In the 1870s, a young inventor and telegraph operator named Thomas Edison spent his free time trying to improve the device he worked with daily. Like inventor Alexander Graham Bell, who patented the first telephone in 1876, Edison hoped to convert or replace typed communication with spoken communication. While Edison and his associates were involved in developments like the carbon microphone that were important in the early evolution of the telephone, he made bigger waves when he patented the phonograph.
Edison first developed a machine that transcribed telegraph messages by making indentations on paper tape, so that the same message could be sent over and over. After Bell patented the telephone, Edison started thinking about voice mail, that is, a device that could record voice messages. He recorded the speaking vibrations using an embossing point attached to a diaphragm, which made an impression on moving paraffin paper. Soon, Edison replaced the paper with a metal cylinder wrapped in tin foil, while the upgraded device used one diaphragm/needle implement to record the sound and another to play it back.
To operate the machine, one spoke into a mouthpiece, and the recording needle would indent the tin cylinder with a vertical groove pattern, which is also known as the "hill and dale process." As the story goes, Edison came up with a sketch of this device and his mechanic, a man named John Kruesi, built it within two days. Edison tested it, saying, "Mary had a little lamb," and he was startled when his invention repeated his words. Edison filed for a patent on December 24, 1877, and was issued the patent number on February 19, 1878. Another scientist in France, Charles Cros, came up with a similar concept in April 1877, but he never built a working version of it.
Before he even filed for a patent, Edison was showing off his device. He brought it to the offices of "Scientific American," and the December 22, 1877, issue describes the encounter: "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." The demonstration got the American science media buzzing.
For $10,000 and 20 percent of the profits, Thomas Edison granted manufacturing and sales rights to a new venture that called itself the Edison Speaking Phonograph Company in 1878. The buying public was eager to get its hands on the thrilling new device, but it was a disappointment—the machine was hard to use and the tin foil only reproduced a low-fidelity recording a handful of times.
In the June 1878 issues of "North American Review," Edison relayed his vision of the future of recorded sound: A phonograph could be used for dictation (putting stenographers out of work), audio books for the blind, recorded music, the preservation of the voices of elderly family members, voice effects in toys, talking clocks, the preservation of dying languages, education, and telephone answering machines. But as the public lost interest, so did Edison, who turned his focus toward the electric light bulb.
Edison's competitor, Alexander Graham Bell, who had received the French government's 1880 Volta Prize of $10,000 for the telephone, took his money and invested it in an acoustic/...
Bell and Tainter had sent people to Edison's lab to discuss collaborating on improving the phonograph/graphophone, but Edison rejected their offer. So Bell and Tainter formed the American Graphophone Company on March 28, 1887, and approached a Philadelphia businessman for funding. In 1888, a millionaire named Jesse H. Lippincott envisioned the graphophone taking off in the business world as a rented dictation machine, so he formed the North American Phonograph Company and obtained licensing rights for Bell and Tainter's patents.
In the meantime, Edison went back to work on his device, and somehow his developments closely matched Bell and Tainter's—Edison began to use thick all-wax cylinders that could be shaved for reuse in his updated phonograph. Edison established a new business, Edison Phonograph Company, to promote this device. In May 1888, the company debuted the Improved Phonograph, and a little bit later, the Perfected Phonograph. These machines played white wax cylinders comprised of stearic wax, beeswax, and ceresin. They played at 120 RPM, which allowed for about 3 minutes of music, but were later replaced by high-speed cylinders that could only hold 2 minutes.
Edison threatened to sue Lippincott for patent infringement, and so North American Phonograph settled with Edison, paying him hundreds of thousands of dollars to produce phonographs. North American then licensed these patents to 30 territorial sub-companies in early 1889, but stenographers objected, which foiled his marketing scheme. The businesses that did use the devices found them undependable and hard to work.
North American subsidiaries found that phonographs drew crowds as an entertainment novelty that could play jokes, stories, and tunes to gathered listeners. Entrepreneurs formed the Automatic Phonograph Exhibition Company in February 1890, thanks to a patent on a coin-op phonograph used for entertainment venues (a device that presaged the modern-day jukebox) and quickly partnered with North American.
Edison, by then the successful inventor of the light bulb, was putting his wax-cylinder technology to use in his other businesses. For example, his factory was producing talking dolls for the Edison Phonograph Toy Manufacturing Company. Edison severed his relationship with the toy company in 1891, so his dolls with tiny wax cylinders in their chest cavities are rare.
Toward the end of 1890, Lippincott became ill and left North American Phonograph Company. Because it was in debt to Edison, the failing company had to file for assignment, an alternative to bankruptcy, in 1891. Samuel Insull was named president while Thomas Edison was added to the board. Edison took over as president in 1892, and he sold, not rented, phonographs as dictation devices—for $150 a pop, almost $4,000 in today's money—a sum most businesses paid in installments. Edison then focused on producing music and selling phonographs as home entertainment. The Edison cylinders released beginning in 1892 were known to today's collectors as "brown wax," even though that could be a range of colors from off-white to tan to chocolate brown. A spoken message at the beginning of the playback gave the artist's name and the song title.
