In its initial concepts, the turntable was invented by Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville in 1857. This was called the phonautograph. Thomas Edison built on this initial concept to develop the phonograph in 1877, which more resembled modern turntables.
My name is Donovan, and I’ve been a music lover for decades. I love listening to vinyl and have an extensive record collection that I’m always adding to. I’ve researched the history of turntables to find the information you’ll see here.
This post will examine the history of turntables, including who invented them, how they have progressed over the years, and why they are still so popular. I want to give other vinyl lovers like me a solid background into this history.
Let’s dive in.
- Key Takeaways
- Who Invented the Turntable?
- Record Player History Timeline
- The History of Turntables
- When Was the Record Player Popular?
- Final Thoughts
- The initial concept of the turntable, called the phonautograph, was invented in 1857 by Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville. This design copied soundwaves onto paper and didn’t actually play music.
- Thomas Edison invented the phonograph in 1877, which built on the original concept of the phonautograph but included a megaphone to amplify the sound vibrations on the record. This paved the way for modern turntables.
- The gramophone was invented in 1887 and was the first design to incorporate the use of a needle to pick up the sounds on a wax imprint or record.
- Electric-powered turntables, as we see now, first came to be in the 1930s. Models before this were wind-up and didn’t use electricity.
Who Invented the Turntable?
The turntable was a revolutionary invention for recording and listening to music. It’s still a popular way to enjoy music today, and there is a long history related to these devices, which I’ll dive into in a bit.
The turntable, as we know it, was based on two closely related inventions. A Frenchman named Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville invented the phonautograph in 1857, and Thomas Edison used this initial concept to develop the phonograph in 1877.
These two devices are typically regarded as the origin of the modern turntable. Edison often gets more credit because the phonograph was the first way you could listen to and record music. But it would not have happened without the phonautograph being invented earlier.
There are a few other vital inventions in the world of turntables that marked a significant advancement in their technology. I’ll explain these more in-depth in the sections below, but touch on them here because they are important.
Emile Berliner invented the gramophone in 1887, which used plates that more closely resemble modern vinyl records than the phonograph.
Edgar Villichur invented the belt-drive turntable in 1961, paving the way for better sound quality by moving the motor away from the platter.
Shuichi Obata invented the direct-drive turntable in the late 1960s, creating the technology that DJs would use to scratch records shortly afterward.
Record Player History Timeline
Here is a timeline of some of the important dates in the history of record players and turntables:
- 1857 – Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville invents the phonautograph
- 1877 – Thomas Edison invents the phonograph
- 1887 – Emile Berliner invents the gramophone
- 1890s – Record players and turntables go into mainstream production and become very popular
- 1920s – Modern radio came into existence, making recorded music very popular and highlighting the importance of vinyl records.
- 1927 – First electric turntable is created and takes the place of older hand-crank units
- 1947 – The first 33 RPM vinyl record was produced, offering improved sound quality and a lighter-weight design
- 1957 – Hi-fi systems, indicating improved sound quality, became widely available and sparked a demand for turntables and high-quality sound systems.
- 1961 – Edgar Villichur invents the belt-drive turntable
- 1969 – Shuichi Obata invents the direct-drive turntable
- 1970s – Turntable tech continues to improve, leading to the rise of DJ culture with powerful motors and accurate timing equipment
- 1980s – Turntable scratching is invented by hip-hop DJs
- 1990s – The turntable industry crashes because of the increased use of cassette tapes and CDs.
- 2000s – The vinyl record and turntable industry nearly disappear with the rise of digital forms of music recording and listening
- 2010s – Vinyl records start to see a comeback because of the improved audio quality and nostalgia they offer
- 2020s – Interest in vinyl and turntables continues to be steady, with more companies building turntables and many artists offering vinyl recordings of their music
The History of Turntables
As you can see by the timeline above, the history of turntables goes back over 150 years. Considering how much technology has improved over that time, it’s pretty amazing that vinyl records and turntables are used at all today.
Let’s expand on the timeline above to give you more details on the history of turntables. If you love listening to vinyl, it’s good to know their history.
In 1857, a Frenchman named Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville invented the phonautograph. This device was the original concept that would eventually lead Thomas Edison to invent the phonograph 20 years later.
The phonautograph could take a cylinder recording (usually of aluminum) and create a written sound wave of what was recorded. It couldn’t play music, but the concept was evolved to make this happen later on.
Thomas Edison took the phonautograph a step further by including a horn to amplify the grooves of the cylinders. This led to the first recorded music and playback in the late 1870s and early 1880s, and his invention was called the phonograph.
Edison often gets credit for inventing the turntable because of this, but it’s essential to know that his invention would not have been possible without the phonautograph.
There was another important step of the timeline in 1887. Emile Berliner invented the gramophone this year, which started to use plates instead of cylinders to record and playback music.
The gramophone looks more like a modern record player than the phonograph. The plates it used were not made of vinyl, but the concept was essentially the same.
Shortly after the invention of the gramophone, turntables began to get popular with the public. People loved listening to music in the comfort of their own homes, and one of these devices was the only way to do it at the time.
Then comes radio in the 1920s. This was good news and bad news for turntables and records. It led to more people recording music, which meant more records were available to purchase.
