Willoughby: A technological tour from gramophones to iPods and rules for family peace

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies
Emile Berliner, inventor of the flat disc record, manipulates one of the Victor Victrolas that was popular in Aspen in 1927.

Stuck in a car for a long drive, I listened to music to keep myself alert. In rural areas with no radio signal, I switched from iPod to iPhone and back again. Meanwhile, my mind drifted from music to remembrances of the different gadgets I have used to hear music during my lifetime. Next, I mused about the music-playing paraphernalia of my parent’s generation.

Ancestors of many readers my age hauled outdated gramophones into the attic. Next they carried boxes of 78-rpm records up the same steps. Later, we stored our boxes of 45-rpm records next to the others, along with the monaural phonograph we had used to play them. By then, we entered the modern age of stereo with 33-rpm records. Ever fickle, we jilted them for thin vinyl records. But reel-to-reel tape eventually stole our hearts, followed by the 8-track blues and the cassette cartridge conundrums. We suffered a digital breakthrough and hoped the now-overloaded attic did not break through as we pushed ahead to compact discs, iPods and MP3 players. Just when we began to get carried away with our musical iPhones, tastes turned retro and we settled in with 1960s style phonographs and vinyl … again.

You may have become a serial listener, like me, who converted or replaced one system with another and hoped against odds that the newest music-playing iteration would be the last. I doubt a replacement would succeed music in the Cloud — it seems ecstatically angelic or diabolically ephemeral.

My mother’s life centered on music. She played in a five-piece dance orchestra in Aspen during the 1920s, dance music for flappers. Her hand-made music achieved better quality sound than did her parents’ RCA Victrola, with its wax cylinders and needles that needed to be changed frequently. But listening to the stars of her time interested my mother more than the chore of sight-reading sheet music.

The advertisement and sale of gramophones began in Aspen in 1910. Coopers Books and Stationary sold two competing brands: the Columbia Grafanola made by the Graphophone Co. and the Victor Victrola. Each line included several models that started at $125, an amount that today would buy a large, high-end, flat-screen TV.

Wax cylinders, a novelty, sold for $10 in those days — quadruple the price equivalent of today’s audiophile vinyl records. Coopers advertised a recording of a speech by President Howard Taft. Another duplicated the U.S. Marine Band as it played patriotic songs. And who could pass up the sound of John Phillip Sousa’s Band?

The Grafanola nailed the market around that time. The company enclosed their gramophones within fine furniture — a chest-high cabinet that hid the mechanical workings. But by the mid-1920s, record discs had largely replaced the treasured cylinders. Soon, 78-rpm records absconded with the market. The next great thing? A magnetic cartridge that converted sound into electricity and changed record players from mechanical instruments to electronic wonders.

By the time I ceased to toddle, Mother had long ago traded her dance gigs for a favored collection of 78s. Early stars such as trombonist ‘Kid’ Ory and Louis Armstrong jazzed her and Father’s souls. During the mid 1950s my parents, like many couples in Aspen, bought an automatic, record-changing, box player: a Magnavox. It sounded good enough. But the primary feature for Mother had something to do with saving time. She installed it at the edge of the kitchen, where she would let a stack of records play through on one side and then flip them over for another round that lasted long enough to make dinner. I loved the records too, and the music kept me out from under her feet. When I visited either of my aunts’ houses, their players operated the same way. Except there I listened to classical music.

Over the device-dappled years, I developed my own music interest, namely The Kingston Trio. The family did not want to hear me play those same songs over and over, so they gave me the pre-teens’ heart’s desire. My new single-player ran at three speeds. Not one thing about it operated automatically, but it rested just a few feet away from my mother’s pride and joy. Whether we changed the music by lifting the player’s needle or by turning over a disc, we engaged with music though a greater process than simple listening. Then and now, no matter the device, every family member’s peace of mind plays on a single principle. Each of us enjoys our music within our own rooms, or — when we ride together in the car — the grandchildren use another device, their earbuds.

Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at