by Amy Scott, Volunteer Coordinator and Museum Store Manager
Most of us remember times during childhood when the line between magic and science appeared blurry. For me, that happened when I discovered vinyl records. Those shiny, seemingly supernatural objects transported me to other worlds and held all the enchantment of unicorns and fairy dust. I remember the thrill of setting down the needle of my portable turntable and waiting for the opening strains of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. I remember the heartbreak of scratching my beloved albums beyond repair. Most of all, I remember being mesmerized by the spiraling grooves on the glossy black discs, marveling that a needle passing over them could create music, and wondering how on earth such a thing could possibly work. It seemed like magic, but actually it was science (check out this article on eHow, “How Does a Record Player Work?“).
I recently purchased an Emerson Wondergram, a tiny portable turntable produced around 1960. It didn’t work when I bought it, but for the love of vintage audio electronics, I had to have it. It works like a charm now, thanks to my brother, who got the tone arm repaired for me as a birthday present.
Some people may wonder why anyone would want to listen to records at all, much less with such an obsolete ancestor of the Walkman. Records warp and collect dust. They crackle and produce interesting sound effects such as “hiss,” “pop,” and “tick.” You get strange pitch variations like “wow” and “flutter.” In light of all this, why would I want to invest time, money, and energy into resurrecting a dinosaur in the world of audio equipment?
Here’s why: my Wondergram is a thing of beauty. It is battery operated, and it fits easily inside a shoebox. When it’s standing on its three little legs, it resembles an Eames-era spaceship. A pair of wheels spins the record, and the speaker is on the underside. Its volume may be demure, and its sound quality may be poor by today’s standards, but what the Wondergram lacks in polish it more than makes up for in personality.
I can pack it up, along with some old Dean Martin records, in a giant picnic basket and take it into the mountains. What’s more, it is a wonderful time machine that carries me back to a place where perfection and purity in audio are not required. Nostalgia, not stress, overwhelms me when my record skips and chirps out the same bar of music over and over again. It takes me back to a time when I was young and Rock ‘N Soul Part 1 by Hall and Oates was new.
I’m amazed that I overlooked this charming footnote of music history. None of my friends and family members, many of them audiophiles, had ever encountered the Wondergram either. This old technology is brand new to me, and playing with it reminds me of the joy of playing with vinyl records for the first time. I am a kid again, in a bedroom plastered with unicorn posters, listening to a 45 of Sammy Davis, Jr. singing “The Candy Man.” It’s as though I am actually there. It’s almost like magic.