But it also was the start of radio, which meant that you no longer needed a record and turntable to listen to music. Still, records remained popular, and they continued to stay in widespread production.
Until around 1927, all turntables were worked by the user cranking an arm that spun the platter. But this changed when the first electric turntables were created. They were now automatic and more user-friendly.
In 1947, the modern 33 RPM was created and is still widely used today. Think about that for a minute. The record, as we know it, has mostly stayed the same for around 75 years! Turntable tech has undoubtedly progressed, but the vinyl record hasn’t much.
The 1940s and 1950s saw increased growth and popularity of turntables. The 50s saw a rise in hi-fi sound systems, often including full cabinet turntables with speakers, shelves, and everything you needed for a stereo.
In 1961, the belt-drive turntable was invented by Edgar Villichur. This invention was important as it moved the turntable motor away from the platter, effectively increasing audio quality because the needle didn’t pick up as many vibrations.
Belt-drive turntables are still one of the main styles of turntables used today. These systems have improved somewhat over the years but still use the basic concept and design created in the 60s.
A few years later, in 1969, the direct-drive turntable was invented by Shuichi Obata while working as an engineer for Mitsubishi. DJs like to use these types of turntables because you can scratch records on them and get them up to speed quickly.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, many different models and features came and went with the various turntables. This was the glory day for turntables as it was the most common way to listen to music.
The 1980s also saw the rise of DJ culture. Scratching was invented during this time by a hip-hop artist named The Grand Wizard Theodore. Grand Master Flash was mentored by Theodore, and this all helped shape the future of hip-hop music.
By the 1990s, interest in turntables and records began to fade with the widespread use of cassette tapes and CDs. Consumers preferred these listening methods because it was easier to listen on the move.
The turntable industry nearly died out in the early 2000s. The digital music revolution was starting to go into full force, and very few people listened to vinyl. There weren’t many significant innovations in turntable tech during this time.
By the 2010s, a renewed interest in vinyl was happening. Some listeners wanted the improved sound quality that analog music allowed, and turntables gained interest with a younger generation of listeners.
In the mid to late 2010s, there were also some new innovations built into turntables. Some had USB outputs, allowing you to connect the turntable to a computer and digitize your music. Others had Bluetooth capabilities for wireless connections to speakers and headphones.
By the early 2020s, vinyl records were once again pretty popular. Many artists started to release vinyl as the only physical recording of their music, and many people, both new and old, have turntables in their homes.
Turntables aren’t as popular as they were during their heyday, but they are much more common now than they were 20 years again. Vinyl might just stand the test of time when it comes to a preferred way to listen to and enjoy recorded music.
When Was the Record Player Popular?
The record player has been popular to some degree ever since the early 20th century. Turntables and records have remained a favored way to enjoy recorded music, and many people still use them today.
But the glory days for the record player were probably in the 1960s and 1970s. This was the time period when the modern turntable was in many households, and every artist was selling vinyl that you could bring home to listen to.
Before cassette tapes and CDs, records were the only way to listen to music at home that wasn’t the radio. If you wanted a full-length album by your favorite artist, you needed a home turntable to listen to.
As technologies evolved, record players became less popular. And despite almost disappearing for good in the early 2000s, many turntables are still in use today. They are still popular, even though fewer people use them.
It’s difficult to say what the future holds for turntables. I think they will continue to be a preferred way to listen to music for audiophiles and anyone who likes the idea of a physical product for musical enjoyment.
Here are a few quick answers to some of the most frequently asked questions related to who invented the turntable and the history of turntables.
Did Thomas Edison invent the turntable?
Thomas Edison invented the phonograph, which eventually paved the way for the modern turntable. But he based his invention on the phonautograph, which was invented by Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville but didn’t play music directly.
What was the first ever record player?
The first ever record player is the phonograph, which was invented by Thomas Edison in 1877. This didn’t technically play records, but it did move a needle over a cylinder and amplify the sound through an attached horn.
Who was the first artist on record?
One of the first-ever recordings to be made on the phonograph was a song called “The Last Chord,” written by Arthur Sullivan. This recording was made on a wax cylinder and not a vinyl record like we are used to today.
Who invented turntable scratching?
Turntable scratching, or DJ turntables, was invented by a hip-hop artist known as The Grand Wizard Theodore. The story goes that he accidentally discovered this technique when switching records, and it paved the way for modern DJs.
Who invented the direct-drive turntable?
The first direct-drive turntable was invented by Shuichi Obata. This occurred in Japan at the Mitsubishi factory in the late 1960s. The direct-drive turntable was a good innovation in the industry that paved the way for scratching records and other advances.
Who invented the belt-drive turntable?
The belt-drive turntable was invented by Edgar Villichur in 1961. This design helped to modernize turntables for better sound while allowing fewer vibrations to be picked up by the stylus. The belt allowed the motor to be mounted away from the platter.
The turntable has seen many advancements during the last 150-plus years. Things have come a long way since the initial inventions of the phonautograph and phonograph in the 1800s. Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville and Thomas Edison invented these.
Understanding the history of the turntable can help any vinyl enthusiast or audiophile appreciate their music to another degree. Knowing how things have evolved with record players and the music industry might give us all a glimpse into the future.