Steel needles were needed for nearly all disc machines made from 1900 to the 1930s! Above is a Victor machine circa 1910 with a steel needle inserted in a soundbox. The soundbox is the circular device at the end of the tonearm.
I'll start with a joke. One day a man complained to his wife, "Our Victrola is no good. It worked great 20 years ago, but now it ruins records and sounds awful." "Yes," the wife agreed. "Well, let's try a few more 78s. If the sound doesn't improve, we might have to invest in a new needle."
Get it? The joke is that they had not been changing the needle on the machine! A steel needle should be used once. Yes, one time! Of course, many people do play a steel needle more than once. Maybe you can do it safely for 3 or 4 plays if you are playing records that aren't worth lots of money. But 10 times? 20 times? Not a good idea--terrible sound, damage to the discs!
Only styli for Edison or Pathe discs are designed to last a long time.
I've answered a common question--"How many records should I play per steel needle?" (again, the answer is one!). I'll now answer another common question. Does a steel needle damage a disc? The answer is no! A new steel needle will not hurt a 78 rpm disc if you are playing the right kind of record on the right kind of machine with a properly restored Sound-Box. If the Sound-Box is too heavy, unbalanced, queerly angled, or wrong for your machine, then records may be damaged even by new steel needles.
Let me stress that you need the right kind of record on the phonograph. You need an "acoustic" record or "early electric" record (let's say one made before 1930) on a wind-up Victrola. Do not play an Elvis Presley 78 from the 1950s on a machine made before 1925 since such a record has a soft surface made for an electric pick-up. If you play discs from a late period (say, 1940-1959) on a Victrola, then a steel needle--whether new or used--will damage discs' soft surfaces. Examine these discs in sunlight. You'll see gray or white coming through the black grooves.
Damage is done by worn needles, not by new needles. Of course, if your 78s are already in bad condition, then using a worn needle is not going to matter much.
Although a steel needle should be used only one time, some Victrola owners dislike tossing a needle after a single play, believing that to be wasteful. Experiment and decide for yourself how many plays per needle you are willing to risk. If you use one needle a dozen times or more, do not expect great sound. Also, don't expect valuable 78s to remain valuable. I use a needle only once except when I am playing 78s that are already worn or when I am playing cracked 78s that I plan to put in the trash. OK, maybe I'll use a needle twice or thrice when I'm feeling lazy!
Needles must be changed because material used in a disposable needle is soft so it can adjust to a record's sound wave walls. Manufacturers added abrasive agents into the chemical mixture that was the basis for old discs. As a steel needle enters the first sound groove, it is subjected to a grinding. The needle soon conforms to the individual wall design of a record. The grinding lessens and the needle then glides through the grooves. If you use the same needle on a second disc, the worn needle will damage grooves. The human eye will not detect damage to a record after one or two plays with a worn needle, but damage is done.
If you want a second or third performance (or more) from a needle, consider removing a good 78 from your turntable after the needle's first play and, for subsequent plays, spin 78s that are already worn or have no special value.
There are otherwise no tricks for getting extra plays from needles. Rotating a tip won't help. Victor literature states, "It is unreasonable to think that after playing one selection you can turn the needle and use it a second or more times without detriment to the record. The worn point of the needle becomes a scraping tool from the grinding it had in the previous reproduction, and is bound to scrape and injure the grooves of the record if its use is attempted for a second reproduction." Some people go to the trouble of sharpening a used needle, but my time is worth more than that. It is better to pay a few pennies for a new needle.
Anyone buying a Victrola that is supplied with needles should determine if the needles have been used. You can check a needle's tip. If you slowly rotate the needle under a strong light and see a flash at the tip, the needle has been played. Or check the tip with a magnifying glass. If the needle has never been used, it will have a rounded end instead of two worn surfaces. If you examine with a magnifying glass an unplayed needle with a used one, you will spot the difference.
Decades ago one could easily buy needles in packages marked "soft," "loud," and "extra-loud." Most common today is the "loud tone" needle, which is loud because of its rigidity--that is, thickness. It is thicker than the soft tone needle. "Extra-loud" would be appropriate for someone with 78s of Sousa marches.
Steel needles are used on MOST phonographs, including those made by Victor, Columbia, Brunswick, Sonora, Cheney, and hundreds of "offbrand" machines. Use each needle once or twice--then dispose of it. Thomas Edison's machine are the exception in that they do NOT use steel needles. Below are tonearms for Edison's Diamond Disc machines. Note that the word "diamond" is in the name of these machines. They require a diamond stylus, not a steel needle.
|Above are tonearms for Edison Diamond Disc machines. They use diamond tips, not steel needles.|
If discarding a needle after one play seems wasteful or tedious, use a Tungs-tone needle (if you can find one!). During World War I, restrictions were placed on commercial uses of steel, so Victor developed a needle with a reproducing tip made of tungsten, a metal that never made the list of restricted materials. By inserting a short cylindrical shaft of tungsten into a metal shaft, Victor engineers produced their "Tungs-tone styli." Victor literature used "stylus" or "styli"--not "needle"--when referring to the product. Victor could manufacture 25,000 such needles daily--soft tone, full tone, and extra loud.
