The Wind-up Gramophone or Phonograph - how it worked

The wind-up gramophone

When I was young, in the '50s, I lived in a house my Grandfather had bought around 1912. I never knew the old man. He died before I was born. But I knew lots of his prized possessions and favourite among them was a large cabinet-style wind-up gramophone (or phonograph, in US) with a fine collection of records that he'd acquired over the years. The records we later referred to as "seventy-eights", because 78 r.p.m. was their rotational speed on the turntable, but that was a distinction we made only later, when 45s and 33s came along. In those days, they were just gramophone records.

The wind-up gramophone

Grandpa's gramophone looked like this
Grandpa's gramophone looked like this

A mechanical marvel

The gramophone in the picture is similar to the one we had. Younger readers might be surprised to hear that you didn't plug it in. No electricity, no electronics. Here's how you used it.

  • Raise the lid to access the turntable.
  • Open the bottom cabinet and select your record. (The lower half was just for storing your music collection).
  • Wind up the motor using the handle on the right side of the cabinet. The clockwork motor could play eight to ten songs before needing rewound.
  • Place the record on the turntable and place the needle (it wasn't called a stylus then) in the take-up groove at the outer edge of the record.
  • Open the upper pair of doors to let the sound out. The top doors were the only way to control the volume in these old mechanical gramophones!
  • Operate the start lever to play the record.

Because of the high turntable speed and the coarse groove pitch, a ten inch record only lasted two and a half minutes per side. This is why the popular songs of the era were never longer than two and a half minutes. If it wouldn't fit on a record, it wouldn't sell.

So far so good, but how did it really work?

A hundred years ago, microphones, amplifiers and loudspeakers hadn't been invented, or at least they were still in the laboratory stage, so music had to be recorded and played back acoustically. A record's groove was not perfectly smooth, but carried the imprint of the original sound wave in the form of a microscopic side-to-side meandering of the groove. The needle followed this meandering more or less faithfully, and the resulting vibration was transferred by mechanical coupling to a small circular diaphragm mounted vertically in the head of the tone arm. The tone arm was made of brass, and hollow, and carried the sound down below the turntable to a flared plywood horn that had its mouth just behind the top doors we mentioned earlier. The exponential horn is often wrongly described as an acoustic amplifier. It is in fact an acoustic transformer, coupling the vibrational energy of the diaphragm more efficiently with the surrounding air. (Trumpets and trombones work exactly the same way).

the centrifugal governor
the centrifugal governor

Slow, slow, quick-quick...

Another wonder of this old machine was that it could play about twenty minutes of music on a single wind-up, without ever slowing down. Then, suddenly, it would slow down and stop all in a few seconds. It managed this because in the heart of the clockwork motor was a beautiful little device called a centrifugal governor. This technology had actually been around for over a hundred years, controlling the speed of steam engines. The governor is driven at speed by the motor, geared up. This causes the brass balls to swing outwards and upwards on their pivoted arms. The upwards movement lifts a collar, which is in turn coupled to (in the case of a steam engine) a steam valve, or (in our humble gramophone) a simple felt friction pad. The net effect is the same - the faster it tries to go, the more it is held back, resulting in constant speed from fully wound to almost fully unwound.

Let the Music Play!

Just a few facts

  • The tone arm had to be heavy because with no amplification all the energy had to come directly from the needle in the groove.
  • A needle lasted only for about six plays, then it was too blunt to follow the groove.
  • Needles were graded, loud, medium, soft. They came in little metal boxes of 100.
  • Before 78 rpm was standardised, records were made to play at a range of speeds. 76 and 80 were not uncommon. Some even played from the inside out.

Harry Lauder on 78 - Grandpa had this one!

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Comments 19 comments

epigramman profile image

epigramman 6 years ago

...thank you very much for the wonderful and informative hub on what we now call the modern turntable. I am 52 years old so I know all about the record player growing up - from the 78 rpm and the 45 rpm and then the 33 rpm record ........ so this was a very interesting hub for me and you have really done your homework here - bravo!!

I found you - making a comment on the Beatles where you preferred the slow tempo of Revolution as opposed to the more famous fast rendition .....which proves one thing you are passionate about your music and that you know what you are talking about - a double bravo is in order!

