Audio Format Wars II – Yes, But What Kind Of Disc?

An array of incompatible formats is not unusual whenever a new technology comes on the scene, and this was the case from the very beginnings of recorded music. We have previously examined how the early cylinder-style record was displaced by the much more popular disc-style.  But even within the disc format there was plenty of disagreement on how a phonograph record should work.

One of the early innovators were brothers Charles and Emile Pathe’ of Paris.  The Pathe’ brothers started out selling Edison cylinders and the equipment that played them.  Soon, however, they began making their own unique equipment.  Although they put some effort into cylinders, they were offering disc records as early as 1905.  These Pathe’ discs were quite unlike anything seen in the U.S. at the time.

For starters, the record was played from the inside out – instead of starting the stylus on the outside edge of the disc and finishing the play inside near the label, the Pathe’ system began near the label and finished with the stylus on the outside edge.  Another difference was that the Pathe’ turntable spun at about 90-100 rpm instead of the 75-80 rpm that was more or less the standard in the U.S.

The other Pathe’ feature was in the way the groove was cut.  Most everyone not named Edison used what was called a “lateral cut” groove.  In this design, the bottom of the groove did nothing but support the stylus while the groove’s sides did double duty of carrying the sound information and moving the stylus along the groove’s circular path.  Pathe used a system similar to the Edison cylinders, which employed a “vertical cut”.  In the Pathe’ disc the sound information was in the bottom of the groove.

The another feature of the Pathe’ system was in the use of a sapphire ball-tipped stylus, which was semi-permanent (as opposed to the soft steel styli used to play lateral-cut discs and which was designed to be replaced after each play.  There were adaptors sold which allowed Pathe’ players to play “normal” discs and which allowed other phonographs to play Pathe’ discs.

The Pathe’ discs were sold in the U.S. but never gained a lot of market traction.  That system was pretty much a dead man walking after about 1920.

Thomas Edison had invented the phonograph and was certainly chagrined that his cylinder concept was on the wane in terms of market share after about 1910.  So even though the cylinder design that had been his brainchild was rejected by the music buying market, Edison was not simply going to join the rest of the industry’s lemmings in jumping over the cliff into what he maintained was an inferior design.  If the American music buyer wanted a disc, Edison would give that buyer a better one.

In 1912 Edison responded with the Edison Diamond Disc.  Although a disc, it was engineered much like a cylinder (and much like the Pathe’ system) in the use of a vertically-cut groove. But instead of Pathe’s sapphire stylus, Edison used one made of diamond. What’s more, the disc system used a drive mechanism similar to the cylinder machines, in which the stylus was guided by a worm gear mechanism that did not rely on the record’s grooves to move the stylus from side to side.  Edison claimed that the system was greatly superior, in both sound quality and in durability.  The lateral-cut discs of the competition used a soft steel needle and the use of the groove walls to both produce sound and drive the stylus arm promoted wear.  Edison’s Diamond Discs were nearly a quarter inch thick and until later in the run only offered a single recorded side – all of which allowed for a very deep groove.

The Diamond Disc was moderately popular into the early 1920s and had a market power that Pathe’ never enjoyed. But it was eventually doomed by the cheaper and more popular lateral-groove disc/steel needle phonograph made by the rest of the industry.  Edison’s cylinder business was gone by 1925 and the Diamond disc was dead by 1929. Edison made a late try at a standard, lateral-cut/steel needle system in 1929, but it was too little too late and the whole operation was shut down before the end of that year.

Although popular wisdom attributes the “modern” long play record to Columbia in 1948, it was actually an Edison Diamond Disc which was the original.  In its short life, a twelve inch 80 rpm disc could make use of much more finely spaced groves than could the lateral-cut system, and the result was  twenty minutes of music per side of the highest fidelity then available.  For those of you who did not grow up in the LP era, twenty minutes per side was not an unusual playback time for a twelve inch LP spinning at 33 1/3 rpm as late as the 1960s or 70s.

Unfortunately, only a handful of titles was offered for the expensive specially-made players and the whole experiment was shut down in 1927 after only about a year on the market.

Although the Diamond Disc claimed technical superiority (as the Sony Betamax would over the competing VHS videotape in the late 1970s) the Edison line was hampered by its catalog.  Edison was an old man in the 1920’s, and his control over the company (including what would be recorded and sold) resulted in a wide selection of “old man” recordings.  The 1920s was known as The Jazz Age, but for the most part you couldn’t tell it by looking at an Edison catalog.  Meanwhile, Victor, Columbia and numerous smaller companies recorded anything and everything, most importantly choices popular with younger buyers who were inclined to spend big on modern (for the day) high-tech entertainment.

