The Development Of Cylinder Records - Part 1
by Bill Pratt
The story of the development
and actual first production of the
cylinder record really begins after Edison had put aside his initial
venture into sound recording.
Public enthusiasm for that new wonder
from the Edison lab, the Tinfoil
Phonograph, had declined by the late
1870's and Edison had already turned his interests to what was destined
to become an even greater achievement, the development of the incandescent light bulb.
Under two contracts with the newly-formed Edison Electric Light
and the other in 1881, Edison agreed to cease work
on developing the phonograph
and concentrate his full attention
on finding a viable
medium for the transmission of cheap and reliable artificial
would not be fulfilled
until January 1886.
meantime, this left the field open to
other researchers to ensure the
future of the cylinder.
years of research in acoustics
led to the successful demonstration of the telephone in 1877, was
astonished that he had not grasped
the rather simple principles of the
Tinfoil Phonograph and been its
With the recently awarded
Volta prize of $25,000 granted Bell
in recognition of his development
of the telephone,
he opened a laboratory in Washington,
D.C. to continue experimentation in related fields.
Enlisting the aid of a relative,
and a scientist,
Charles Sumner Tainter, they began
to devote increasing attention to the improvement of the phonograph.
Very quickly it became apparent to them that the most serious drawback of
this machine was the use of tinfoil as the recording medium and they experimented with the use of a wax compound onto which sound vibrations
could be incised or engraved.
Initially they simply
a machine identical to Edison's
and filled the grooves of the metal cylinder with wax.
After five years
of intensive research they introduced,
in 1886, an instrument
on which the tinfoil had been replaced by a removable
wax-coated cardboard tube measuring
1 5/16" which slipped
onto the metal cylinder.
In 1887, the American
formed to market these machines
and cylinders primarily in the District
Edison returned to what he had always stated was his
and began also to experiment with
wax as the recording medium for his cylinders.
(Edison had in fact
suggested the possibility of using wax in his original
1887 he unveiled his new,
a striking resemblance to Bell
and Tainter's in basic design.
It too used wax as the
however, the important difference was that Edison's
made of solid
wax which could be shaved and re-used
while the Graphophone cylinders could be recorded upon only once.
Further mechanical improvement of the phonograph took place and in June 1888,
(after five days
and nights of exhausting labour!),
his Perfected Phonograph to compete with the
in the business
At this point in the
with both concerns poised to begin the
legal battles which seemed inevitable to
determine whether Bell/Tainter or Edison
could claim creative patent to the
design of talking machine,
them to allow
him to merge both concerns into one company
to market both the phonograph
Thus was born the North American Phonograph Company, formed in July,
1888, with full control of the Edison
patents and with exclusive sales rights to
Part of the agreement stipulated that the
was to be referred to as the
The machines which this company marketed were made in four different classes according to
whether they were run by
mains electricity, electricity from a battery,
water motor or
It is frustrating for today's collectors because since these
first generation of cylinder machines were leased
and not purchased outright by customers,
almost none has survived.
Initially, the principal
function of the talking machine
was understood as a dictating aid
in the business office
and Lippincott's sole aim was to arrange
the lease of these machines through
companies to business
Within a year, thirty-three companies
described in articles during
the advantages to the business
trade of their cylinder process.
Edison, in the North American Re-
view for June described his solid
wax cylinder in the following words:
"A single wax cylinder, or blank,
may be used for
fifteen or twenty successive
records before it is worn out.
But if the record is to be kept,
wax blank must not be talked
upon again, and is simply slipped off
from the metal cylinder
and filed away for future reference.
It may be fitted on to
the cylinder again at any time,
and will at once utter whatever
has been registered
wax blanks will repeat
its contents thousands of times
can be sent through the mails in little
boxes which I have
had prepared for that purpose, and then put upon another
a distant point, to be listened to by a friend or business correspondent...,
For the present it has been decided to make all the
phonographs of uniform size,
so that a record
put upon the machine
may be placed on another machine of the
same pattern in
and speak exactly as it was spoken to on this continent....
pattern make the thing perfectly practicable in offices which have business
all over the globe...
a large correspondence can talk all their letters
into the phonograph in a very short time,
them to be listened to and copied by
an assistant, without the delay involved in stenography or the trouble of going over and
correcting the copyist's work, which is almost inevitable under the conditions of dictation