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Deutsches Technikmuseum - October

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The Websites of the donation Stiftung Deutsches Technikmuseum Berlin at a glance:

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Exhibit of the Month October 2014

Photo: The sharpener looks like an auger. The needle is clamped over an abrasive disc and gets moved by a hand crank.

Cranking for higher sound quality - the organic needle sharpener © SDTB / C. Kirchner

Gramophone organic needle sharpener, 1932

The needle is at the heart of Emil Berliner’s gramophone, which was patented in 1887. The needle transmits vibrations to the diaphragm of the soundbox, which are then made audible through the sound horn.

For the best possible sound without ambient noises, the needle must fit exactly in the groove of the record. During production, the tips of the needles were rounded off in a fairly elaborate process. The material of the needle had to be softer than the shellac record ("78s"), otherwise the needle would permanently damage the grooves. Steel needles were especially suitable for the task. Unfortunately, the needle had to be changed after playing each side. From the beginning to the end of a record it would travel up to 300 metres resulting in its wearing out very quickly.

Needles made of cactus spines or bamboo

In addition to steel, other materials were used for gramophone needles, including the spines from a particularly hard type of cactus as well as bamboo or wood. The merits of organic needles were a rounder sound and more playing time; it was possible to play a record up to ten times before changing needles if it hadn’t already been impaired with a steel needle beforehand.

Organic needles could be renewed and used again by using sharpeners like the one displayed here. Their tips, however, were less flexible than steel versions and therefore tended to break off more often during play. In the end, organic needles failed to successfully compete with steel needles in the marketplace.

This device is available for perusal in the telecommunications exhibit which was reopened in January 2015.