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Borri Audio Laboratories and Archives!

Cylinder Record History

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Cylinder Record History
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The First Tinfoil Phonograph!
This is Edison's Original Phonograph. It is located at Edison National Historic Site in West Orange.

The First Phonograph

The Perfected Phonograph of 1888
from our 1890 catalog

From the start of time man had thought about and tried mechanical methods of reproducing sounds.    Starting in  Ancient Egypt we have a statue of Memnon at Thebes singing the morning song to the sun. Next we have FR. Bacon who made a talking head, that had a fan rolling the letter R and movable mouth parts run by a keyboard, a tube for the nose when speaking french.
  In 1856 Leon Scott  De Martinville invented the phonautograph, which used a glass cylinder on a  grooved feed screw turned by a crank. The Recorder was comprised of a diaphragm of skin and hogs bristle stylus.  The Phonautograph used smoked paper for the recording medium.  The Phonautograph stylus made a side to side visual representation of the sound, but it was not capable of playing it back. (today we could take these sound tracings and log them into a computer and play them back.)  (The previous prediction, from 2000, is now a reality, these tracings have in deed been played back in 2008!)  
  In 1877   Thomas Alva Edison was working with a telegraph repeater, and the governor on the spring motor was set to high, and the sound from the device, to Edison's  imagination sounded like the human voice.  Edison was also working on improving the telephone transmitter, and knew the power of a diaphragm, and even made a toy called a phono motor which made a man saw wood, when one talked into the funnel.   Edison wrote in his note book,  after thinking about  what he had learned from these instances drawings of  possible ways  of recording sound, which included a Cylinder,Disc, and Tape, and he decided to use the cylinder format.  Edison gave the drawing to John Krusie his machinist, and when it was finished  on December 6th, or 7th (I have read and heard both dates) 1877 Mr. Krusie took it up to Mr. Edison.   All asked what is was to do, and he told them; "This machine must talk!" The Men in the laboratory at Menlo Park, thought that a talking machine was an absurd idea, and placed bets that it would not work.  (A photo of the first phonograph is above). 
Edison placed a sheet of tinfoil on the machine, and recited: " Mary had a little lamb it's fleece was white as snow and everywhere that Mary went the lamb was sure to go."   On playback, the words spoken into the phonograph rang out perfectly.  Edison himself was shocked, and said "I am always afraid of things that work the first time, but here is something I have no doubt of!"  The phonograph  was an instant hit with the press, and crowned Thomas Edison "The Wizard Of Menlo Park".   From late 1877-1878 Edison demonstrated his machine for newspapers, scientific societies, The President of the United States, Congress, and the patent  office . He sold tinfoil machines for exhibition purposes, it really had no commercial value, other than a novelty.  Various different models were marketed by The Edison Speaking Phonograph Company until about 1880.    Edison went on to work on electric light, in 1879 and gave the world the first Practical light bulb along with a whole distribution system including the dynamo, switches fuses, conduit receptacles, and meters. 
Alexander Graham Bell of Telephone fame, was quite surprised by  Edison's Phonograph , and wondered why he had not thought of it himself, and was quite envious!
  Starting in 1881 Chichester Bell  , and Charles Sumner Tainter   worked on a machine called the Graphophone.  In fact the first machine they experimented with, was a Edison parlor tinfoil machine.  The Graphophone had many elements akin to Edison's Phonograph except  the machine used an ozocerite  wax  filling the grooves of the tinfoil machine, and later ozocerite coated cardboard cylinders.  A flexible recorder and reproducer were added.  The Graphophone was powered by a foot treadle. The improvements of Bell and Tainter did make the machine better than the tinfoil, as the records could be interchanged, and played at least a few more times.  Principally this machine was to be used for dictating letters.   Bell and Tainter approached Thomas Edison about pooling their patents, but Edison said NO!   Mr. Edison wanted nothing to do with Bell and his "Pirates"!  This made Edison furious, and he went full speed ahead to regain supremacy of the Phonograph, his "baby".
