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Turntables: A History from Analogue to Digital (A to D)

The fascinating and surprising 150-year history of the turntable – as expressed in a poster design

By Mike Simpson

Visit the History of Turntables website to see an information graphic and learn more about the history of turntables.

TURNTABLE-HISTORY--Poster_by_Mike_Simpson--Strong_and_Free2Origin and Background of the Project

I once worked in a small Kensington Market shop that specialized in collectible record albums. I’d spend my days adrift in old jazz and folk records, taking immense pleasure from discovering “new” old music. I must have dropped the needle on 5,000 records over the course of a few years, and the ritual embedded itself in my spirit. The turntable, I came to realize, was one of the most fundamentally important technologies of the 20th century. As a music and media enthusiast, I consider the record player a remarkable set of components. Lower the tonearm onto the spinning platter and magic happens.

A second seed of inspiration was an assignment in a class I took called the “Social History of Design,” that asked students to explore “the evolution of a product.” We were given examples of a specific nature, i.e. Coca-Cola bottles, iPods and Mac computers. I thought more broadly, beyond a brand, and hit upon the technology of the record album. While contemplating the evolution of records, I realized that the really compelling back-story, which drove the invention of products such as records, discs, and modern-day mp3 players, involved the attempt to record and playback audio via early record and disc players. I became immersed in the stories of inventors such as the American, Thomas Edison, the German-born American, Emile Berliner and the Frenchman, Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville.

In lieu of writing an essay I conceived of a graphic portrayal of the key figures, dates in the timeline, and supplementary information on the technologies involved. On a practical level, this work reflects my deep interest in the area of Information Graphics, a field that has becomes increasingly important in the new economy, one that marries graphic art with information and ultimately belongs to the great tradition all artists aspire to, storytelling.

I have a unique perspective on this history, because, as a digital media producer, I am equally interested in the emergence of modern musical forms such as hip-hop and turntablism, and equipment and DJ mixing gear. My research thus involved a broad retrospect –consulting a specialist in rare vinyl recordings for the “analogue” view, and browsing myriad websites to learn about the newest “digital” turntable equipment. In the course of completing the arc, and connecting the dots between records and record players, inventors and musicians, I was excited to discover a cyclical – circular element to the narrative.

History of Turntables (Record Players)

In 1857, a Frenchman named Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville invented the phonautograph, the earliest known recording device. Scott de Martinville’s apparatus did not feature playback and thus remained an incomplete “first” in the world of audio-visual innovation. Two decades later, Thomas Edison would be credited with the invention of the phonograph, while another pioneer, Emile Berliner, would pioneer the LP or long-play album, via his company Deutsche Grammophon. The exciting aspect of this story is that in 2008 a group called would apply innovative technology called a “virtual stylus” to recover an 1860 recording of “Au Clair de la Lune,” thus completing the story and validating Scott de Martinville. The evolution from analogue to digital playback equipment is equally captivating, especially as scratching pioneers such as DJ Grandmaster Flash trade-in their classic Technics record players for digital variations. Incredibly, beyond the virtual “decks” that manipulate sounds on CD or digital card, companies like Serato have pioneered software and hardware that permits analogue record players to play digital music files via special time code records. There may be no equal, in the crossover worlds of technology, entertainment and media, to this fascinating story.

Creating the Poster

My work, as printed as a 13”x19” poster (vertical orientation), is based on photo illustration/collage and also employs two key element – a clock graphic and a manual for a Technics turntable. In a subtle way, the clock acts as both an anchor for connecting the timeline to the collage and a representation of the circular nature of the evolution of records and turntable technology. The clock, by way of an even subtler allusion, is an iconic image in hip-hop because it was worn by Flavor Flav of Public Enemy, a pioneer in hip-hop, a sweeping movement which birthed graffiti art, b-boy dancing, rap vocals, and modern DJ technique aka “Turntablism.” In my piece I am most proud of the central collage, and the icons on the timeline, particularly the phonautograph, book-ending the beginning and the end of the 160-year period.


First Sounds:
New York Times:

Special Thanks:

Grey Coyote, for your support and assistance, from writing and research, to creation of the poster

James Harrison, for a great design history class (plus inspiration and support)

Ben Ackerman for illustration assistance with the website and information graphic.


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