Early Sound Recording - Wax Cylinders
Edison Standard Recording Cylinder
The first cylinder sound recording machine was developed by Thomas Edison in 1877. This invention etched the sound wave patterns from a mouthpiece onto tinfoil wrapped around a 4 inch cylinder. However this medium, while able to successfully record low quality sound, was extremely fragile and it failed to find a substantial commercial market.
It was not until 1885 that a talking machine called the 'graphophone' was able to successfully play and record onto cylinders which were robust enough to be commercially viable. This machine utilised a wax coated cylinder rather than tin foil and accounts for the reason recorded cylinders from this point on were commonly referred to as 'wax cylinders', although many are not made from wax at all.
These tubular cylinders were slotted over a rotating drum before a needle was lowered onto its surface to play back the recorded sound. Surrounded as we are by television, radio, mobile phones and pod casts it is hard for us to conceive how novel it was to listen to a recorded voice. The new medium conveyed for the first time not only the sense of the words of the sender but also the expression which has much to do with the interpretation of the true meaning contained in the words of the sermon as much as a song.
While it was initially envisaged public demand would be for use as an office dictation machine, it quickly became apparent people wanted to listen to music and vaudeville performances on these new machines. Unfortunately for Edison and the graphophone companies, the machines they sold were capable of recording as well as playing back music. This led to a situation where entrepreneurs were re-recording cylinders and on-selling these or making their own recordings of local artists to sell. Machines were soon hired by operators charging people to sit and listen through hearing tubes and as demand grew, coin operated machines were developed until it eventually became clear home models would be needed to cater for demand.
Another problem affecting the quality of the recordings was the fact that by this stage most cylinders were not actually made from wax but from a non-soluble metallic soap that varied in composition from time to time. This posed problems for 'graphophone' and phonograph companies as there was no reliable means of duplicating the music captured on cylinders. As a result 200 recordings required the artist perform the same song 20 times in front of a battery of twenty recording machines all set in motion at the same time.
The obvious solution to this problem was to make copies of master cylinders but, in 1898, before this problem was solved, a high quality 12.7 cm (5-inch) cylinder was introduced by the American Graphophone Company. Known as concert cylinders these could deliver not only a higher quality of sound but also produced a louder recording enabling them to be used in music halls to seated audiences. Bigger and more expensive than the normal cylinder they failed to find a popular market and by 1902 they were only being made-to-order by both companies
To overcome these problems both companies started working towards finding a harder material to make their cylinders from. In addition they needed to find a method for reproducing copies of master recordings by moulding, rather re-recording from individual cylinders. The hope was that moulded cylinders would not only last longer and sound better, but would provide a guarantee of recording quality. Edison had been following the possibility of making the wax electrically conductive and then using this to plate a mould. He worked on electro-statically depositing gold and then plating with base metals but it was not until 1901 that he successfully patented the 'gold-molding' process which could be used to copy commercial quantities of cylinders. Columbia in turn began producing moulded cylinders called 'High Speed XX' cylinders and both adopted 160 rpm (revolution per minute) in place of the earlier 120 rpm.
By 1902 business was booming and the Columbia Graphophone Company claimed to produce two million cylinders per month, but did so without owning a patent on moulding cylinders. They did however benefit from being able to utilize the final major innovation in cylinder design before the Edison Company, the use of a celluloid instead of a wax composition. The beginnings this innovation are attributed to the work of Thomas Lambert of Chicago who in 1900 began producing pink celluloid cylinders made from a copper moulded master. By July 1906 the Indestructible Record Company and the Graphophone Company were producing large numbers of celluloid cylinders but patent restrictions prevented Edison from making his cylinders from celluloid.
Further problems surfaced for Edison's National Phonograph Company in 1905 when Higham's modifications to the playing device extended the playing time of the cylinders from 2 to 4 minutes. The problem for Edison was this device caused increased wear on his softer wax cylinders and in 1908, he was forced to compete with the 4 minute recordings by promoting the 'Amberol' cylinders which increased the number of grooves per inch from one hundred to two. Unfortunately, playing them required fitting special feed mechanisms to existing phonographs and, given the extra cost, this was unpopular. In 1909 the U. S. Phonograph Company began molding 4 minute 'Everlasting' cylinders in celluloid and in 1910 the Indestructible Record Company began producing celluloid recordings sold by the Columbia Phonograph Company.
Edison finally solved the problem by buying the rights to celluloid production owned by Philpot of England. In 1912, using the same 'gold-molding' process for the wax cylinders, Edison began producing 'Blue Amberol' recordings made from hardened blue celluloid with plaster centers and which revolved at 160 rpm. The first of these were two minutes long but by October 1912 they began production of 4 minutes cylinders which were followed by a celebrity series in purple celluloid.
1905 was the high point of cylinder recording which by the WW1 went into a sustained phase of decline. Edison continued to sell his phonograph recording right up until his retirement in 1929 but the real cause of the demise of the moulded cylinders was the success of the rival gramophone-disc records which dominated music recording right up until the 1980s.
Geoff Barker, Assistant Curator, December 2009
'The Phonograph', Scientific American, July 25 1896, 66
V. K. Chew, Science Museum Talking Machines, Her Majesty's Stationary Office, London, 1981
Oliver Read and Walter Welch, From Tin Foil to Stereo, Howard Sams & Co., New York, 1959
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