Types of machine

There are four broad groupings into which vintage Talking Machines fall. These are;




Note to American readers; In the USA both cylinder and disc playing machines are referred to broadly as Phonographs. In England disc playing machines are always called Gramophones, leaving the term Phonograph to refer to cylinder-playing machines only. In American English the two types are properly called 'Disc Phonographs' and 'Cylinder Phonographs'.

Each type of machine requires a completely different pattern of 'head' to read the information from the record played. In England the word 'soundbox' is employed for gramophone heads and 'reproducer' for phonograph heads. In American English the word 'reproducer' is used for both types of head as in 'disc reproducer' and 'cylinder reproducer'

What is an 'acoustic' machine or record?

Before the adoption of the microphone for recording in 1924, all records of either type were made 'acoustically', that is to say by purely physical means with the sound waves 'taken' directly from vibrations in the air channelled down a recording horn to a recording 'cutting' stylus moving over a receptive revolving surface. It was impossible to modify or combine these recordings once taken, meaning that every such recording was a true reflection of everything performed in the minutes between the session beginning and ending.

Similarly, until the late 1920's machines played the records back without amplification of any kind. Valve amplification became available in England from this period at a time when the required mains electricity itself was still not universally available to the public. To many, one of the attractions of the hobby lies in the artistic 'honesty' of whatever can be heard from the 'Acoustic Era'- 1888 to 1925.

I have limited interest in buying machines which are valve-amplified, very few of which have any commercial interest for me. However, I don't dismiss them.

...and lastly; what is a 'Talking Machine'?

Nowadays not many people realise that the word gramophone (like Hoover) is not a generic one, but was the protected property of Emil Berliner's company. Until around 1910 any manufacturer or retailer offering a machine not made by The Gramophone Company Limited and calling it a Gramophone could be taken to court for the offence of Trades Description. Similarly a tussle between Edison and Alexander Graham Bell (who spikily named his variation on the phonograph 'The Graphophone') meant tetchy relations in that arena also. The selling trade settled for the term 'Talking Machine' as a legally safe and understandable catch-all term for all the different players available. The term soon became archaic as the public were happy to settle for the words gramophone and phonograph and the major companies admitted defeat in the face of popular usage before the First World War and ceased litigation.

Some Very Basic History

The facts set out below are a broad generalisation of the history of the subject. Take them as a guide only. The whole story is very complicated!

The common misconception is that 'cylinders came before discs'. In fact machines playing either were commercially available from the early 1890's and, to split hairs, it was possible to buy a primitive gramophone and records in a shop in London as early as 1888; before it was possible to buy a phonograph and pre-recorded cylinders for domestic use.

The disc and cylinder systems sold healthily in parallel from the late 1890's until around 1905 when cylinders began to go sharply into decline. There were several reasons for this, one being the nature of the repertoire available to each system, another being the relative difficulty of manufacturing and distributing cylinders compared with discs and the problems involved in storing them once bought.

Different examples of each type of machine may display great variation in design and decoration, but at the heart of each will be the same basic operating system.

Cylinder Phonographs

Edison coined the word Phonograph (Greek; 'Sound Writer') in 1877 to name his original invention in which a drum covered in tin foil moved linearly past a fixed soundbox equipped with a blunt -needle which embossed the tinfoil as it passed beneath it. His patents covered this system in which the recording and playback are made and read 'vertically', that is to say with the needle rising and falling in a so-called 'hill and dale' movement. Tinfoil phonographs were purely scientific instruments capable of demonstrating the principle of sound recording but the machine only became viable as an entertainment medium when cylindrical wax records were substituted for the tinfoil in the late 1880's. True commercial exploitation of the cylinder phonograph began in the early 1890's, was available countrywide by 1898 and to the working man by the early 1900's.

Although he had envisaged the alternative 'side-to-side' or 'lateral' system of groove formation Edison failed to patent that principal, thus allowing Berliner (see below) to prevail with his invention the Gramophone.

All phonographs possess a mandrel on which the cylinder record is slipped for playing.

