Edison’s Tin Foil Cylinder

Edison with Cylinder Phonograph; Washington, DC: April 18, 1878

In 1877, Thomas Edison began to experiment with creating a “talking machine.” He had gotten the idea while working an instrument that transcribed telegrams. While working, he began to notice that when the indented dots and dashes hit the steel spring used to keep the tape in place during recording, they gave off a sound that Edison described as “resembling human talk heard indistinctly.”[1] This caused Edison to think that he may be able to invent something that would record a telephone message. He designed an instrument consisting of a metal cylinder (whose surface was impressed with a fine spiral groove), a diaphragm-and-needle unit for recording, and another similar unit for reproduction. The cylinder, wrapped in tin foil and mounted on a screw, spun from left to right as the handle was turned. This spinning caused the recording needle to indent the pattern of sound vibrations in a vertical “hill and dale” pattern in the groove. The job of the reproduction needle was to convert the indents in the tin foil back into sound. The first words Edison used to test his invention were the nursery rhyme “Mary had a little lamb.”[2] The official date given for this first test is August 12, 1877.[3] However, Edison did not apply for the patent until December 24, 1877, which leads many historians to believe that the first test may have been closer to this time.[4] Edison was given the phonograph patent less than two months after he applied, on February 19, 1878. Once the novelty of the invention wore off and the public’s interest waned, Edison abandoned the phonograph in order to focus all his energies on the incandescent light bulb.[5]

Bell and Tainter’s wax cylinder

Alexander Graham Bell had been fascinated by Edison’s phonograph and eagerly followed its invention and development. When Edison abandoned the phonograph in October 1878, Bell proceeded to make his own advancements on the machine. In 1880, he used prize money from the French government to finance a laboratory in Washington, D.C. that would focus solely on research relating to sound and acoustics.[6] In order to improve upon the forgotten phonograph, he collaborated with his cousin, Chichester Bell, a chemical engineer, and Charles Sumner Tainter, a scientist. After years of inventing and experimenting, the men came up with a phonograph that was similar to Edison’s, but with a few important changes, such as replacing Edison’s tin foil covered cylinder with one made of cardboard and coated in wax.[7] This would work much the same as Edison’s had with the stylus engraving the sound waves onto the wax instead of tin foil. Besides the wax cylinder, Bell and Tainter also added a floating stylus which allowed the needle to incise instead of indent upon the cylinder.[8] Bell and Tainter received the patent for this invention on May 4, 1886.[9] The men named their machine the “graphophone” and had it displayed in Washington, D.C. Although this machine was far from perfect, using wax instead of tin foil created sharper sounding recordings. By using wax, Bell and Tainter had also ensured that more words would be recorded because wax allowed for closer grooving (about 120 grooves per inch) than tin-foil, which allowed the new cylinders to play for ten minutes.[10] They had also gotten rid of the hand crank found on Edison’s machine and replaced it with an electric motor or foot-treadle, which rotated the cylinder at consistent speed, effectively getting rid of the pitch fluctuations that were common with the hand crank method.[11]

Brown Wax Cylinders (1895-1901)

Brown Wax Cylinders (1895-1901)

Although Bell and Tainter sent representatives to Edison in order to discuss a possible partnership for the machine’s technology, Edison refused.[12] He was determined to improve on his tin-foil phonograph and beat these men whom he considered trespassing upstarts. [13] Edison’s improvement bore a resemblance to Bell and Tainter’s with the main difference being that Edison’s new wax cylinders were made entirely of wax that could be shaved and used over and over again, while Bell and Tainter’s cylinders were merely cardboard coated in wax that had to be discarded more quickly.[14] Both groups continued to improve upon their cylinders until a new technology emerged that threatened to displace cylinders altogether.

Berliner’s disc

Emile Berliner in the laboratory working on gramophone disc

Emile Berliner was a German immigrant who became fascinated with science while working odd jobs after immigrating to the U.S. in 1870. He worked briefly inventing a telephone transmitter for the Bell Company, but he eventually left to manufacture his own telephones in Germany in 1881. Two years later he returned to the U.S. and began his own work on improving the phonograph. He was most interested in the laterally moving stylus of the invention. He believed that he could improve the results of the machine by using a lateral zigzag system instead of the vertical “hill-and-dale” system used by Edison, Bell, and Tainter.[15] Using the earlier theories of French scientist Charles Cros, he began by covering a disc of heavy plate glass with lampblack. He then set it revolving on a turntable where it came in contact with a stylus, thereby creating a spiral pattern on the disc.[16] When hit by the sound waves the stylus would vibrate laterally, leaving a visual tracing on the disc.

