and displacing it into the future.

The Phonograph V.S. The Gramophone

The original patent shows the process for mechanical reproduction of audio: “the record, if it be upon tinfoil, may be stereotyped by means of the ‘plaster of paris’ process, and from the stereotype multiple copies may be made expeditiously and cheaply by casting or by pressing tin-foil or other material on it. “ (Patent 200521) According to information from the patents, Edison’s phonograph used a stylus attached to a vibratory diaphragm to indent a traveling sheet of tinfoil. The stylus would indent the substrate (tinfoil or other substrates that could be indented) and its imprints were to a debth that depended on the amplitude of the sound waves. Emile Berliner, who invented the gramophone, saw the Edison’s phonograph as defective, and sought to improve upon the method of mechanical reproduction. He argued that this method was defective because of the weak force of the vibrations therein, and saw the weakness as a defect for its lack of volume. Additionally he believed that the vibrations had to overcome the resistance in the material substrate, which would lead to a modification in the imprints, and a less accurate reproduction. He argued that Edison’s invention, due to issues with the material substrate, would not be able to pick up the voice of a loud speaker. Berliner overcame this in his gramophone, by positioning the stylus parallel to the substrate, so that there would be minimal friction, and the substrate used would have minimal resistance. “The vibrations were then engraved onto metal and could stand an infinite number of reproductions without altering its accuracy.” (patent 372786) At this point, the cylinder was still being used to support the surface that was recorded on. Berliner switched to the flat disc because the surface had to be straightened in the photo-engraving copy process. (patent 564586) He used the side to side cut method as opposed to the vertical cut, where the needle moved up and down in order to reproduce the signal. Edison’s original invention of the phonograph was used for both recording and for playback. He employed the use of the cylinder as opposed to the disc found in the Victrolas and the Gramophones. In 1889 Edison created the phonograph that separated the instruments used for recording, and playback. He claimed to have done this because he feared that the stylus used to record onto the surface, would “obliterate” the record if used for playback. He made the reproducing point thinner than the recording point. As the phonograph was reproduced by tracing a groove in the surface of a wax cylinder, this produced a considerably low volume, but was ostensibly more pleasing to the ear. The gramophone used a rubber record which was reproduced by scratching a tack in the granulated groove. This had a higher volume. Volume was framed as a class issue where higher volume was deemed as more suitable for teenagers. (Sterne, 279) Johnson and Berliner developed a way to mass produce the disk. This was done by stamping discs from a malleable material such as rubber or wax. (Steffen, 48) In the 1880s, Berliner’s gramophone was distinguished from the phonograph in its loud volume. There was a competing aesthetic that was mixed in corporate interests: some people criticized the gramophone for its loudness.

The Uniqueness of the Victrola

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The consolidated Talking Machine Company was the precursor to Victor Talking Machine Company, which later became RCA Victor. The Victor Talking Machine Company began in 1901. There was no standardization of equipment or software and the companies as well as the consumers had to choose between cylinder or disk. In 1901, Eldridge Johnson of the Talking Machine Company created the Victrola. The Victrola is a type of early phonograph that used an internal horn. It was patented by the Victor Talking Machine Company, and only refers to internal horned phonographs. The Victrola is a direct descendant of the gramophone in that it uses the same technology of a flat record disk. (Patent, 781429) These disks revolved at 78 RPM (rotations per minute) and used the lateral side to side cut method. The Victrola produced sound into the environment through a reverse process of its inscription: “The needle would track the groove, the vibration is coupled into the sound-box, which holds the diaphragm. The diaphragm vibrates the air molecules into a hollow “tonearm” and mechanical energy is converted into acoustical energy.” (official Victrola website) The tonearm then routes the sound into the horn, which is hidden in the box. The horn then directs the waves into the listening environment. (official Victrola website) While the record spins, the stylus tracks the groove which contains the acoustical signal. The stylus vibrates and the vibrations hold the frequency and amplitude information of the audio signal. The diaphragm then converts the mechanical energy into acoustical energy, which excites the column of air in the tonearm. The company saw the gramophones as inconvenient due to the large horn that would just out in order to amplify sound. The prevailing attitude was that it had a dominating presence and was unsuitable for the middle class family’s parlors, which the company sought to market to. (Official Victrola Website) In 1905 the company invented the cabinet sound-producing machine. This consisted of an internal horn folded downward into a large floor standing cabinet. The horn opening was placed below the turntable. (Patent, 1159978) The cabinet was used to block the visual of the horn, and as a “crude volume control,” where if closed made the volume louder, and if opened, softer. At first, the unique model of the Victrola was its design as a “cabinet sound-producing machine.” These were expensive, and the company designed tabletop versions in 1909 for the average American home.

