Phonograph cylinder

Phonograph cylinder
Two Edison cylinder records (on either end) and their cardboard storage cartons (center)

Phonograph cylinders were the earliest commercial medium for recording and reproducing sound. Commonly known simply as "records" in their era of greatest popularity (c. 1888–1915), these cylinder shaped objects had an audio recording engraved on the outside surface which could be reproduced when the cylinder was played on a mechanical phonograph. The competing disc-shaped gramophone record system triumphed in the market place to become the dominant commercial audio medium in the 1910s, and commercial mass production of phonograph cylinders ended in 1929.


Early development

Brown wax cylinders showing various shades (and mold damage)
Paper slip from 1903 cylinder
Imprint of backside from the 1903 paper slip
Portion of the label on the outside of a Columbia Records cylinder package, before 1901. Note the title of the recording is hand written on the label.
Edison Gold Moulded Cylinder made from black wax, ca. 1904. The term 'gold' was a reference to the metal plated onto the master wax cylinder as the first part in the process of manufacturing the mould.
Amberol cylinder package lid
Rim of Edison "Blue Amberol" cylinder

The phonograph was invented by Thomas Edison on 18 July 1877. His first test using tin foil wrapped around a hand-cranked cylinder.[1] Tin foil was not a practical recording medium for everyday use and commercial production. Within a few years Edison developed wax cylinders licensed by Charles Sumner Tainter, Alexander Graham Bell, and Chichester Bell, as the American Graphophone Co. – Later absorbed by the Columbia phonograph Co.

By the late 1880s wax cylinders were mass marketed. These had sound recordings in the grooves on the outside of hollow cylinders of wax. These cylinders could easily be removed and replaced on the mandrel of the machine which played them. Early cylinder records would commonly wear out after they were played a few hundred times. The buyer could then use a mechanism which left their surface shaved smooth so new recordings could be made on them. In 1890 Charles Tainter patented the use of hard carnauba wax as a replacement for the common mixture of paraffin and beeswax used on phonograph cylinders.

  • One of the earliest surviving recordings of music: An 1888 recording of Arthur Sullivan's "The Lost Chord"
    Recorded by George Gouraud, and played at the August 14, 1888 press conference that introduced the phonograph to London.
  • Problems listening to the files? See media help.

Early cylinder machines of the late 1880s and the 1890s were often sold with recording attachments. The ability to record as well as play back sound was an advantage to cylinder phonographs over the competition from cheaper disc record phonographs which began to be mass marketed at the end of the 1890s, as the disc system machines could be used only to play back pre-recorded sound.

In the earliest stages of phonograph manufacturing various competing incompatible types of cylinder recordings were made. A standard system was decided upon by Edison Records, Columbia Phonograph, and other companies in the late 1880s. The standard cylinders were about 4 inches (10 cm) long, 2¼ inches in diameter, and played about two minutes of music or other sound.

Over the years the type of wax used in cylinders was improved and hardened so that cylinders could be played over 100 times. In 1902 Edison Records launched a line of improved hard wax cylinders marketed as "Edison Gold Moulded Records".

Commercial packaging

Cylinders were sold in cardboard tubes, with cardboard lids at each end. These containers helped to protect the recordings. These containers and the shape of the cylinders (together with the "tinny" sound of early records compared to live music) prompted bandleader John Philip Sousa to deride the records as canned music (though that did not stop him recording on cylinders). Record companies usually had a generic printed label on the outside of the cylinder package, with no indication of the identity of the individual recording inside. Early on such information would be written on the labels by hand, one at a time. Slightly later, the record number would be stamped on the top lid, then a bit later the title and artist of the recording would be printed on to labels on the lid. Shortly after the start of the 20th century, an abbreviated version of this information (together with the name of the record company) would be printed or impressed on to one edge of the cylinder itself. Previously, the actual cylinders had no such visual identification (though they would have a spoken announcement of the song or performance title, recording artist, and record company recorded on to the beginning of the recording.)