FLYSCO profile image

FLYSCO 6 years ago from Kings Cross, London Author

Epigramman - this was not homework; it was just memory! I am a few years older than you and a career engineer, so I've lived with this stuff 'forever'. About music, yes!, and that James Watkins guy is a pretty impressive writer. Thanks for the visit !

Nell Rose profile image

Nell Rose 6 years ago from England

Hi, this certainly brings back memories! My mother had one in the front room when I was small in the 60s, I loved it, we had so many 78s, my favourite was, She wore red feathers and a hooly hooly skirt! I knew all the words, but for the life of me, I can't remember who sang it! great memories cheers, nell

FLYSCO profile image

FLYSCO 6 years ago from Kings Cross, London Author

Hi Nell - according to Wiki: "She Wears Red Feathers" is a popular song written by Bob Merrill in 1952. The best-known recording of the song was made by Guy Mitchell in 1952" I remember the song well, from BBC radio, but it wasn't in our collection. Thanks for the visit :)

Zsuzsy Bee profile image

Zsuzsy Bee 6 years ago from Ontario/Canada

Just the kind of hub I absolutely love. Full of information that brings back fantastic memories of my uncle who had the biggest and I mean the biggest record collection outside of a store. They eventually flowed over from the rec room to the living room to the hall to the bedrooms etc. Everything Jazz ever recorded was in his collection. Hungarian Folks music, Gypsy violins, Maria Callas singing opera, the works on 78, 33, 45's He knew exactly were each one of them was and played them often. I kept a couple of dozen of his most favorite ones but only play them seldom as I do not want to scratch or heaven forbid break them.

Awesome hub

kindest regards Zsuzsy

FLYSCO profile image

FLYSCO 6 years ago from Kings Cross, London Author

Zsuzsy - thank you very much for that. My Grandpa's collection was mostly Scottish music hall performers, Harry Lauder, Will Fyffe and the like. Unfortunately, when 45 and 33 records came in and we got a new radiogram, the old records began to seem old fashioned and Dad threw a lot away, to make space. Great pity!

ripplemaker profile image

ripplemaker 6 years ago from Cebu, Philippines

Congratulations on your Hubnuggets nomination! Woohooo..such interesting things to learn today. Follow this link in the forums where you are led to the right hub of the Hubnuggets :

FLYSCO profile image

FLYSCO 6 years ago from Kings Cross, London Author

Thanks, Ripplemaker :)

heart4theword profile image

heart4theword 6 years ago from hub

Wow, you are off to such a great start! An Oldie...but Goodie! Really well, put together hub:) I voted for you!

FLYSCO profile image

FLYSCO 6 years ago from Kings Cross, London Author

Heart4theword - thank you for that :) I didn't deliberately enter any competition, but it's nice to be nominated!

TopOfTheFirstPage profile image

TopOfTheFirstPage 6 years ago

Fantastic hub and congratulations on your HubNuggets nomination! The centrifugal governor is certainly an amazing device, as is the entire old phonograph itself.

FLYSCO profile image

FLYSCO 6 years ago from Kings Cross, London Author

TopOfThFirstPage - nice ambitious name! Thanks for commenting. I remember as a kid working out for myself how the governor worked. It gave me a great feeling :-)

James A Watkins profile image

James A Watkins 6 years ago from Chicago

I so enjoyed this little Hub. I learned a lot. You are a good teacher. Thanks!

FLYSCO profile image

FLYSCO 6 years ago from Kings Cross, London Author

Thank you James. I just like old machines :-)

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Melenie 5 years ago

Thanks for this information. It is so interesting to learn about how it all worked then. Cheers.

FLYSCO profile image

FLYSCO 5 years ago from Kings Cross, London Author

Thanks Melenie - I'd missed your comment until now or I'd have responded sooner.

mydesi 4 years ago

Artists often create designs that are of great beauty and high artistic me if they are not adaptable to utility.

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Victrola1944 4 years ago

victrola1944 Thanks for your good info. I recently purchased a phonograph which is in very good condition, however it will only play about half the record and then it seems to get "stuck" and plays the same thing over and over. It does it on all the records so far. Help!

FLYSCO profile image

FLYSCO 4 years ago from Kings Cross, London Author

Something is stopping the tone-arm from moving past that point. You need to find out what is blocking it and correct it. Meanwhile don't let it stick in a groove and repeat over and over as this will permanently damage the record.

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