The Original Audio Format War: Cylinder vs. Disc
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I have done a fair amount of writing on old jazz music, and one of the topics that goes along with it is obsolete recording technology.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.
This was fascinating. Never heard of Berliner until today.
It’s likely a good thing Edison was so multifaceted. Had his big accomplishment been the phonograph he could have wound up like Blackberry later did.
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A great point. The modern phonograph is a little like the PC – IBM brought it out, as Berliner did. But it was others that really kept it going – Compaq/HP and Dell playing the roles Victor and Columbia played in early phonos.
Like you, I had never heard of Berliner either – he should be better known.
I was aware of the cylinder, but not of all its forms. Fascinating account, thanks for surfacing it!
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Since I subscribed to Tim Gracyk’s YouTube channel (link in the credits) I have been amazed at the variety of stuff that still exists in that format, and the sound quality of those which have been really well preserved over the decades. But most of the material is more fascinating than enjoyable, and you get to hear some of the cringeworthy stuff that was considered normal really early in the 20th century, like comics who emulated blacks, Irish, Jewish, and every other ethnic group.
That was interesting about the phonograph and I can remember my parents having something with the Victor-Victrola logo on it, but not sure if it was records, or the cardboard boxes that albums came in, or perhaps the record player itself. I do recall the ad for “His Master’s Voice” back in the day. The Miracle Edison Voicewriter was interesting to me, having spent many years transcribing legal dictation, although never by using shorthand. No, I am not THAT old, but I AM old enough to remember the Dictabelt. When I began as a legal secretary in 1980, I had two attorneys I worked for. One used a Dictaphone cassette machine and the other used the aforementioned Dictabelt. One of the secretaries warned me to always have my wits about me when I put a new belt on, as it was very easy to accidentally erase it. Talk about paranoid those first few times I used it!
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I wouldn’t be surprised if the “His Master’s Voice” logo is the most enduring and recognizable trademark ever.
I used to dictate on cassettes and when the senior partner of my first law firm retired he gifted me his “Edissette” desktop dictation machine that probably dated to the 70s. It was built like a Sherman tank and I only stopped using it recently without a single breakdown in 25 years.
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I’ll bet you are right about that JP … just the silhouette is recognizable, let alone the photograph. When I started in this legal business in 1980, only the associates had portable ‘Dictaphones – the partners all had the clunky dictation equipment on their desks. Everything was built better back then. My boss has always had three portable Dictaphones as he manages to mess up the switch (pausing to collecting his thoughts and keeping the pause button pressed down) … he recently got another model which has a USB port to attach to the computer and put the dictation right into the computer. He does not know how to use that function but he dropped off a day of interviews and the actual Dictaphone, as opposed to a tape. I was able to retrieve the interviews that way.
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Great review, but it makes me laugh. I was reading a blog a while back about CD/LP audio fidelity, and the writer mentioned that every time there’s a technology change, it seems like there are arguments that the old one was “better”. Hence the cylinder vs. disk fracas! He mentioned that people complained that the way cylinders recorded sound vs. early disks resulted in higher fidelity! I was reading about about sound recording in the field and they mentioned that small portable cylinder recorders were the thing long after disks were introduced because, of course, they were smaller, and if you messed up, you could shave the cylinder and start over; essential in the field!
BTW, my Dad was in the insurance business all his life, and I remember in the 60’s, he used the Dictabelt system. Lots of blue belts lying around and a weird little machine attached to his phone. I thought it was strange, but he said it was used for interviews and statements because it could NOT be edited! It was cut directly into the blue plastic, and if anyone tried to mess with it, it would be noticeable or destroyed. It was not high fidelity, tho..
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The whole process of early analog recording tech amazes me how well it actually works – and the concept of audio fidelity from that era makes me chuckle a bit, but the difference was probably real, if slight.
Portable recording seems like a host of really expensive and compromised options before magnetic systems (wire then tape) came along. I never saw a Dictabelt in person but saw ads for them in old magazines, and they seemed really odd.
Thanks for reading!
That was interesting JP…..esp enjoyed the ads, although it’s hard to imagine music coming out of those wax cylinders.
Not to mention that it was all vibrations coming through a big horn.
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Reading this prompted me to look up LITTLE WONDER Records on Wikipedia. I have this record, 5 1/2″ dia., like the picture below but it’s No. 678, “Lookout Mountain” Tenor solo. Never knew what it really was until I Google-searched it today. Very interesting bit of history, and these mini-records apparently paved the way for cheap, popular recordings. Have you ever seen one of these LITTLE WONDER records?
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I had read about them somewhere but have never seen one. I just checked an inflation calculator and a 35 cent Edison record in 1905 is about 10 bucks today, which was not cheap for a single song. No wonder people were exploring the low end of the market. At a dime they were less than 1/3 the cost of a name brand, but then you got less too.
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