The most common packaging for Tungs-tone needles was a tin box that holds eight needles. The tins came later. When the "Tungs-tone" was introduced in 1916, the needles came in a punch-out card. The earliest ad I have seen for this new Victor product is from June 1916. There was trouble over the name when it was registered with the Patent Office, we learn from the August 15, 1916 issue of Talking Machine World. An article states, "The word was rejected by the United States Examiner of Trade-Marks at Washington until he was instructed from the office of the United States Commissioner of Patents to rule differently." The trade-mark examiner felt "Tungs-tone" was too close to "tungsten." In a similar ruling, "Tungsteel" was judged no good for razors and pocket knives. Anyway, Victor was allowed to use the name, and early ads always use a capital letter (Tungs-tone, not tungs-tone), giving the product more dignity.
Some collectors dislike using Tungs-tone needles but highly prize the original tin containers.
The Tungs-tone needle is designed for many plays since as it wears down, it wears at a constant diameter. The tip does not get larger, unlike the tapered steel needle. Victor claimed that a single Tungs-tone was good for 100 to 300 records, but 50 is a more realistic number. Condition of the records and the Victrola being used, especially the reproducer (which holds the needle), determines how many plays one gets from a Tungs-tone.
The needles will not harm records when conditions are right. The tip of the Tungs-tone needle must be straight. Straightening the point is not possible. Some tips will have a slight tilt, which is acceptable, but too much of a tilt will damage a record since the tip will ride unevenly to one side of the sound wall.
Check that your Victrola is level by placing a bubble-level on the turntable. A tone arm that swings on its own initiative to the right or left indicates a need for leveling. Check that all tone arm parts are lubricated so that the arm freely moves in a lateral and vertical motion. You want to eliminate extra drag or record wear.
Before you use a Tungs-tone needle, swing the tone arm to the end of the record while the turntable is running and let the new needle ride in the run-off grooves (near the label) for several turns, which helps the needle conform to the record's sound grooves even though these grooves are larger than the sound walls. This also helps remove burrs that may have developed on a Tungs-tone needle because of repeated playings or because the needle has not been rotated. Victor recommended that you periodically rotate the Tungs-tone needle a quarter of a turn (when you do this, again break in the needle in the run-off groove or rim). The same advice does not apply for a steel needle.
When playing a Tungs-tone needle for its very first time ever, play a dull or common record for "breaking in" purposes. Victor recommended that its dealers employ a "used" Tungs-tone when demonstrating records to customers: "A Tungs-tone needle that has been carefully used once or twice is somewhat better than one which has never traveled the groove."
Tungs-tone needles will not wear a record more than steel needles if the mentioned conditions are right and Victor products are used. If a budget disc like a Banner, especially a worn one, is played on a Victrola, or if a Victor disc is played on a bad Sonora machine, a record may sustain damage.
Fibre or Bamboo Needles
Another needle is the fibre, or bamboo, needle. Patented on November 12, 1907, it should not be confused with the cactus or thorn needle common during the WWII period. A fibre needle is soft. One should re-shape the tip before or after it is played, using a special cutting tool. You can get from eight to a dozen plays from a fibre needle, depending upon your cutting tool.
Fibre needles are gentle on records. Companies claimed that the oily substance in the bamboo acted as a lubricant which would polish and smooth grooves each time a record is played. The soft tone produced by a fibre needle appeals to some. A drawback is fibre needles sometimes wear out before a record is over (the needle wears down--those who manufactured fibre needles claimed "there is absolutely no wear to the records" when fibre needles are used, and they may be correct).
No company makes fibre needles today. Old ones can be found in machines sometimes. The fibre needle was invented by Fred D. Hall of the B. & H. Fibre Company, a Chicago outfit. Hall sold fibre needle rights to the Victor Talking Machine Company in 1910 although issues from 1916 of Talking Machine World show that Hall revived his fibre needle business, large ads warning dealers to avoid "infringing needles...brought here from Japan." Hall's Fibre Needles (he used capital letters as Victor did for Tungs-tone) were made from bamboo imported from Japan. The November 15, 1916, issue of Talking Machine World has an article about how fibre needles were made. The price for fibre needles in 1917 was $4 per thousand, or 40 cents for a package of 100.