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My Pot Belly Gramophone

Updated on June 30, 2014

The gramophone, antique phonograph record player

This lens is about my pot belly gramophone circa 1920s, which is neither a stove nor a pig, but an antique handcranked phonograph player. I described it as "pot belly" because visitors that come to my home would often mistake this floor model gramophone for a pot belly stove. Since this is not a common piece of furniture found in most homes, it is no wonder this gramophone always ended up becoming a conversation piece.

Many years ago, I bought this antique "talking machine" from a warehouse called Cheep Antiques in California. It was to teach my son, who was very young then, that not everything in the house runs on electricity. But before I show the parts of the gramophone and demonstrate how this works, let me step back in time and trace its origins.

The early beginnings

The First Phonograph - Recording on tinfoil cylinder

In 1877, Thomas Edison invented the first phonograph which played back recorded sounds from tinfoil cylinders. He recited the nursery rhyme "Mary had a little lamb" and his voice came back to an astonished crowd in his lab. The word "phonograph" became Edison's trade name when he established The Edison Speaking Phonograph Company on January 24, 1878. However, due to poor sound quality and the one-time use of the recording, the tinfoil cylinder phonograph was not embraced by the public. Then Alexander Graham Bell came along with the graphophone with his wax cylinder which could be played multiple times. The drawback was that each cylinder had to be recorded separately and made mass production of the same music impossible for the graphophone.

The Gramophone and flat disks (records) - The dawn of the recording industry

On November 8, 1887, Emile Berliner, a German immigrant working in Washington D.C., invented and patented a successful system of recording sound on flat discs or records. Spiral wavy grooves were carved or etched into the flat records. When the record was rotated on the gramophone, a needle attached to the soundbox would read the grooves and move from side to side causing vibrations and transmitting the sound waves along the hollow tonearm to the horn. The first records were made of glass, later zinc, and eventually plastic. Molds were made of the master recordings and hundreds of disks were pressed and mass-produced.

Emile Berliner was a superlative inventor and businessman. When he founded "The Gramophone Company" to mass produce the record disks and the gramophones that played them, he persuaded popular artists, Enrico Caruso and Nellie Melba to signed up with his company. Then Berliner purchased, copyrighted and patented Francis Barraud's painting of a dog listening to his master's voice from the horn of a phonograph, which later came to be a trademark known the world over as "His Master's Voice." Emile Berliner sold the licensing rights to his patent for the gramophone and record-making system to The Victor Talking Machine Company (RCA) who made the gramophone a successful product in the United States. Berliner branched off to other countries and founded the Berliner Gram-o-phone Company in Montreal, Canada, the Deutsche Grammophon in Germany, and the U.K based Gramophone Co., Ltd.

Everything you wanted to know about the Talking machine and more - Date, restore and repair your own gramophone.

The Compleat Talking Machine; A Collector's Guide to Antique Phonographs
The Compleat Talking Machine; A Collector's Guide to Antique Phonographs
Any collector, hobbyist and music aficionado should own this book about the workings of a mechanical wonder before the dawn of electricity. This is a comprehensive book on how to restore and repair your collectible gramophone in detail.

Nipper the dog

His Master's Voice (HMV) - the most famous trademark in the world

Nipper, a mixed breed fox terrier owned by his master, English illustrator Francis Barraud was immortalized in a painting listening to the horn of a phonograph. In 1899, Emile Berliner visited the London offices of the Berliner Garmophone Company and took a liking to the painting, purchased and copyrighted it which later came to be a registered trademark as His Master's Voice. This became the world's most recognizable trademark.

This was one of the records that came with the gramophone when I bought it. It was produced by the Gramophone Company with Nipper listening to his master's voice.

Introducing my pot belly gramophone - A mechanical marvel

The gramophone floor cabinet has a mahogany finish, a top lid protecting the mechanism, a pair of upper doors which serve as the volume controller, and the lower storage area for records.

The gramophone brand is an Excelsior which is British-made.

Anatomy of a gramophone

How does it really work?

Although the velvet pad of the turntable is frayed along the edges and the various parts are showing their age, this grand gramophone still plays beautifully and brings the past to the present.

The parts of a gramophone


The handcrank to to wind up the mainspring

The gramophone is played by cranking the handle clockwise to wind up the mainspring inside the cabinet. I avoid getting overly zealous about overwinding it so I usually stop when I feel a resistance. Underwinding the handle will make the record slow down and stop in the middle of a song.

The part of this gramophone that holds the needle is called the soundbox. This is the circular part with the Excelsior logo on it. A thumbscrew grips the needle in place at an angle rather than vertically. The stylus (needle) rides the undulating grooves of the record as it spins, transferring the vibrations from the stylus into the soundbox diaphragm. The diaphragm vibrates and disturbs the air molecules creating energy which sends sound waves along the hollow tonearm to the horn inside the cabinet.

The soundbox rotates freely on the tonearm so that the the needle swivels upwards when not in use.

A brush is attached to the tone arm of the gramaphone to keep the grooves of the record dust-free as it plays on the turntable. Sometimes, the needle gets stuck in a damaged groove and replays the same notes over and over again as the old saying goes "Like an old broken record."

Parts of a gramophone soundbox - Also called reproducer in America.

The soundbox is the structure of a phonograph which contains the stylus, stylus bar and diaphragm. It is called the reproducer by Edison and referred to as the soundbox in the United Kingdom.