The Cabinet Producing Machine and Home Entertainment

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The first Victor-Victrola was advertised for the wealthy as it was costly to produce, and sold at $200. The Cabinet Producing machine is described in an advertisement created in 1908 as follows: "The Horn and all moving parts are entirely concealed in a handsome mahogany cabinet, and the music is made loud or soft by opening or closing the small doors." (Advertisement 3--No title, Outlook (1893-1924); Nov 7, 1908; 90, 10; APS online) Advertising suggested the value of the talking machine for home entertainment. The Phonograph replaced the piano as the dominant form of entertainment in the household. Playing the piano was time consuming and an active process. With the advent of the Phonograph, entertainment could now be a passive process, and more efficient, as almost no energy had to be emitted to hear pre-recorded music. It was redefined as a parlor instrument to bring culture, education, and social status into the household. The phonograph suited the middle class household, and was targeted specifically towards women. Thus the first designs of the Victrola’s “cabinet sound reproducing machines,” were designed in order to blend in with household furniture. The phonograph initially was associated with low-brow culture, because it was only seen in nickelodeons and archades. It was viewed as a novelty. Advertisers sought to transform its image into one that would be acceptable for an in-home market. In doing so, the industry had to promote its ability to play “high class music.” Early advertisements mimicked campaigns for home products such as the piano to cleaning supplies, hoping to change the image of the phonograph. The ads promised to provide culture, education, and upward social mobility. (Creating a home culture for the phonograph: Women and the rise of sound recordings in the United States,1877--1913, Bowers, Nathan David. Proquest Dissertations And Theses 2007. Section 0178, Part 0323 321 pages; [Ph.D. dissertation].United States -- Pennsylvania: University of Pittsburgh; 2007. Publication Number: AAT 3270123., 72)

The Orthophonic Victrola

The Mechanical Victrola evolved into the Orthophonic Victrola (1924) This was a device designed to sound more like radio. Radio used electricity to transmit sound across space. The Orthophonic Victrola used an electric recording process with an electric speaker which could pick up more treble and base. In 1929 the company was bought by the RCA corporation. The Orthophonic Victrola eventually was replaced by Vinyl record players.

Historical Context of Mass Reproduction

Sound media was part of an emerging field of mass communication and culture oriented towards the middle class. (Benjamin, “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction) “The technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition. By making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence.” (ibid) The 19th Century saw a trend towards mass culture which was characterized by high volume, low unit-cost production. This was reflected in the high-speed printing press, newspapers, and books that could be sold cheaply. Content was popularized, and became more democratic. (Hoover) At the same time, there was a need for the democratization of culture. The salient attitude was that “music was a powerful cultural and moral force, and that Americans sadly lacked access to it…” The American ideal was that all members of society should have access to “the highest forms of human culture.” (Making America More Musical through the Phonograph, 1900-1930, by Mark Katz American Music © 1998 University of Illinois Press) The Phonograph and public taste and popular culture: The phonograph allowed the working class American to access “high culture” by providing them with mass produced music. In the beginning of the mass production of records, “records were sold by volume and not by subject, much less by title or artist. The customer bought a dozen mixed records instead of choosing the songs he or she preffered. “ (sterne, 33) Thus it could be said that the record companies became the taste-makers of audio culture. Advertisements would speak to the fact that people could now hear "The world's greatest artists" in their own home.