Small paper inserts with the recording information were placed inside the package with the cylinders. At first this was hand written or typed on each slip, but printed versions became more common once cylinders of certain songs were sold in large enough quantities to make this economically practical. Note that in the example in the image below, from Edison Records, 1902, the consumer is invited to cut out the circle with printed information. This paper circle could then be pasted either to the lid of the cylinder container, or (as this example prompts) to a spindle for this cylinder in specially built cabinets for holding cylinder records which were marketed by record companies. Only a minority of cylinder record customers purchased such cabinets, however.

Hard plastic cylinders

In 1906 the Indestructible Record Company began mass marketing cylinder records made of celluloid, an early hard plastic, that would not break if dropped and could be played thousands of times without wearing out. This hard inflexible material could not be shaved and recorded over like wax cylinders, but had the advantage of being a nearly permanent record. (Such "Indestructible" style cylinders are arguably the most durable form of sound recording produced in the entire era of analog audio before the introduction of digital audio; they can withstand a greater number of playbacks before wearing out than later media such as the vinyl record or audio tape.) This superior technology was purchased by the Columbia Phonograph Company. The Edison company then developed its own type of long-lasting cylinder, consisting of a type of plastic called Amberol (which was blue in color) around a plaster core (the plastic was a phenolic resin, similar to the contemporary "Bakelite"); these were called Blue Amberol cylinders, the earlier Amberols being made of wax. Around the same time Edison introduced 4 minute cylinders, having twice the playing time of standard cylinders, achieved simply by shrinking the groove size and spacing them twice as close together in the spiral around the cylinder. Amberol cylinders are of the four-minute variety. Edison made several designs of phonographs both with internal and external horns for playing these improved cylinder records. The internal horned models were called Amberolas. Edison also marketed its "Fireside" model phonograph with a gearshift and a reproducer with two styli that allowed it to play both 2-minute and 4-minute cylinders.

Disc records

In the era before World War I, phonograph cylinders and disc records competed with each other for public favor.

The audio fidelity of a sound groove is debatably better if it is engraved on a cylinder, due to much improved linear tracking, and this was not resolved until the advent of RIAA standards in the early 1940s, by which time it was a moot point, as cylinder production stopped with Edison's last efforts in October 1929.

Advantages of cylinders

The cylinder system had certain advantages. As noted, wax cylinders could be used for home recordings, and "indestructible" types could be played over and over many more times than the disc. Cylinders usually rotated twice as fast as contemporary discs, but the linear velocity was comparable to the innermost grooves of the disc. In theory, this would provide generally poorer audio fidelity. Furthermore, since constant angular velocity translates into constant linear velocity (the radius of the helical track is constant), cylinders were also free from inner groove problems suffered by disc recordings. Around 1900, cylinders on average were indeed of notably higher audio quality than contemporary discs, but as disc makers improved their technology by 1910 the fidelity differences between better discs and cylinders became minimal.

Cylinder phonographs generally used a worm gear to move the stylus in synchronization with the grooves of the recording, whereas most disc machines relied on the grooves to pull the stylus along. This resulted in cylinder records played a number of times having less degradation than discs, but this added mechanism made cylinder machines more expensive.

Advantages of discs

Both the disc records and the machines to play them on were cheaper to mass-produce than the products of the cylinder system. Disc records were also easier and cheaper to store in bulk, as they could be stacked, or when in paper sleeves put in rows on shelves like books -- packed together more densely than cylinder recordings.

Many cylinder phonographs used a belt to turn the mandrel; slight slippage of this belt could make the mandrel not turn evenly, thus resulting in pitch fluctuations. Disc phonographs using a direct system of gears turned more evenly; the heavy metal turntable of disc machines acted as a flywheel, helping to minimize speed wobble.

In 1908 Columbia Records introduced mass production of disc records with recordings pressed on both sides, which soon became the industry standard. Patrons of disc records could now get two recordings for less than the price of one on cylinder.

