peaked in popularity around 1905. After this, discs and disc players, most
notably the Victrolas, began to dominate the market. Columbia Records,
and Edison competitor, had stopped marketing cylinders in 1912. The Edison
Company had been fully devoted to cylinder phonographs, but, concerned
with discs' rising popularity, Edison associates began developing their
own disc player and discs in secret. Dr. Jonas Aylsworth, chief chemist
for Edison, and later after his retirement in 1903, a consultant for the
company, took charge of developing a plastic material for the discs. The
aim was to produce a superior-sounding disc that would outperform the rivals'
shellac records, which were prone to wear and warping. Another difference
from competitors' discs was that the vertical-cut method was to be used
for the grooves. In this manner, the stylus would bob up and down in the
groove, rather than from side to side or laterally. Ten-inch records would
run for 5 minutes per side at approximately 80 r.p.m.
Although Edison associates initially
worked on the project in secret, when Edison discovered it, he took control
of this new project and gave it much of his personal attention.
Aylsworth molded phenol and formaldehyde
mixed with wood-flour and a solvent into a heat-resistant disc. This material
always remained absolutely plane, which was essential as it formed the
core of the disc record. A phenolic resin varnish called Condensite was
applied to the core, and then the disc was stamped in the record press.
The finished 10" disc weighed ten ounces, heavier than most, partially
due to the 1/4" thickness of the record. A diamond point was obtained for
the stylus. The Disc Phonograph and the Edison Discs were designed to be
an entire system, incompatible with other discs or disc players.
The new Edison Disc Phonograph was
shown for the first time publicly at the Fifth Annual Convention for the
National Association of Talking Machine Jobbers at Milwaukee, Wisconsin,
on July 10-13th, 1911. Press reported that the new machine was based on
Edison's British 1878 patent in order to deter claims of copyright infringement
with Victor or Berliner. The new machine was also mentioned in the Edison
Phonograph Monthly in July of 1911, but it was over a year before disc
players or discs would be offered for sale.
By the end of 1912, three basic models
of the Edison Disc Phonograph had been designed, ranging in price from
$150 to $250, and the company salesmen took them around the country. Soon
after, the choice of models was extended to feature less expensive players
and luxury machines in stylish wood cabinets. Prices for the discs started
from $1.15 to $4.25, but later came down to $1.35 to $2.25. The discs were
expensive to make because of the complicated chemical processes used for
Initial public reaction was not encouraging
for several reasons. The Edison cabinets were deemed to be less attractive
than the Victrolas, and customers were required to buy Edison discs only
for Edison players, since they were not compatible with other players.
The laminated surface of the discs also had a tendency to detach from the
core material, and surface noise was frequently apparent, which contradicted
the aim of perfection that the company was trying to achieve with its recordings.
Still, the phonographs and discs were touted as being acoustically better
than those of the competitors. In order to bolster claims of superiority,
Edison claimed that his records could be played 1,000 times without wear.
Recitals were also conducted to prove
the merit of the discs. Edison recording artists would sing along with
a disc recording of their voices, daring the audience to be able to tell
the difference. In late 1915, Edison began its famous Tone Tests, which
featured artists alternating their live performance on a darkened stage
with that on the disc in front of large audiences, challenging them to
detect a difference. Reaction was positive to these tests, and reinforced
the Edison motto that the discs were "re-creations" of performances, not
merely recordings of them.
Additional advertising for the Diamond
Disc was secured through promotion of the Edison film The Voice of the
Violin, made in 1915, which featured a Tone Test by Anna Case. (The
Library of Congress copy is incomplete and, unfortunately, is lacking Case's
On the disc label, sides were indicated
by "L" and "R", referring to the left side or the right side when stored
vertically. The early disc issues contained the Edison trademark, Edison's
image, the title of the selection, and the composer, all pressed into the
glossy black surface of the disc using a half-tone electrotype. The early
issues did not carry the artists' names, reflecting Edison's policy of
not seeking out name acts, but supposedly relying on the quality of the
music alone. In 1915, the artists' names began to be added to the labels.
In 1921, black paper labels with white Roman type began to be used, and
were changed at the end of 1923 to white labels.
By 1916, demand increased for console
cabinets to house the disc players. The Edison Company produced a series
of period models to compete with those of the Victor Company. The designer
for the cabinets was H.D. Newson from the W.A. French Furniture Company
of Minneapolis. Named "The Art Models," these cabinets came in English,
French, and Italian period styles, as well as Gothic styles. Prices ranged
from $1,000 to $6,000. Advertising for these models made it clear that
the players themselves were the same as lower-priced models; the inflated
cost was for the cabinet.
In 1917 when the U.S. became involved
in World War I, the Edison Company created the Army and Navy Model in answer
to a request for machines from the United States Army
Depot Quartermaster in New York.
The simple, basic machine sold for $60. The Department of War never purchased
any, but individual units bought them, some taking them overseas. The Army
and Navy Model was discontinued after the war's end.
By 1917, the Disc Phonograph had
garnered considerable success in the marketplace. This good fortune continued
for almost seven years. In contrast, the cylinder phonograph business declined;
by 1925, the remaining cylinder customers had to order directly from the
factory. By 1920, Edison was the only disc company not using steel needles
or the lateral method of grooves.
By 1924, business began to sour with
the advent of competition from radio. Operations were cut back, and experimentation
began with long-playing records. These were introduced in October 1926
along with four new console disc phonographs. As a concession to the marketplace,
attachments were also offered so that the Edison phonographs could play
the laterally-cut records of competitors.
By the latter half of the 20's, the
company started to diversify its interests in an attempt to stay viable.
Thoughts of moving pictures with sound led the company to develop an Ediscope
which featured still pictures with narration. This was envisioned as being
appropriate for the children's market, since it could be used for fairy
tales and educational nature talks. Work was also begun on the Cine-Music
Phonograph, which was conceived to supply musical accompaniment to motion
Edison entered into the radio business
in 1928 by taking over the Aplitdorf-Bethlehem Electrical Company of Newark,
a move which allowed him to produce radio-phonographs. The Edison Company
further expanded into the field of radio by making programs for radio on
long-playing discs. Radio station WAAM of Newark, NJ, agreed to use the
new Rayediphonic Reproducing Machine and Radiosonic records in 1929, with
the first Radiosonic broadcast being aired on April 4. It appeared that
the company had finally found a profitable outlet.
In the summer of 1929, the Edison
company gave into the popular trend and introduced the Edison Portable
Disc Phonograph with New Edison Needle Records, offering both the Diamond
Discs and the new needle records simultaneously.
These changes did not measurably
improve business, and on October 21, orders were given to close the Edison
disc business, with the company stating that it would focus on the manufacture
of its radio-phonographs in the future.
Photo Library of Congress, Motion
Picture, Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound Division