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Edison Cylinder and Disc Record Development

A Quick Synopsis of the Development of Edison Cylinder and Disc Records

Edison invented the cylinder phonograph in 1877 when he was 30 years old, but that was not the end of the story.  During the following 52 years, Edison manufactured and sold some of the finest entertainment cylinder phonographs and records in the world. Let's now look at what happened over those years:

December 6, 1877

Edison finishes work on the first phonograph. It records sound onto a tinfoil sheet glued around a fixed cylinder. The crude instrument works, but exists as little more than a novelty.

February 19, 1878

Edison received a U.S. patent for his phonograph. The patent claims were poorly written and they provided poor legal protection against infringement by competitors.

April, 1878

Edison used his phonograph patent to attract investors. The Edison Speaking Phonograph Company was formed by businessmen from the telephone industry. Gardiner Green Hubbard was appointed president. Hubbard was Alexander Graham Bell’s father in law. Edison turned his full attention from the phonograph to other ventures, including the development of electric lighting and the electric utility industry.

1880

Alexander Graham Bell received the Volta Prize from France for his invention of the telephone. Bell used the prize money to establish the Volta Laboratory in Washington, D.C.   Because of family ties, Gardiner Green Hubbard became involved in the research and development carried on by Volta, and work began on improving Edison’s phonograph.

1885

Volta successfully developed an improved phonograph that recorded sound on a fixed wax cylinder. Volta approached Edison with their work in the hopes of establishing a business relationship. Edison balked at the idea and turned Volta away.

May 4, 1886

Volta received a patent for their improved phonograph and wax cylinder recording process.

January 6, 1886

Volta Graphophone Company was formed in Washington, D.C.  The company directed all of its efforts to research and development of sound recording instruments and records. Recording and reproducing methods were further improved, and a removable wax cylinder record was developed. The removable cylinder record consisted of a 6-inch cardboard tube, 1-5/16-inches in diameter, covered with wax.

May 13, 1887

American Graphophone Company was formed to manufacture the phonographs and records developed by Volta Graphophone Company.

1887

Edison panicked when he realized the threat posed by the Graphophone companies. He formed the Edison Phonograph Company to exclusively work on research and development of an improved phonograph. Edison worked feverishly and developed his own improved phonograph with a removable solid wax cylinder. Edison got into a position to do legal battle with the Graphophone companies over patent infringements.

1888

The Edison Phonograph Company and the Graphophone companies both had a basis for suing each other over patent infringements. A shaky alliance was made between the adversaries by an intermediary named Jesse H. Lippincott. On March 29, Lippincott cemented the alliance by forming the North American Phonograph Company to market and sell the machines from both sides. As per the terms of the alliance, Edison allowed his improved phonograph to be a licensed Graphophone!

At the time the North American Phonograph Company was formed, the phonograph was considered to be nothing more than an office machine. Marketing was targeted to customers who would use the instruments for recording dictation. Both the Edison and the Graphophone machines were usable, but very expensive and not very reliable. The Edison machines were the best of the two, and customers tended to favor them over the Graphophones.

North American’s best dealer was the Columbia Phonograph Company. Columbia saw the potential of selling entertainment records and began developing a music cylinder business using Edison solid wax records. The president of Columbia, Edward D. Easton became a director of American Graphophone Company.

July 1, 1890

American Graphophone Company stopped production of new phonographs due to sagging orders. The company continued to sell parts and its existing inventory of phonographs that were modified to play solid wax cylinders.

1891

American Graphophone broke away from North American Phonograph Company. This left North American in a position to sell only Edison phonographs. American Graphophone began competing with Edison.

May 1, 1893

Columbia assumed management of American Graphophone and began patent litigation to challenge Edison’s improved phonograph with regard to Volta’s patent claims.

1894

An all out war developed between Edison and Columbia over patent infringements. As principal creditor, Edison threw the National Phonograph Company into bankruptcy on August 12, to protect his interests.

December 7, 1896

Both Edison and Columbia were at a legal standoff. The companies ceased legal action against each other and cross-licensed themselves to continue business. Edison granted a license to Columbia to use the Edison solid wax cylinder, tapered phonograph mandrel, and jeweled stylus. Columbia granted a license to Edison to use a gravity weighted floating stylus and incised wax cylinder recordings.

1896

Emil Berliner began manufacturing and selling his spring motor Gramophone and disk records. Disk records were easier to manufacture and store than cylinders. They quickly caught on with customers. This was the beginning of the end of cylinder records.

1897

Columbia abandoned the paper core wax cylinder record and started to manufacture solid wax cylinders.

1900

On March 5, Thomas Lambert formed a company in Chicago to manufacture molded celluloid (a primitive plastic) cylinder records. These were the first molded records offered to the public. The Lambert cylinders were molded in various colors and had no core.

Edison began a new process of molding black wax cylinders. These molded cylinders facilitated mass production and had improved durability. Edison called his new records "Gold Moulded". This name was chosen because gold was used to create the record molds. It would take two years to get Gold Moulded records into the marketplace.