Acoustic Realism and the Marketing of High Fidelity

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The Original Use of the Phonograph

Music was not Edison’s preferred application of the Phonograph. Edison wanted "to preserve for future generations the voices as well as the words of our Washingtons, our Lincolns, our Gladstones, etc.. their utterances transmitted to posterity, centuries afterwards, as freshly and forcibly as if those later generations heard his living accents." (As Quoted by Steffen) “The Sun says nothing could be more incredible than the likelihood of hearing the voice of the dead, yet the invention of the new instrument is said to render this possible hearafter.” The interest in hearing the voices of the dead also came from a desire to preserve cultures that the U.S. government wished to destroy. (Sterne) Edison initially intended the invention to be used in order to record voices, and as a business machine. He stated that it could be used for stenography, teaching and preservation of language, recording of lectures and instructions from teachers and professors, capturing the dying words of family and friends, voice clocks that would announce the hour, an attachment to Bell’s telephone, talking books for the blind, talking dolls, and music boxes. (Steffen, 26)f) The Phonograph was first considered by the public as an improvement on the telephone. Not only did it receive sound but kept it “corked up in a coil of electric wire until it is wanted.” “The state ought to order thousands with which to bottle up the eloquence of our legislators this winter for the edification of posterity.” (Headline: [State]; Article Type: News/Opinion Paper: New Orleans Times, published as The New Orleans Times; Date: 11-14-1877; Volume: XIV; Issue: 7464; Page: 4; Location: New Orleans, Louisiana) The phonograph was seen by Edison as a device for the storage of public knowledge. (Gitelman, 13) Thus it can be seen that the initial usage of the phonograph was for posterity and common historical knowledge of public affairs. At the same time, it was also seen as a device for personal and private affairs, where dying family members could record their voices, and leave messages for their future family members. In this sense the recording of voices allowed for the first time, the voice to be separated from the body, but to contain a trace of bodily identity.

The Pursuit of High Fidelity

Advertisements were geared at fidelity. Whether or not a person could tell the difference between the real and its reproduction. The relations between sounds made by people and those made by machines were called into question. (216, Sterne) This notion comes from the perspective that reproduced sound is a mediation of live sounds that occur in face-to-face presence and live musical performance. (218, ibid) The recording technology was supposed to be a “vanishing mediator” as if it were not there. b) This nostalgia for capturing the original voice speaks directly to Benjamin’s essay “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” There is a sense of nostalgia that accompanies reproduction. “When speech fails to protect presence, writing becomes necessary.” (Derrida, Of Grammatology 144) Writing is commonly understood as supplementing speech. Edison accepted the illusion of presence, believing that the phonograph would transmit to our perception the sonic event exactly as if it was present at the instant of its perception. This thought process is also mimicked in the belief in the fidelity of the photograph, as the captures the objective reality. Edison believed in the transparent communication. The phonograph was a way of preserving the illusion of presence, and exemplifies Derrida’s concept of logo-centrism. The voice was supposed to be the marker of origin and identity.

