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The phonograph was developed as a
result of Thomas Edison's work on two other inventions, the telegraph and
the telephone. In 1877, Edison was working on a machine that would transcribe
telegraphic messages through indentations on paper tape, which could later
be sent over the telegraph repeatedly. This development led Edison to speculate
that a telephone message could also be recorded in a similar fashion. He
experimented with a diaphragm which had an embossing point and was held
against rapidly-moving paraffin paper. The speaking vibrations made indentations
in the paper. Edison later changed the paper to a metal cylinder with tin
foil wrapped around it. The machine had two diaphragm-and-needle units,
one for recording, and one for playback. When one would speak into a mouthpiece,
the sound vibrations would be indented onto the cylinder by the recording
needle in a vertical (or hill and dale) groove pattern. Edison gave a sketch
of the machine to his mechanic, John Kreusi, to build, which Kreusi supposedly
did within 30 hours. Edison immediately tested the machine by speaking
the nursery rhyme into the mouthpiece, "Mary had a little lamb." To his
amazement, the machine played his words back to him.
Although it was later stated that
the date for this event was on August 12, 1877, some historians believe
that it probably happened several months later, since Edison did not file
for a patent until December 24, 1877. Also, the diary of one of Edison's
aides, Charles Batchelor, seems to confirm that the phonograph was not
constructed until December 4, and finished two days later. The patent (#200,521)
on the phonograph was issued on February 19, 1878. The invention was highly
original. The only other recorded evidence of such an invention was in
a paper by French scientist Charles Cros, written on April 18, 1877. There
were some differences, however, between the two men's ideas, and Cros's
work remained only a theory, since he did not produce a working model of
Edison Tin Foil Phonograph. Photo courtesy of U.S. Department of the Interior,
National Park Service, Edison National Historic Site.
Edison took his new invention to
the offices of Scientific American in New York City and showed it
to staff there. As the December 22, 1877, issue reported, "Mr. Thomas A.
Edison recently came into this office, placed a little machine on our desk,
turned a crank, and the machine inquired as to our health, asked how we
liked the phonograph, informed us that it was very well, and bid us a cordial
good night." Interest was great, and the invention was reported in several
New York newspapers, and later in other American newspapers and magazines.
The Edison Speaking Phonograph Company
was established on January 24, 1878, to exploit the new machine by exhibiting
it. Edison received $10,000 for the manufacturing and sales rights and
20% of the profits. As a novelty, the machine was an instant success, but
was difficult to operate except by experts, and the tin foil would last
for only a few playings.
Ever practical and visionary, Edison
offered the following possible future uses for the phonograph in North
American Review in June 1878:
Letter writing and all kinds of dictation
without the aid of a stenographer.
Phonographic books, which will speak
to blind people without effort on their part.
The teaching of elocution.
Reproduction of music.
The "Family Record"--a registry of sayings,
reminiscences, etc., by members of a family in their own voices, and of
the last words of dying persons.
Music-boxes and toys.
Clocks that should announce in articulate
speech the time for going home, going to meals, etc.
The preservation of languages by exact
reproduction of the manner of pronouncing.
Educational purposes; such as preserving
the explanantions made by a teacher, so that the pupil can refer to them
at any moment, and spelling or other lessons placed upon the phonograph
for convenience in committing to memory.
Connection with the telephone, so as
to make that instrument an auxiliary in the transmission of permanent and
invaluable records, instead of being the recipient of momentary and fleeting
Eventually, the novelty of the invention
wore off for the public, and Edison did no further work on the phonograph
for a while, concentrating instead on inventing the incadescent light bulb.
In the void left by Edison, others
moved forward to improve the phonograph. In 1880, Alexander Graham Bell
won the Volta Prize of $10,000 from the French government for his invention
of the telephone. Bell used his winnings to set up a laboratory to further
electrical and acoustical research, working with his cousin Chichester
A. Bell, a chemical engineer, and Charles Sumner Tainter, a scientist and
instrument maker. They made some improvements on Edison's invention, chiefly
by using wax in the place of tin foil and a floating stylus instead of
a rigid needle which would incise, rather than indent, the cylinder. A
patent was awarded to C. Bell and Tainter on May 4, 1886. The machine was
exhibited to the public as the graphophone. Bell and Tainter had representatives
approach Edison to discuss a possible collaboration on the machine, but
Edison refused and determined to improve the phonograph himself. At this
point, he had succeeded in making the incandescent lamp and could now resume
his work on the phonograph. His initial work, though, closely followed
the improvements made by Bell and Tainter, especially in its use of wax
cylinders, and was called the New Phonograph.