1901

Columbia introduced molded brown wax cylinders. Edison was still not ready with his line of Gold Moulded cylinders.

 

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Edison sold 2-Minute wax Gold Moulded Records in these ornately decorated boxes. The box on the left is an earlier version and the one on the right is a later version used just prior to the introduction of 4-Minute wax Amberol cylinders in 1908. These record boxes are very substantially made with cotton padding on the inside to protect the fragile wax records.

 

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Unfortunately, the cotton padding in Gold Moulded record boxes tends to absorb moisture which promotes fungus growth on the record surface. The fungus actually eats into the wax and destroys the recording. Many 2-Minute records survived into modern times, but are rendered unplayable due to fungus attack. This photo shows mold spotting that is severe enough to render the cylinders unplayable. Although a few small spots on the record surface don't create a problem, if you run across records like these, don't waste your money on them!

1902

On February 2, Edison released his line of Gold Moulded records.

On November 11, Edison received a patent for celluloid cylinder records. Rather than put the celluloid cylinders into production, Edison decided to focus on eliminating the competition. A patent infringement lawsuit was filed by Edison against Lambert.

 

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A young lady shows off her Edison Gold Moulded cylinders and her new Standard Model B.

1905

As a result of Edison’s litigation against Lambert, the courts ruled that Edison’s celluloid record patent was invalid. Edison's legal strategy backfired and kept him from introducing his celluloid cylinders to the market.  Lambert won the battle, but lost the war.  Lambert's company was financially devastated by Edison's prolonged legal attacks and it was unable to effectively market celluloid cylinders in the United States.

July, 1906

The Indestructible Record Company was formed. This was also known as the "Albany Indestructible Record Company". Indestructible took advantage of Lambert’s weakened financial condition, and Edison's invalid celluloid record patent, to manufacture and market celluloid cylinders in 2-Minute and later 4-Minute format. The records had a cardboard core with metal reinforcing rings.

 

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Between 1908 and 1912, Edison produced 4-Minute black wax Amberol records in these green boxes. The Amberol records were not known for their durability or sound quality, and they couldn't compare to the plastic indestructible records that were being offered by competitors. Some disgruntled Edison dealers renamed the new Amberol cylinders "Damnberols".

1908

Columbia ceased wax cylinder record production and began buying the entire output of the Indestructible Record Company. Columbia dumped their remaining inventory of obsolete 2-Minute molded wax cylinders in prime Edison sales territory (rural America), via the Sears Roebuck mail order catalog, at greatly reduced prices.

Columbia's business arrangement with Indestructible put Edison in a very difficult position.  Edison, unable to manufacture celluloid records, developed a new black wax "Amberol" 4-Minute cylinder record to augment his line of molded wax 2-Minute records. The Amberol cylinders were brittle, had poor durability, and lackluster sound quality.  Edison changed the name of his 2-Minute Gold Moulded wax cylinders to "Standard Cylinders".

 

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In 1910, Edison tried to entice 2-Minute phonograph owners to upgrade their machines to play the new 4-Minute records. The upgrade kits came with Special Amberol Records in blue boxes (left). To increase new 4-Minute phonograph sales, existing owners were encouraged to convince their friends and neighbors to buy. If they were successful in helping to make a sale, Edison would send out a collection of Special Amberol Records in orange boxes (center) as a premium. The blue box on the right is for Special Blue Amberol Records included after 1912 with 4-Minute upgrade kits.

 

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Moulded wax cylinders can be very fragile, particularly the 4-Minute Amberol records produced between 1908 and 1912. The records can crack if you drop them or push them on to the phonograph mandrel too hard. The wax also tends to expand and contract very quickly in temperature extremes causing distortion. If the distortion is severe enough, the wax fractures and crumbles into pieces like this Amberol record. This commonly occurs if a cold record is brought in from outside to a warm room.

 

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Edison introduced the celluloid Blue Amberol record in 1912. The Popular Series Blue Amberols originally came in dark blue boxes (left) and in 1917, they came in cheaper orange boxes (right). The orange boxes lasted until the end of Blue Amberol record production in 1929. Both types of boxes had slight variations in styling over the years.

 

1912

Columbia completely eliminated cylinder phonographs and records from its product line and focuses only on the more popular disk players. Indestructible Record Company continued selling cylinders.

Edison remained committed to the cylinder record and bought patent rights from Brian E. Philpot to manufacture a new type of celluloid cylinder known as the "Blue Amberol". The Blue Amberol cylinders were blue in color and had a plaster core. Blue Amberol cylinders were produced in the regular "Popular Series" and a more expensive "Concert Series".  Edison ceased all 2-Minute and 4-Minute wax cylinder record production for North American customers.

Edison introduced Disc Phonographs and Disc Records into his product line. The Edison Disc records were much different than those of competitors, in that they were 0.25 inches thick and they were designed to play up to five minutes at 80 rpm. The records had no paper label and the titles and Edisons picture were etched directly into the plastic surface. Although the new Disc products were of high quality and yielded superior sound reproduction, they used a cylinder-like hill and dale recording method and a diamond stylus reproducer. As such, Edison disk phonographs could only play Edison Discs. This severely limited Edison’s sales because most of the competition was using the lateral recording method with steel needles. 