The disc companies had superior advertising and promotion, most notably the Victor Talking Machine Company in the United States and the Gramophone Company/HMV in the Commonwealth. Great singers like Enrico Caruso were hired to record exclusively, helping put the idea in the public mind that that company's product was superior. Edison tried to get into the disc market with hill-and-dale discs, Edison Disc Records.

Demise of cylinders

Disc records and cylinders

Cylinder recordings continued to compete with the growing disc record market into the 1910s, when discs won the commercial battle. In that decade, Columbia (which had been making both discs and cylinders) switched exclusively to discs, and Edison started marketing its own disc records. However Edison continued to sell new cylinder records to consumers with cylinder phonograph machines through 1929. The latest of the new cylinders were simply "dubs" of disc records, and were therefore of lower fidelity than the disc originals.

Cylinder records are once again being manufactured, out of modern long-lasting materials. The Vulcan Cylinder Record Company of Sheffield, England currently boasts nearly two dozen titles in both 2 and 4 minute sizes, mostly dubs from original material but also some recent acoustic recordings.[2] Also, out of Baldwin, New York, the Wizard record company is making similar cylinders.[3]

Later application of phonograph cylinder technology

Cylinder on Dictaphone dictation machine. The recording head moved R-L. The black lines are shiny gaps between tracks. Wax cylinders could record 1200-1500 words. They could be reused 100-120 times by putting them in a machine that erased them by 'shaving' off the surface.

Cylinder phonograph technology continued to be used for Dictaphone and Ediphone recordings for office use for decades.

In 1947, Dictaphone replaced wax cylinders with their DictaBelt technology, which cut a mechanical groove into a plastic belt instead of into a wax cylinder. This was later replaced by magnetic tape recording. However, cylinders for older style dictating machines continued to be available for some years, and it was not unusual to encounter cylinder dictating machines into the 1950s.

In the late 20th and early 21st century some new recordings have been made on cylinders for the novelty effect of using obsolete technology. Probably the most famous of these are by They Might Be Giants, who in 1996 recorded "I Can Hear You" and three other songs, performed without electricity, on an 1898 Edison wax recording studio phonograph at the Edison National Historic Site in West Orange, New Jersey. This song was released on Factory Showroom in 1996 and re-released on the 2002 compilation Dial-A-Song: 20 Years of They Might Be Giants. The other songs recorded were "James K. Polk," "Maybe I Know," and "The Edison Museum," a song about the site of the recording. These recordings were officially released online as MP3 files in 2001.

In 2010 the British steampunk band The Men That Will Not Be Blamed For Nothing released the track 'Sewer', from their debut album, Now That's What I Call Steampunk! Volume 1 on very limited edition Wax Cylinder, only 40 were made and only 30 were put on sale. The box set came with instructions on how to make your own cylinder player for less than £20. The BBC covered the release on Television on BBC Click, on BBC Online and on Radio 5 Live.[4]

In August 2010, Ash International and PARC released the first commercially available glow in the dark phonograph cylinder, which is a work by Michael Esposito and Carl Michael von Hausswolff, entitled "The Ghosts Of Effingham". The cylinder was released in a limited edition of 150 copies, produced by Vulcan Records, Sheffield England.

Preservation of cylinder recordings

Proper way to hold a cylinder record: put fingers on the inside; do not touch the outer surface which has the recording.

Because of the nature of the recording medium, playback of many cylinders can cause degradation of the recording. The replay of cylinders diminishes their fidelity and degrades their recorded signals. Additionally, when exposed to humidity, mold can penetrate cylinders’ surface and cause the recordings to have surface noise. Currently, the only professional machine manufactured for the playback of cylinder recordings is the Archéophone player, designed by Henri Chamoux. The Archéophone is presently used by the Edison National Historic Site, Bowling Green State University (Bowling Green, Ohio), The Department of Special Collections, Donald C Davidson Library at The University of California, Santa Barbara, and many other libraries and archives.

Other modern so-called 'plug-in' mounts, each incorporating the use of a Stanton 500AL MK II magnetic cartridge, have been manufactured from time to time. Information on each may be sighted on the Phonograph Makers Pages link. It is possible to use these on the Edison cylinder players.

