Photograph of a vinyl 12 inch record

© / YuriSH

When American inventor Thomas Edison patented his first phonograph in 1877 he envisaged several functions for his new invention, including acting as a handy dictation device for businesses, or as a means to record the speeches of 'great men' for future generations. Edison's phonograph combined the functions of recording and playing back, with recording taking the primary role. In the years that followed a division occurred. The recording function largely became a specialised activity carried out on special equipment by engineers on behalf of commercial companies, while playback entered the domestic arena with its own mechanical device.

It was another inventor, Emile Berliner, who saw the possibilities of enhancing the importance of playback. Where Edison's cylinder recordings were not well suited to mass production, Berliner's invention, the gramophone using flat disc records, proved far more suitable. Even so, the gramophone did not take off commercially before the intervention of another new device, the spring motor that kept the revolutions of the disc at a constant speed. The inventor of this equipment, Eldridge Johnson, also perfected the idea of reproducing duplicate copies of records from a master copy. Johnson founded the Victor Talking Machine Company, and his company and Berliner's Gramophone Company held the world patents for the first domestic gramophones.

The high price of the first machines meant that they weren't used in people's homes but once this changed, the gramophone and its records became a prized possession in the home. Eventually the gramophone became regarded as essential, even taken-for-granted domestic equipment. In Britain the arrival of the Dansette record player in the 1950s was particularly significant. Produced and marketed by Russian émigré Morris Margolin, the Dansette was an affordable, electrically driven, portable machine, complete with a choice of three speeds and an autochanger. Well over a million were sold before its demise in the face of competition from more sophisticated domestic equipment (often from Japan) in the 1960s and 1970s.

The repercussions of these developments are still with us. Successive technologies - from vinyl LPs to CDs to mp3s - have provided choices of the format in which we obtain the music we listen to, but all have been produced in anticipation that they will be used by people in their personal space.

Listening to recorded music at home allows listeners to construct their own listening world. When played at home a record encourages an individualised listening experience that is unlike the social experience of hearing music in public areas. In doing so the record removes the physical limitations on music, allowing it to leave the dedicated spaces of live performance, and to be recreated in a private environment of the listener's choosing. For people who valued the concert experience for its uniqueness, this was not a welcome development - Beethoven by the fireplace could not possibly be as moving as Beethoven live in a great concert hall. But the experience of millions of domestic listeners contradicts this view.

In a home environment the record has also been a means to learn about music. Buying a record allowed access to music that a listener could perhaps never hope to hear live. The widespread circulation of records for domestic consumption meant that various types of music could travel great distances. Musicians could now listen to recordings of a world of differing types of music in order to copy and learn from them in their own environments. In Liverpool as local musicians heard recordings of US music such as jazz, country and rock 'n' roll they began to copy and learn from them, often creating versions of these styles with a uniquely Liverpudlian twist.

It has often been pointed out that the arrival of recording devices in the home, especially tape recorders, was in the tradition of Thomas Edison, as it reunited recording and playback in one machine. There has never been a balance between the two, however. Tape did open up greater possibilities for recording sound at home, but for most domestic users the playback function was the most used. Particularly after the invention of the compact cassette, using the recording function to make cassette copies was largely seen as a necessary first step to subsequent listening pleasure from playing the recording back.