After the sounds were recorded on the disc, Berliner “fixed” the tracing with varnish and had it photoengraved in metal.[17]  When a similar playback method was used the sounds were recreated well enough that Berliner applied for a patent. He called his invention the “gramophone” to distinguish its “lateral-cut discs” from the phonograph which used “vertical-cut cylinders.”[18] Berliner quickly realized that the system of photoengraving on the discs was intricate, slow, and imperfect. During the winter of 1887-1888, he proposed to coat a zinc disc with a workable substance, inscribe a recording on the surface, and finally immerse the disc in an acid bath. He believe that the acid would eat away the metal  around where the stylus had made the grooves thereby leaving a thin, shallow, even groove etched in the surface. After several months of experimentation, Berliner managed to develop a coating of thin fatty film to coat the zinc disc. This film allowed the stylus to imprint upon it, but was impervious to the acid.[19] In the mid-1890s, a lively contest between the gramophone and the phonograph began. The phonograph was seen as an established invention having its history with the famed Edison, while the gramophone was seen as a crude and untried upstart.[20] Although Berliner’s disc allowed for the creation of master recordings, which in turn allowed the mass production of records, neither the disc nor the cylinder caught on as a consumer item due to the inconsistent sound quality.[21]

78-rpm records

By the early 1900s, Berliner’s zinc disc and similar hard-wax creations were gaining popularity while Edison’s wax cylinder began to decline in prominence. It began to be seen as the low-class method of listening to music, something meant for the urban poor and farmers, whereas the disc was seen as higher class, meant for the upper and upper-middle class parlor.[22] Part of the explanation for this decline is that the wax cylinders only had a playing time of two minutes which meant that most songs had to be abbreviated. This was not an issue for discs after 1903, when the Victor Talking Machine Company began releasing discs in multiple formats with playing times that depended on the size of the disc (larger discs meant longer playing time).[23] Several of these discs could hold a total of four minutes of music.[24] After several attempts to reintroduce the public to the cylinder phonograph, Edison admitted defeat in October 1913 by unveiling his own high-end, Edison Disc Phonograph.[25]

Originally, disc recording speeds depended on what company had made the recording. The Berliner gramophone company had decided through trial and error on 70 rpm. They felt this gave the longest play on a 7-inch disc without sacrificing the sound.[26] Other commercial record companies used speeds ranging from 50 to 120 rpm. Playback length was determined by the spacing and length of the grooves.

Record players matching the three types of records available in 1949

Once the public’s attention turned from the wax cylinders to discs, recording companies began working on increasing the length of the recordings. Around this time, several innovations in plastics were made which helped to improve the quality of records. Soft wax was replaced by celluloid and phenol resins which made the sound louder and clearer and allowed more grooves to be added to the record.[27] In 1931, the Victor Company introduced the 78 rpm, which many record companies chose to adopt despite the fact that it had high surface noise and sometimes questionable sound quality.[28] These record companies then packaged several 78 rpms together in paper or cardboard and sold them as the first “albums.”[29]

Much of the undesirable noise on the 78 rpms came from the sound of the disc slowly being worn away. As the needle pushed down heavily on the record, it caused the record to wear down quickly. Most records had an average life of seventy-five to one hundred and twenty-five plays.[30] Eventually, these records were replaced with the 33 1/3 rpm and 45 rpms, which were lighter, more durable, and produced better sound quality.

[1] Roland Gelatt, The Fabulous Phonograph: From Tin Foil to High Fidelity (New York: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1954), 18.

[2] Gelatt, 21-22.

[3] Gelatt, 22.

[4] American Memory. “The History of the Edison Cylinder Phonograph,” Library of Congress, (accessed April 18, 2013).

[5] American Memory. “The History of the Edison Cylinder Phonograph,” Library of Congress, (accessed April 18, 2013).

[6] Gelatt, 34.

[7] Gelatt, 34.

[8] American Memory. “The History of the Edison Cylinder Phonograph,” Library of Congress, (accessed April 18, 2013).

[9] American Memory. “The History of the Edison Cylinder Phonograph,” Library of Congress, (accessed April 18, 2013).

[10] Steven E. Schoenherr, “Charles Sumner Tainter and the Graphophone,” Audio Engineering Society, (accessed April 20, 2013).

[11] Steven E. Schoenherr, “Charles Sumner Tainter and the Graphophone,” Audio Engineering Society, (accessed April 20, 2013).

[12] American Memory. “The History of the Edison Cylinder Phonograph,” Library of Congress, (accessed April 18, 2013).

[13] Gelatt 36.

[14] Gelatt 37.

[15] Gelatt, 59-60.

[16] Gelatt, 60.

[17] American Memory, “The Gramophone,” Library of Congress, (accessed April 20, 2013).

[18] Gelatt, 60.

[19] American Memory, “The Gramophone,” Library of Congress, (accessed April 20, 2013).

[20] Gelatt, 68.

[21] Mark Coleman, Playback: From the Victrola to MP3, 100 Years of Music, Machines, and Money (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2003), 13-15.

[22] Gelatt, 159-160.

[23] Coleman, 17-18.

[24] Gelatt, 162-163.

[25] Colman, 24.

[26] Millard, 125.

[27] Millard, 128.

[28] Millard, 195.

[29] David L. Morton Jr., Sound Recording: The Life Story of a Technology (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2004), 92.

[30] Millard, 203.

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