Sound and Time in the 19th Century

The Bourgeoisie conception of time was that it was something that could be measured, objectified, repeated, and saved. (Sterne, 300) Sound recordings dealt with time in this manner. According to Kittler, in the 19th century the “real” took the place of the symbolic. Kittler is referring to time as the primary mode of measurement as opposed to length. With the advent of the phonograph the notion of frequency was changed. “The measure of length is replaced by time as an independent variable. It is a physical time removed from the meters and rhythms of music.” (Kittler, 24) What was objectified were sonic vibrations, and the length of time. In this sense, the recording of sound can be viewed as repeatable, but within in a physically bounded frame that could only exist in a unique space. “Phonographic time was the outgrowth of a culture that had learned to can, to embalm, in order to ‘protect’ itself from seemingly inevitable decay.” (Sterne, 311) The act of recording sounds, is a process of extraction. The extraction of a particular spacio-temporal moment can then be stored and repeated any number of times. However, there would always be qualitative differences in the playback of the original sounds, that would be contingent upon the particular situational context of the payback. Although there was a creative act of recording (as in the selection of the event, and the artificial conditions that were constructed, the creative act extended to the domain of the listener, and did not stop with the original performance. Sterne argues that the sound reproduction was inherently a studio art and therefore bound up with the reproduction technologies. He argues that the main point of Benjamin’s essay is that reproduction precedes originality. People performed for the machines, capturing reality suitable for reproduction. “Considered as a product, reproduced sound might appear mobile, de-contextualized, disembodied. Considered as a technology, sound reproduction might appear mobile, dehumanized, and mechanical.” (Sterne, 236) The listener that was enmeshed in a discourse of fidelity and authenticity saw the noises made by the machines as exterior to the sound. There was an effort on the part of the listener to ignore the pops and hisses that came from the recording. There was a discourse of realism surrounding reproduction devices. The record was supposed to reflect sound as opposed to shaping it.

Analogue v.s. Digital

The groove of a phonograph record is a spatial analogue of the sound emitted by the original performing medium. In early automatic instruments, there is no spatial representation, but rather an indirect representation of the live performance. Analogue recording technologies have an authentic relation to the original because there is a causal relation between the sound and the analog recording. This is in contradistinction to digital recording that converts sound into zeros and ones, to be reconstructed as sound at the moment of production. Therefore, Sterne argues that analog and digital are ontologically different in terms of live recording.

The Successors to the Portable Victrola

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The first successor to the portable Victrola was the portable Stereophonic Record Player patented in 1964. This record player had an automatic record changer and delivered sound waves through independent amplifiers. This was a remediation of the portable Victrola because of its design. "It is another object of the present invention to provide an assemblage of speakers and automatic record changer whereby they can be quickly and easily assembled together into a compact portable unit and can at the same time be very quickly and easily set up in proper physical separation for stereophonic reproduction."(Patent 3135837) This is a successor because of its design and its affordances. Another successor is the "Magnetic Recording and Reproducing Machine" or the tape recorder. The advantage of the tape recorder was its ability to be reused indefinitely. Another successor to the portable Victrola is the portable stereo system, also known as the "boombox." This was a system used in the 1980s that played at a high volume either cassette tapes or compact discs. As it was designed for public outdoor use, it can be said to be a current incarnation of the the portable Victrola.

Portability: From Group to Individual Listening

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Although the portable Victrola was easily transportable by design, its intended use remained open-air and group playback. Portability was a value not yet associated with individualized listening, as would become customary with later portable technologies that employed headphones. The Victrola was instead marketed as a device which could be easily taken from place to place for open-air playback, not a device which could offer playback en route. This was a function of both the issues of volume control mentioned earlier as well as the obvious difficulty in handling rather clumsy and large material recordings. Indeed, the problem of analogue, carved inscription (wax records), as compared to analogue, magnetic recording (cassettes), rendered portable playback on one's person illusory for some time. Radio technology lent itself more immediately to portable use (in the 1950's car, for instance). The Victrola and subsequent record players, on the other hand, required a stable platform upon which to sit during use, lest the needle jump. Stability was key. That said, a number of ill-fated devices did emerge which attempted to solve this problem. Portability would thus become synonymous with individualized and isolated playback: the walkman, the discman, and, more recently, the iPod. An early forerunner to such technologies, introduced well after the advent of both the eight-track and subsequent audiocassettes, presented itself in 1983 as the "personal portable phono system." This was the the Mister Disc pictured above.


Jonathan Sterne, "The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction," Duke University, copyright 2003

Lisa Gitelman, "Scripts, Grooves, and Writing Machines: Representing Technology in the Edison Era," Stanford Press, copyright 1999

Friedrich Kittler, "Gramophone, Film, Typewriter," Stanford University, 1986

S. Hoover, "Religion in the Media Age," Routledge, copyright 2006

David Steffen, "From Edison to Marconi: The First 30 Years of Recorded Music," Minnesota, Copyright 2005