The Edison Phonograph Company was
formed on October 8, 1887, to market Edison's machine. He introduced the
Improved Phonograph by May of 1888, shortly followed by the Perfected Phonograph.
The first wax cylinders Edison used were white and made of ceresin, beeswax,
and stearic wax.
Businessman Jesse H. Lippincott assumed
control of the phonograph companies by becoming sole licensee of the American
Graphophone Company and by purchasing the Edison Phonograph Company from
Edison. In an arrangement which eventually included most other phonograph
makers as well, he formed the North American Phonograph Company on July
14, 1888. Lippincott saw the potential use of the phonograph only in the
business field and leased the phonographs as office dictating machines
to various member companies which each had its own sales territory. Unfortunately,
this business did not prove to be very profitable, receiving significant
opposition from stenographers.
Meanwhile, the Edison Factory produced
talking dolls in 1890 for the Edison Phonograph Toy Manufacturing Co. The
dolls contained tiny wax cylinders. Edison's relationship with the company
ended in March of 1891, and the dolls are very rare today. The Edison Phonograph
Works also produced musical cylinders for coin-slot phonographs which some
of the subsidiary companies had started to use. These proto-"jukeboxes"
were a development which pointed to the future of phonographs as entertainment
In the fall of 1890, Lippincott fell
ill and lost control of the North American Phonograph Co. to Edison, who
was its principal creditor. Edison changed the policy of rentals to outright
sales of the machines, but changed little else.
Edison increased the entertainment
offerings on his cylinders, which by 1892 were made of a wax known among
collectors today as "brown wax." Although called by this name, the cylinders
could range in color from off-white to light tan to dark brown. An announcement
at the beginning of the cylinder would typically indicate the title, artist,
for the Edison New Standard Phonograph, in Harper's, September 1898.
In 1894, Edison declared bankruptcy
for the North American Phonograph Company, a move that enabled him to buy
back the rights to his invention. It took two years for the bankruptcy
affairs to be settled before Edison could move ahead with marketing his
invention. The Edison Spring Motor Phonograph appeared in 1895, even though
technically Edison was not allowed to sell phonographs at this time because
of the bankruptcy agreement. In January 1896, he started the National Phonograph
Company which would manufacture phonographs for home entertainment use.
Within three years, branches of the company were located in Europe. Under
the aegis of the company, he announced the Spring Motor Phonograph in 1896,
followed by the Edison Home Phonograph, and he began the commercial issue
of cylinders under the new company's label. A year later, the Edison Standard
Phonograph was manufactured, and then exhibited in the press in 1898. This
was the first phonograph to carry the Edison trademark design. Prices for
the phonographs had significantly diminished from its early days of $150
(in 1891) down to $20 for the Standard model and $7.50 for a model known
as the Gem, introduced in 1899.
Standard-sized cylinders, which tended
to be 4.25" long and 2.1875" in diameter, were 50 cents each and typically
played at 120 r.p.m. A variety of selections were featured on the cylinders,
including marches, sentimental ballads, coon songs, hymns, comic monologues
and descriptive specialities, which offered sound reenactments of events.
The early cylinders had two significant
problems. The first was the short length of the cylinders, only 2 minutes.
This necessarily narrowed the field of what could be recorded. The second
problem was that no mass method of duplicating cylinders existed. Most
often, performers had to repeat their performances when recording in order
to amass a quantity of cylinders. This was not only time-consuming, but
The Edison Concert Phonograph, which
had a louder sound and a larger cylinder measuring 4.25" long and 5" in
diameter, was introduced in 1899, retailing for $125 and the large cylinders
for $4. The Concert Phonograph did not sell well, and prices for it and
its cylinders were dramatically reduced. Their production ceased in 1912.
for Edison cylinder records, September 1911.