Sound waves

Vibrations of the needle

When the needle or stylus rides the grooves of the record as it spins, it moves from side to side or bobs up and down. This causes the diaphragm in the soundbox to vibrate and move in and out to create energy. The disturbed air molecules will create energy in the form of sound waves routed through the tonearm to the horn inside the cabinet.

The gramophone's sounding boards

Old-time volume control

The volume of the gramophone is controlled by partially opening or closing the upper pair of doors at varying degrees. When the doors are wide open, the tone will be at its highest volume; when closed, the volume is reduced to the minimum, and when not in used, the interior is fully protected.

The gramophone needles or stylus

The storage for the needles or hoppers are located at the back of the gramaphone cabinet. The needles are made of soft steel and are made to wear away instead of ruining the grooves of the 78 rpm disks. This is the reason why a needle should be replaced after one side of the record is played.

Photo Credit: gramophone needle tins

Needles are graded loud, medium, soft and came in little metal boxes of 100. The tin boxes for the needles have become collectables.

A needle is meant for one play only.

The gramophone's speed regulator - Faster of slower

This simple speed regulator controls how fast or slow the turntable will spin. If turned to slow, the tone will lower and slower and drop several octaves; if turned to fast, the tone or voice will go from a baritone to a falsetto.

The gramophone's turntable brake - On or off switch

The gramophone turntable has a manual brake to start or stop the turntable from spinning. This is the lever on the left side of the turntable which is usually turned off as the handcrank of the gramophone is being wound to tighten the mainspring inside the cabinet.

The gramophone's 78 RPM records or disks - The sound is etched or carved in the disk.

The sound of the music is etched or carved in the grooves of the flat disk or record. The grooves are either lateral cut where the needle moves from side to side along the grooves, or vertical cut where the needle bounces up and down.

This is a macro shot of the wide grooves on a 78 rpm record. Notice that the grooves are sightly wavy so the needles can move from side to side as it reads the sound tracks.

The gramophone brush - Making a clean sweep

The brush attached to the soundbox serves the purpose of keeping the grooves clean as the record is spinning. The needle is made of soft steel which would wear away, leaving small particles along the grooves. The continuous use of a blunt needle on a good record will eventually erode the grooves and ruin a favorite song. This is the reason why that a needle should not be reused after one play.

Gallery of some of the 78 rpm records

Click thumbnail to view full-size

Let's play the gramophone and sing along.

1. Open the lid

2. Place the record record over the turntable spindle.

3. Crank the handle clockwise 8 times.

4. Turn off the turntable brake on the left side.

5. Swing the tonearm and place the soundbox needle on the edge of the spinning record.

6. Adjust the speed regulator to low setting.

7 .Adjust the top pairs of doors for loudness.

8. Sing along with the provided lyrics for "Sonny Boy."

Sonny Boy plays on the gramophone - Get a treat from acoustically-recorded sound

This is a 78 rpm record of "Sonny Boy" made famous by Al Jolson performed by baritone Jack Dale. It sounds a bit scratchy but brings back the nostalgia of the 1900s. Note the movement of the gramophone midway through the song. This was because I decided to give the handle a few more cranks so that the song will finish till the end.

"Sonny Boy" Lyrics

Songwriters:Lew Brown; Al Jolson; Ray Henderson;Buddy de Sylva

Climb up on my knee sonny boy

Though you're only three sonny boy

You've no way of knowing,

there's no way of showing

What you mean to me sonny boy.

When there are grey skies

I don't mind the grey skies.

You make them blue, Sonny Boy.

Friends may forsake me,

let 'em all forsake me.

I still have you, Sonny boy

You're sent from heaven

and I know your worth.

You made a heaven for me here on the earth.

When I'm old and grey, dear,

promise you won't stray, dear,

for I love you so, Sonny Boy.

When there are grey skies

I don't, I don't mind grey skies.

You make them blue, Sonny Boy.

Friends may forsake me,

let 'em all, let 'em all forsake me.

I still have you, Sonny boy

You're sent from heaven

and I know your worth.

You made a heaven for me here on earth.

And the angels grew lonely

Took you because they were lonely

I'm lonely too Sonny Boy.

You opinion matters.

Have you ever heard a gramophone playing before?

See results

Grammy Award

Although the word "gramophone" is no longer used, the term Grammy is still used in the record industry. The Grammy Award is the shortened word from Gramophone and is the highest and most coveted honor that pays homage to artistic achievement and technical and overall excellence, album sales and chart position.

What did you think of my pot belly gramophone?

Step right up and leave your impression. - Back from the past into the present.

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    • hntrssthmpsn profile image


      8 years ago

      I thought my USB turntable was cool till I saw your beautiful gramophone. What an amazing piece of functional art!

    • Virginia Allain profile image

      Virginia Allain 

      8 years ago from Central Florida

      Wow, there were a lot of details that I didn't know before about how these worked. The one my grandparents had in their basement was missing the crank part. We played it anyway by manually spinning the record. That resulted in some strange sounding music as we didn't maintain an even speed.


    • goldenrulecomics profile image


      8 years ago from New Jersey

      very cool lens!

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      You have a lovely piece there. What a great piece of history.

    • ltraider profile image


      9 years ago

      Nice little walk down memory lane. Thanks

    • LouisaDembul profile image


      9 years ago

      What a treasusre you got there! Very interesting and well presented!

    • profile image

      sidther lm 

      9 years ago

      It is great! I wish that they were easier to find! You did a beautiful job showcasing the pot belly gramophone!

    • emmaklarkins profile image


      9 years ago

      What a beautiful piece of machinery!


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