Getting to Know the PRESTO – #8 – On Needles (and Pins)

Things that have been used as needles for record players in a pinch: Cactus needles (like the ones to the right at the Smithsonian which belonged to Moses Asch,) shards of bone, ivory and glass, hatpins, nails, safety pins, sewing needles, paper clips, and even lasers.

If it’s pointy, you can believe someone’s tried to run it across a record to see if some sound will come out.  But most of these impromptu options will ruin your record!  And, of course, when it comes to cutting a record, you can’t use just anything. If you want that disc to last, and sound its best, you’re going to need a gemstone.

We discovered at the Library of Congress – during our (sanctioned!) exploration of Alan Lomax’s own PRESTO – that Lomax used sapphire cutting styli.  We saw them on his order reports…pricey for the 1930s! Diamonds make great cutters, too. But for us only Apollo-made Transco rubies will do!

During our California road trip, we were fortunate enough to tour the factory where our ruby-tipped cutting needles are made, and as we said at the time, we were in awe of the careful process by which each individual stylus is brought to life.  Hundreds of tiny ruby slivers are fit one at a time by hand into individual metal settings (you can see them in the pictures on the right and below) then aligned and sharpened in 8 stages by carefully calibrated lasers and grinding and polishing stones.

The result? A tool as much a unique work of art as the records it will cut.  Hatpins need not apply.