A process for mass-producing duplicate
wax cylinders was put into effect in 1901. The cylinders were molded, rather
than engraved by a stylus, and a harder wax was used. The process was referred
to as Gold Moulded, because of a gold vapor given off by gold electrodes
used in the process. Sub-masters were created from the gold master, and
the cylinders were made from these molds. From a single mold, 120 to 150
cylinders could be produced every day. The new wax used was black in color,
and the cylinders were initially called New High Speed Hard Wax Moulded
Records until the name was changed to Gold Moulded. By mid-1904, the savings
in mass duplication was reflected in the price for cylinders which had
been lowered to 35 cents each. Beveled ends were made on the cylinders
to accommodate titles.
A new business phonograph was introduced
in 1905. Similar to a standard phonograph, it had alterations to the reproducer
and mandrel. The early machines were difficult to use, and their fragility
made them prone to failure. Even though improvements were made to the machine
over the years, they still cost more than the popular, inexpensive Dictaphones
put out by Columbia. Electrical motors and controls were later added to
the Edison business machine, which improved their performance. (Some Edison
phonographs made before 1895 also had electric motors, until they were
replaced by spring motors.)
At this point, the Edison business
phonograph became a dictating system. Three machines were used: the executive
dictating machine, the secretarial machine for transcribing, and a shaving
machine used to recycle used cylinders. This system can be seen in the
Edison advertising film, The
Stenographer's Friend, filmed in 1910. An improved machine, the
Ediphone, was introduced in 1916 and steadily grew in sales after World
War I and into the 1920's.
for Edison moulded cylinder records, March 1903.
In terms of playing time, the 2-minute
wax cylinder could not compete well against competitors' discs, which could
offer up to four minutes. In response, the Amberol Record was presented
in November 1908, which had finer grooves than the two-minute cylinders,
and thus, could last as long as 4 minutes. The two-minute cylinders were
then referred to in the future as Edison Two-Minute Records, and then later
as Edison Standard Records. In 1909, a series of Grand Opera Amberols (a
continuation of the two-minute Grand Opera Cylinders introduced in 1906)
was put on the market to attract the higher-class clientele, but these
did not prove successful. The Amberola I phonograph was introduced in 1909,
a floor-model luxury machine with high-quality performance, and was supposed
to compete with the Victrola and Grafonola.
In 1910, the company was reorganized
into Thomas A. Edison, Inc. Frank L. Dyer was initially president, then
Edison served as president from December 1912 until August 1926, when his
son, Charles, became president, and Edison became chairman of the board.
Columbia, one of Edison's chief competitors,
abandoned the cylinder market in 1912. (Columbia had given up making its
own cylinders in 1909, and until 1912 was only releasing cylinders which
it had acquired from the Indestructible Phonographic Record Co.) The United
States Phonograph Co. ceased production of its U.S. Everlasting cylinders
in 1913, leaving the cylinder market to Edison. The disc had steadily grown
in popularity with the consumer, thanks especially to the popular roster
of Victor artists on disc. Edison refused to give up the cylinder, introducing
instead the Blue Amberol Record, an unbreakable cylinder with what was
arguably the best available sound on a recording at the time. The finer
sound of the cylinder was partly due to the fact that a cylinder had constant
surface speed from beginning to end in contrast to the inner groove distortion
that occurred on discs when the surface speed slowed down. Partisans of
Edison also argued that the vertical cut in the groove produced a superior
sound to the lateral cut of Victor and other disc competitors. Cylinders,
though, had truly peaked by this time, and even the superior sound of the
Blue Amberols could not persuade the larger public to buy cylinders. Edison
conceded to this reality in 1913 when he announced the manufacture of the
Edison Disc Phonograph. The Edison Company did not desert its faithful
cylinder customers, however, and continued to make Blue Amberol cylinders
until the demise of the company in 1929, although most from 1915 on were
dubbed from the Diamond Discs.
Photos Library of Congress, Motion
Picture, Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound Division