Columbia Q
Columbia Model 'Q' 1899 

Pathe Model 3.jpg
Pathe Model 3 circa 1903

Columbia AB
An 1899 Columbia with oversized 'Concert' mandrel

The highest quality : 1912 Edison Opera

Swansong of the cylinder machine; This 1916 Edison Amberola 50
has an internal horn rather than an external one.


The German Emil Berliner invented his Gramophone in 1888. He made his invention in the 'States after leaving his native Hanover to make his fortune. The gramophone differed from the phonograph by employing the lateral groove formation mentioned above. The manufacture, distribution and storage of gramophone (disc) records are all much more easily achieved than with cylinders and by right the gramophone should have prevailed over the phonograph much earlier than it did. However Edison's established industrial muscle in other fields and general profile as a Great American perpetuated sales of his machines and records longer than they pprobably deserved. Berliner entered the fray as a relatively poor immigrant to the USA and may be seen as a David to Edison's Goliath.

All gramophones possess a turntable on which the disc record is placed for playing.

The earliest machines from the 1890's up to around 1905 have a relatively small horn which is supported at the front of the cabinet and has the soundbox at its narrow end so that the whole assembly rests on the record during play. Generally anything from this era is desirable.

1899 French G+T Style Number 5

After 1905 the horn becomes bigger and is supported by a 'back bracket' (self-explanatory) which leaves the soundbox to move freely at the end of a 'tonearm' which now moves independent of the horn and bears less heavily on the record. Broadly there are two recognised qualities of horned machine. Those made by the 'Big Three' manufacturers (HMV, Columbia and Pathe) and the other smaller makers whose products often make up in charm and colour what they lack in playing ability and finesse of finish. These lesser machines are often affectionately referred to as 'Swissies' in recognition of their (often) German-Swiss origins. The most humble HMV instrument cost in excess of £10 before WW1 which meant that only the middle classes and above could afford them. The working man could hope to buy a horn machine for around £3-£4. The resulting quality difference is easily explained.

Nowadays HMV products are particularly sought after and command prices starting 50% above those of the average 'Swissie'.

Pathe Model F
A 'Baby' Pathephone circa 1908

HMV Style 7

Horn gramophones continued to be made right up to 1930. For the most part, however, they began to fall from favour in the early 1920's. A few years before the First World War machines began to be made with the horn turned 'upside-down' and fitted inside the cabinet.

HMV HBBO 'hornless' gramophone

Pathe open
Pathe 'hornless' with 'roller-shutter' case lid

Such machines if designed to sit on the table were designated 'hornless' gramophones (a misnomer) and simply 'cabinet gramophones' or cabinet 'grand' gramophones when built to stand on the floor. Such machines usually offer record storage in the lower part of the cabinet. Hornless machines were not generally very satisfactory sound-reproducers. Similar table machines made larger and with lids to cover the turntable and hide the sound of the needle running on the record sold better from the teens into the 1930's and were called 'table grands'.

images-1 HMV table grand. Early 1920's

During the First War Decca produced the first popular 'portable' gramophone, that is to say small and light enough to be easily carried in one hand from a carrying handle. HMV replied rather belatedly in 1924 with a more sophisticated design which was improved upon over the years with the two most popular models, the 101 and 102 dominating sales from the middle 1920's until 1958 when the 78 era came to an end.

Portables were made in vast quantities by many small manufacturers, sometimes with weird and wonderful arms or horns and exaggerated claims to acoustic superiority. These oddball designs are quite sought-after if the machine is clean and complete, but they cannot match the quality makes for playing ability.

images Decca Junior from the early 1920's

Pure Class; An HMV Model 102 portable in blue

A 'novelty' portable. Beltona with an encased horn in lid

Look. Mum, no horn! Defying simple classification, an 
HMV Lumiere Diaphragm machine from 1924

There is a further subdivision of portable machines which takes in the many novelty miniature and folding gramophones particularly popular in the late 1920's but still being made in the 1950's. Some collectors collect nothing but these novelties of which there are dozens of variations.

Mikiphone. Swiss circa 1925.

1950's Swiss 'Pocketphone'

(c) Howard Hope 2017  -Website program by Karelia