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Blue Amberol record box lids also went through some changes between 1912 and 1929. Although it's common to find records in boxes, the lids are almost always missing. It's a real treat to find a record with an original box and lid!

 

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Edison Concert Series Blue Amberols came in these very plain black boxes with gold lettering. This box didn't age too well!

1914

Edison changed the name of his Edison Disc Phonograph to Diamond Disc Phonograph. The Disc record was changed to Diamond Disc Record. These records were also kown as "Diamond Disc Re-creations".

On September 21, Edison gives approval to begin dubbing Blue Amberol cylinder masters from Diamond Disc submasters. This was done to save money, since Edison was now offering the same performances on both media. The dubbing process was entirely acoustical and it involved sticking the recording horn from the cylinder recorder into the playing horn from the disc player.  Since the cylinder masters were now a copy of a copy, in most cases there was a noticeable decrease in quality of reproduction, particularly with the earliest dubbed masters.  The first dubbed cylinders were released to dealers in January, 1915. 

 

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Early Edison Diamond Discs had no paper labels. Information about the record was actually engraved into the plastic of the record surface around the spindle hole. Edison's picture and signature were also engraved into the record. This particular record has a side entitled "Let Us Not Forget", in which Edison himself gives a short speech about the victory of the Allies in World War I.

 

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Blue Amberol cylinders have plaster cores and their titles are printed on the end. All Edison Blue Amberol cylinders have Thomas Edison's signature on them and a special code after the "PAT'D" mark. This particular cylinder is Number 3408 - Waltz Memories, performed by the Jaudas Society Orchestra and recorded on November 7, 1917. If you look closely, you can see the code ".24". This means that this particular cylinder is from Master Recording (Take) 1, and it was produced on Mold Number 24. Similarly, if a record is marked "...78", then it is from Mold 78, Take 3. Some collectors prize lower mold numbers, because they supposedly sound better. Apparently, a limited number of molds could be made from a master take before it began to wear out.

 

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Popular Series Blue Amberol cylinders range in color from powder blue to black. Most are dark navy blue. The powder blue color resulted from an ill-fated attempt to change the recipe for the dye used to color the celluloid. Supposedly, these light color cylinders were found to be less durable, but Edison chose to trickle them out to customers anyway.  Dealers were told to quietly exchange the records for new ones if the customers complained!  The two cylinders on the right are earlier flat ended records.  After about 1915, cylinders mostly had beveled ends like the three on the left.

1917

Edison cut Popular Series Blue Amberol record production costs by introducing new, cheaper boxes with orange and blue graphics.

1918

Edison introduced the "Royal Purple" series of records to replace the Concert Series.  The celluloid plastic record material was dyed purple to distinguish the Royal Purple records from the Popular Series.

1920

Albany Indestructible ceased cylinder record production due to a factory fire. This left Edison as the last remaining entertainment cylinder record manufacturer in North America. Nevertheless, Edison cylinder record sales were on the decline due to competition by disk record manufacturers and radio.

1921

Edison Royal Purple records were discontinued.  This left only the Popular Series of cylinder records in the product line.

Edison began producing Diamond Discs with paper labels.

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1923

To encourage sales, Edison dropped cylinder record and phonograph prices and cut dealer margins. Edison began loosing dealers in droves and was eventually forced to sell direct to the public via mail order.

 

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Later Diamond Discs had paper labels. Unlike labels on records made by Victor and Columbia, these labels had a propensity to fall off and wear out.

1928

Edison began acoustically dubbing Blue Amberol cylinder masters from electrically-recorded Diamond Disc submasters.  This improved the sound quality of Blue Amberol records. Thomas A. Edison's influence over the record business was greatly diminished due to old age, and the inventor's son Charles Edison stepped up to the task. As a result, more big city jazz tunes were included in the record catalogs to compete with disk record manufacturers like Victor and Columbia.

1929

5700 Series Blue Amberols were electrically dubbed from electrically recorded Diamond Discs.

Edison just couldn't compete with the other record manufacturers and radio, and the company produced the last Blue Amberol cylinder records on July 6.  Charles Edison approved the closing of the Edison Cylinder Division on October 22.  Edison ceased all phonograph and record sales when the company closed its books on December 31st. The remaining inventory of Blue Amberol cylinders was burned.  This brought the entertainment cylinder era to an end.


Are you interested in the different styles of Edison cylinder boxes?  Well, if you are, check out this web page:

Edison Cylinder Box and Lid Styles

Are you tired of getting ruined Edison Diamond Discs from sellers on eBay? Are you an eBay seller with no idea about whether your Edison Diamond Disc records are worth selling? Well check out my web page that shows you how to identify ruined Diamond Discs:

Common Problems With Edison Diamond Discs

Would you like to hear some of my Edison cylinder and disc recordings in MP3 format?  Check out my collection of Edison cylinder and disc records by clicking on this hyperlink:

My Edison Record Collection


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