New technology has been a constant in our lives. And when new tech comes out there is often a disagreement over which version of it will predominate among consumers. Unlike today’s Apple/Android debate, most of these examples did not settle with a “both/and” kind of resolution where fans of each can be happy. Most were more of a Sony Betamax vs. VHS format war that took some time to sort out, with the loser going away fairly quickly, despite much effort invested by its maker. This is not a recent thing.
I have done a fair amount of writing on old jazz music, and one of the topics that goes along with it is obsolete recording technology. I have picked up quite a few interesting tidbits about this topic, and figure that it would be a shame to let it go to waste, so better to write some of it down before it sinks back down to the bottom of my memory where it may never be seen again.
We all learned in grade school that Thomas Edison invented the phonograph in 1877. What we did not learn was that it took him quite a few years to make it a commercial success. He had other things to do, like inventing the incandescent light bulb. But once he had electric lighting, he would come back to the phonograph. Probably because he could now see what he was doing.
Edison’s original recording/playback medium had been metal foil, but it was only good for a few playbacks. The better answer would be the wax cylinder, which was being offered for sale by the 1880’s.
These brown wax cylinders (actually invented by Chichester Bell, a cousin of Alexander Graham Bell) were soft and incompatible with mass production, so they were made in very small quantities until a molding process was perfected around 1901. It was then that the improved black hard wax cylinders (“Edison Gold Molded Records”) could be made in larger numbers and sold for 35 cents apiece, allowing more members of the leisure class to listen to about two minutes of poor-fidelity music on their expensive machines. For those who are counting, this was nearly twenty-five years after the phonograph’s invention.
The cylinders were cut in what has been called a “hill and dale” groove, where a stylus cut a vertical groove in the master which was replayed by a stylus bumping up and down across the uneven bottom at about 160 r.p.m.. The stylus arm was moved in sync with the grooved cylinder by use of a synchronized gear-driven mechanism, resulting in a system where all the sound reproduction work was done at the bottom of a groove and the sides of the groove served no real purpose. But there was competition brewing.
As early as 1889, a German emigre’ in Washington D.C. named Emile Berliner had another idea for which he received a U.S. patent in 1887. Instead of Edison’s relatively soft wax cylinder, music would be played by a flat disc which employed a long spiral groove. Berliner’s discs used a “lateral cut” system which was essentially the opposite of Edison’s. The bottom of a groove was smooth and did little but support the weight of the stylus, while all sound vibrations were cut into the sides of the groove. The groove did double duty by guiding the stylus, which was mounted in a simple pivoting arm. Spoiler Alert: This device (which Berliner called the Gramophone) is the grandfather to the turntable that most of us are familiar with today. Or in 1979, or 1961, or 1928.
Berliner’s discs went from 5 inches of fairly soft wax to a 7 inch format. They were significantly less expensive to make, but the sound quality was dismal in comparison to the Edison system. A wax/shellac compound replaced the wax, and continued improvements in the recording and pressing processes had discs sounding close to Edison cylinders by the turn of the twentieth century.
Berliner’s recordings were marketed under the Gramophone label until he lost control of his patent through an improvident distribution arrangement. Devices based on the Berliner patents became the basis for both the Victor Talking Machine Company and the famous Victrola (1901) and the Columbia Graphophone Company (1907) – and which begat two record labels that are still well-known today as RCA and Columbia. Those discs upped playing time to about three minutes for a 10 inch disc (and even five minutes for a 12 inch disc) – playing time that would be the standard until the very end of the 78 rpm era in the 1950’s. What was better, both the discs and the players could be made and sold less expensively.
But Edison being Edison, he did not stand still. He was convinced of the superiority of the cylinder because the place where stylus met groove spun at a constant speed from the start of the record to the end, whereas a disc spins much faster at the outside and slows as the stylus moves inward, thus creating audible distortions along the way.