Also of interest is the cylinder player built by BBC engineers working in 'Engineering Operations - Radio' in the early 1990s. This was equipped with a linear-tacking arm borrowed from a contemporary turntable, and an Ortofon cartridge. It employed a wide range of analogue EQ filters (since various recording companies used different EQ until standarisation (for discs) arrived in the form of RIAA curves), and was used to transfer archive material to DAT tape.

In an attempt to preserve the historic content of the recordings, cylinders can be read with a confocal microscope and converted to a digital recording format. The resulting sound clip in most cases sounds better than stylus playback from the original cylinder. Having an electronic version of the original recordings enables archivists to open access to the recordings to a wider audience. This technique also has the potential to allow for reconstruction of damaged or broken cylinders. (Fadeyev & Haber, 2003)

Modern reproductions of cylinder and disc recordings usually give the impression that the introduction of discs was a quantum leap in audio fidelity, but this is on modern playback equipment; played on equipment from around 1900, the cylinders do not have noticeably more rumble and poorer bass reproduction than the discs. Another factor is that many cylinders are amateur recordings, while disc recording equipment was simply too expensive for anyone but professional engineers; many extremely poor recordings were made on cylinder, while the vast majority of disc recordings were competently recorded.

Also important is the quality of the material: the earliest tinfoil recordings wore out fast. Once the tinfoil was removed from the cylinder it was nearly impossible to re-align in playable condition. None of the earliest tinfoil recordings has been played back since the 19th century. (Hypothetically in the future some sound might be salvaged from few surviving flattened out early tinfoil recordings.) The earliest soft wax recordings also wore out quite fast, though they have better fidelity than the early rubber discs.

In addition to poor states of preservation, the poor impression modern listeners may get of wax cylinders is from their early date, which can compare unfavorably to recordings made even a dozen years later. Other than a single playable example from 1878 (from an experimental phonograph-clock), the oldest playable preserved cylinders are from the year 1888. These include a severely degraded recording of Johannes Brahms and a short speech by Sir Arthur Sullivan in fairly listenable condition. Somewhat later are the almost unlistenable 1889 amateur recordings of Nina Grieg. The problem with the wax cylinders is that being an organic material (it is not actually wax) readily supports the growth of mildew which penetrates throughout the cylinder and, if serious enough, renders the recording unplayable. The earliest preserved rubber disc recordings are children's records, featuring animal noises and nursery rhymes. This means that the earliest disc recordings most music lovers will hear are shellac discs made after 1900, after more than ten years of development.


See also


  • Oliver Read and Walter L. Welch (1976). From Tin Foil to Stereo: Evolution of the Phonograph. Indianapolis, Indiana: Howard W. Sams & Co. Inc. ISBN 0-672-21206. 
  • George L. Frow and Albert F. Sefl (1978). The Edison Cylinder Phonographs 1877–1929. Sevenoaks, Kent: George F. Frow. ISBN 0-9505462-2-4. 
  • Fadeyev, V., and C. Haber (2003). "Reconstruction of mechanically recorded sound by image processing" (PDF). Journal of the Audio Engineering Society 51 (December): 172. 
  • Dietrich Schüller (2004). A. Seeger and S. Chaudhuri, ed.. ed. "Technology for the Future." In Archives for the Future: Global Perspectives on Audiovisual Archives in the 21st Century. Calcutta, India: Seagull Books. 
  • David L. Morton Jr. (2004). "Sound Recording - The Life Story of a Technology". Baltimore, Maryland: John Hopkins University Press. 

External links

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  • phonograph — /foh neuh graf , grahf /, n. any sound reproducing machine using records in the form of cylinders or discs. [1825 35 in sense phonogram ; 1877 for the talking phonograph invented by T. A. Edison; PHONO + GRAPH] * * * or record player Instrument… …   Universalium

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  • phonograph — noun Date: 1877 an instrument for reproducing sounds by means of the vibration of a stylus or needle following a spiral groove on a revolving disc or cylinder …   New Collegiate Dictionary

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