In 1894, Edison stepped down as president of North American and Lippincott died, which freed Bell and Tainter from their licensing agreement with North American and allowed them to sell as American Graphophone again. The company asserted that Edison's phonographs were infringing on their patents rights. In 1895, American Graphophone acquired North American's top subsidiary, Columbia Phonograph Company (eventually known as Columbia Records), and introduced the spring-motor powered "Type N" phonograph.
Meanwhile, in 1895, Edison bought the assets belonging to North American, which was in receivership. These included his own patent rights to the original phonograph. He established the National Phonograph Company to sell his own Spring Motor Phonograph solely as a home music player. (National Phonograph expanded to sell in Europe within three years.) In 1896, Edison’s new company quickly followed the Spring Motor Phonograph with the Edison Home Phonograph. Edison also started an eponymous music label that began issuing songs on wax cylinders. His company continued to squabble with American Graphophone until December 1896, when both companies agreed in court to cross-license their phonograph patents.
The Edison Standard Phonograph debuted in 1897 at a $20 price point ($563 in 2017 money) and the 1899 Gem model was offered for $7.50 ($211). The cylinders, which were 4.25" long by 2.1875" in diameter, sold for $.50 ($14) and offered just two minutes of playback. Phonograph owners could buy short marches by the likes of John Philip Sousa, tear-jerking ballads, Christian hymns, and racist "coon songs" from vaudeville. The cylinders also offered spoken word, such as quick comedy routines and sound reenactments of news events. But Edison had no efficient way to mass-produce the cylinders, so artists recording for his label often had to perform the song or routine over and over in front of an audience of phonograph horns to create stock, which was expensive for the company. A primitive dubbing technique called the pantographic method reduced the number of performances required, but the quality was inconsistent, as the master cylinder degraded with each play.
The same year the affordable Gem phonograph came out, 1899, Edison also issued the expensive Edison Concert Phonograph, which sold for $125 (about $3,500). It played larger, louder cylinders that were 4.25" long and 5" in diameter, and these sold for $4 ($112) a piece. But because it was so expensive, the machine and cylinders were not popular, and the company had to reduce its prices before discontinuing them in 1912.
In 1897, American Graphophone's Columbia began to offer a new and improved dictation machine called the Universal Graphophone, as well as a machine that could shave the wax cylinders so that they could be reused. A variation on this device was marketed as the Dictaphone in 1907, and proved more popular than Edison's 1904 Business Phonograph, which operated in a similar manner. Edison's 1916 Ediphone fared better and was used by secretaries into the 1920s.
On the entertainment side, between 1901 and 1908, American Graphophone—which became Columbia Graphophone in 1906—began to transition to a new disc record format first used in Emile Berliner's gramophone. But Edison remained committed to the wax cylinder. Around 1901-'02, a means of mass-producing wax cylinders was developed, thanks to the introduction of a harder wax that could be molded instead of engraved. Known as the "gold moulded" process, the method began with creating a metal mold from a wax master recording. A brown or black blank cylinder would be inserted into the mold and heated to expand and fill in the grooves. Gold electrodes used in the heating process gave off a gold vapor, so the name of the cylinder type was changed from High Speed Hard Wax Moulded Records to Gold Moulded Records, which played back at a standard speed of 160 RPM. The company could churn out 120 to 150 cylinders a day from a single mold. Mass production allowed Edison to reduce the price of cylinders to $.35 ($9.25), and the ends of the cylinders were beveled so they could be labeled with the performance title.
Another inventor named Thomas B. Lambert patented a cylinder mass-production technique in 1900, but his process—inspired by Henri Lioret in France—replaced wax with celluloid. His cylinders were compatible with Edison's phonographs. These cylinders, produced by Lambert's Chicago company, would be made of beige celluloid and dyed a color to reduce the feedback. They played at 120 or 160 RPM, and came in beige, pink, blue, brown, and black.
It was hard for Edison or Lambert to sell two-minute cylinders, however, when gramophone discs could play as long as four minutes. In response, Edison came up with the four-minute Amberol cylinder made of an even harder black wax in 1908. These cylinders, however, were inclined to wear out or shatter. Eventually, Edison bought Lambert's patent and created a thin, blue-tinted celluloid cylinder with a plaster of Paris core, which debuted in 1912 as Blue Amberol. These new 4-minute-45-second cylinders had superior sound quality, and could be played hundreds of times without much damage, thus reigniting interest in cylinder phonographs.
However, the greater American music-loving public had been sold on the disc format popularized by Victor and Columbia. In 1913, Edison finally entered the disc record market with its Edison Disc Phonograph and Diamond Disc Records. Edison continued to make Blue Amberols for cylinder audiophiles until the company went out of business in 1929.