Edison figured that improved playing time would make things come back his way, and his new Amberol cylinder hit the market in 1908. Edison’s Amberol cylinders used a finer groove and offered up to 4 1/2 minutes of playing time. That fine groove was possible because of the vertical cut with the analog data on the bottom, and the thin diamond stylus which put no stress on the groove wall. The disc, in contrast, used a fairly thick, soft steel stylus and grooves which had to be wide for the sound data cut into the sides and strong for moving the stylus along.
Despite some technical superiorities of the Edison system, the market was breaking hard for the disc by about 1910. Edison persevered and responded with his ultimate cylinder: the Blue Amberol line introduced in 1912. Instead of hard wax, the cylinder consisted of a plaster-of-paris core covered by celluloid, an early organic plastic with a blue color which gave the line its name. A Purple Amberol line was soon added for “high class” recordings of opera singers and such.
Edison’s Amberol cylinders were arguably the highest fidelity in recorded music until the advent of the electric (as opposed to accoustic) recording process in the mid 1920’s. It seems though, that as time passed they have not proved to age as gracefully as the earlier Gold Moulded cylinders when played a century or so after they were made.
Even when new, the venerable cylinder’s disadvantages included complexity, higher manufacturing costs (for both the players and the records), and more difficult storage – twenty discs could be stacked in a small area, whereas twenty cylinders required twenty small boxes or a much larger container. And, of course, there was no ability to offer a BOGO “flip side” as became common with the disc.
The rest of the industry had made a halfhearted attempt at competing in cylinders, but in addition to the disadvantages we have noted, there was one more: they had to pay royalties to Edison. After about 1912 Edison’s competition were out of the cylinder business and went all-in on the lateral-groove disc, essentially leaving Edison all by himself on a lonely technological island. He was finally forced to concede to reality and offer his own disc system. Edison’s shriveling cylinder business was discontinued by 1925 – less than thirty years after commercial mass production began.
Edison’s cylinders are not a terribly fertile hunting ground for jazz fans. First, jazz records made before maybe 1922 or 23 are of a style that is challenging to the modern listener. Beyond the pure acoustic recording and playback systems, the musical style was still very early in its development. Beyond this, Edison’s musical catalog tended to favor more, um, mature tastes and not “that damned kids’ music” that became the really sought-after stuff, both then and now.
One real legacy of the Edison system was in the office dictation market, where the cylinder was used for both recording and playback for many years, until replaced by discs and the later “Dictabelt” systems in the pre-audiotape era.
The takeaway here is that while we all know that Edison invented the phonograph, your cool turntable and the vinyl album collection that goes with it is at least as much the result of Emile Berliner’s work as Edison’s. There is one thing that has not changed in the last hundred years: cheaper and good enough will usually win out over expensive and only somewhat better.
The YouTube page of Tim Gracyk, a collector who has uploaded a wide variety of early recordings (and some not so early) that can satisfy any craving you might have to dive into the arcane world of early recorded music.
Opening photo: Early Edison Standard Phonograph (L) and Disc Phonograph of the Victor Talking Machine Company (R) from phonophan.com, combined by the author.
Photo of Thomas Edison with his phonograph, c. 1877-78, wikimedia commons, in the public domain and in the collection of the Library of Congress.
Edison Brown Wax Cylinder from 1899 and Edison Gold Molded Black Cylinder from 1904 – UCSC Cylinder Audio Archive
Edison Gold Moulded Cylinder – from Wikimedia commons by license.
Emile Berliner – poster offered for sale on Amazon.com.
1897 Berliner Gram O Phone disc – Wikipedia entry on Emile Berliner
c. 1909 ad for Edison Amberol Phonograph – offered for sale on eBay
Edison Blue Amberol cylinder and box – from the The Cylinder Archive
Vintage advertising material from the Victor Talking Machine Co. found via Etsy
Vintage advertising material for the Edison Voicewriter, in the public domain.