In the end, the phonograph record became standardized as the inexpensive lateral-cut disc that spun at 78 rpm, which had been pressed by the hundreds of thousands by Victor, Columbia and a host of other minor companies, as was noted in part 1. The ten inch format was most common but a more expensive twelve inch format was employed for classical or other genres which could make use of the 4-5 minute playing time, which was 1 1/2 – 2 minutes longer than with the standard ten inch disc.

Other than the advent of electrical recording technology starting in 1925 (which was a massive improvement in sound quality over the acoustical recording tech that preceded it), this was the state of the phonograph record until the late 1940s when new innovations began to bubble into the market once again. Even with the LP and 45 rpm formats that eventually took over, the ten inch 78 rpm shellac disc would continue to be offered in record company catalogs in the until they were finally discontinued for the U.S. market in 1958.

If we mark Emile Berliner’s 1889 patent as the beginning of the 78 rpm disc record era in the U.S., we can say that the shellac 78 was a commercially viable format for almost seventy years without interruption. The LP may have surpassed this recently, but with an asterisk that marks a near-absence from retailers for quite a few years. So, could we call it a – – – record?

Image credits:

Opening image – Edison Diamond Discs offered for sale at ebth.com

Recreation of Pathe’ sign offered for sale on ebay.com

Pathe’ Records notice from a record jacket – from obsoletemedia.com

Pathe’ record label from pdx78s.cdbpdx.com

Edison Diamond Disc advertisement from pinterest

Edison Diamond Disc from hubpages.com

1897 Berliner Gram-O-Phone disc from wikipedia entry on Emile Berliner

Further reading:

https://www.loc.gov/collections/edison-company-motion-pictures-and-sound-recordings/articles-and-essays/history-of-edison-sound-recordings/history-of-the-edison-disc-phonograph/

11 thoughts on “Audio Format Wars II – Yes, But What Kind Of Disc?

  1. I really enjoyed this, I tell you. I love obscure audio formats- my brother insists I’m still a slotMusic man at heart, though I dispute this.

    I wish you’d provided a tutorial on getting some of my early wax cylinders and Edison Diamond Discs onto my iPod five years ago, and onto my iPhone today. I keep jamming a USB cord into them but my computer can’t read .wax and .dia formats. I knew I should have stayed with Windows!

    Liked by 1 person

    • It has only been the last year or two that I have understood the fundamental incompatibility between the Edison discs and the rest. Now that the LP has become popular again, maybe the next frontier is to revive the Edison LP format. We can bang out some USB compatible players and knock out some popular albums in the format and we’ll be rich!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. That led me to find some interesting microscopic shots of record grooves, but I wasn’t able to find anything on Pathe discs. I’d not heard of them before.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Edison was also busy in the burgeoning film industry, where he apparently undercut a major figure, George Melies (sp?). I learned that from watching Hugo, a very quirky and interesting tale about an orphan boy in France whose father had taught him to “fix” things. It’s a most un-Martin Scorsese film made by Martin Scorsese some years ago that’s now on Netflix.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Edison was a significant figure in several industries, with power generation being another. I know a bit about Edison’s film work but not enough. Thanks for the movie tip, I will have to check it out.

      Like

  4. Yeeaaahhhh…now I want one! I’ve always thought that my late era Mosaic Jazz virgin vinyl LP’s, from the 80’s, were superior in every way to first series CD’s in terms of depth of sound. Even high quality record companies that did some pop and euro-jazz had pretty pristine LP’s with full analog sound! Wonderful! Unfortunately for me, I was a consummate “record destroyer”. My friends referred to me as “the king of the needle droppers” because I could scratch up a new disc in no time! CD’s were a blessing for me, but not from the “depth of sound” angle!

    I love those Blue Note boxed releases that come with a CD, and virgin vinyl LP, a book, and a download, and somethimes a “spif” like a Blue Note scarf or something! Maybe they should include a Pathe or Edison disc!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I have read that some people have done some high quality 78 rpm discs in recent years – made of a material softer/quieter than the old shellac and with modern lightweight tone arms, they sound amazing. I understand that the faster spin speed actually has advantages in playback quality.

      Like

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