  In 1886-87 Edison gave the research over to Ezra Gilliland.  Mr. Gilliland made a phonograph that used a solid wax cylinder, and electric motor.  Jonas Aylsworth, worked on the experiments for the wax-like records. Edison by 1888 decided to take over himself,  research on the machine,after the completion of his new laboratory at Orange New Jersey in  1887.   By June 16, 1888 after a legendary 72 hours of continuous work the perfected phonograph was finished.  It used many of the Gilliland features, and also had a device to shave the records, spectacle recorder/reproducer, and the solid wax cylinders (beeswax, stearic acid,carnauba, and ceresin)  soon followed by metallic soap.
  In July 1888 Ezra Gilliland negotiated with  Jesse H Lippincott, a millionaire who made his fortune from the glass industry.  Jesse also had made a deal with The Graphophone people.  This institution was called THE NORTH AMERICAN PHONOGRAPH COMPANY.  Both Edison's Phonograph, and the Graphophone were marketed as dictating machines and leased for use as such.    By 1889  Music recording was accomplished, and by 1890 Music recording was started, for the coin slot phonograph.   The Coin slot or "Juke Box" was invented in 1889 by Lewis Glass of The Pacific Phonograph Company, in San Francisco.   Soon others such as Keller were fitting coin mechanisms to Phonograph-Graphophones.  Phonograph Parlors were set up, so patrons could listen to recorded music . At first Phonographs and Graphophones were rented for  $20.00 a year, and then were sold for $150.00.   Cylinder records cost, when first introduced from $1.50-$5.00 each.
 Edison and Columbia's method for making records at first was slow and expensive. Wax blanks were cast and then shaved.  To make a record artist sang into the horn of a Phonograph, the sound waves were concentrated onto a glass diaphragm, which vibrated a jeweled cutter, that engraved a hill and dale groove into the surface of the record.   Most records dating from 1888-1892 were original recordings, each one unique and different. Sometimes  several machines at once,  with banks of horns pointed at the artists were used.  By 1901 this method was  no longer used. Edison in 1900 started to produce two minute Gold Moulded cylinders with a 100 tpi feed. Titles were issued in 1902 for the Gold Moulded records. This process uses a longer wax master than a cut record, and with 97 3/4 lines per inch feed screw. The master is placed in a vacuum with 2 pieces of gold leaf. High voltage is introduced to the gold leaf while a magnets is spun around the bell jar , moving the master on a core, with pin centers, and an iron strap so it acts as a commutator and vaporizes a very thin coating of gold on to the wax master. The wax master is copper plated to make mother molds, the mother molds are plated to make mother masters, the mother masters are plated to make working molds. The gold moulded production method, was to have a square tank of the hard, black molten wax, (actually a metallic aluminum, zinc,copper alloy soap with ceresine, pine tar, and carnauba.) The tank was heated with gas burners and then brass tubes, with holes near the bottom. The molds with the song were placed in a recess on top of the brass tubes and a handle on top of the mold, moved a piston, to the bottom of the tube, below the holes around the bottom of the tube, and the tube above is filled with the hot wax. When the handle is pulled, the piston brings the charge of wax to the top of the tube where the mould is located, there is enough space above and below the brass mold to facilitate trimming . The mold is removed from the molding machine, and the ends are trimmed, then the mold placed on a lathe that makes ribs on the inner surface of the record. The mold is placed in a cooling cage, where the record contracts and is removed form the brass tube, and then sat on tapered cores for two hours, to harden so the cylinders are not warped, the cores pressed out, by and hand press and the records allowed season until hard, and were then packaged. About 1908 a harder compound was used, and the molding machines were automatic. The molds were bell shaped, and the workers, would place a mold in a chute, and were put in an enclosed machine, the first operation, molten wax was squirted into the mold, and the mold was spinning at about 1300 R.P.M. on rollers, and made its way to the end of the machine, and the finishing operations were the same as before, except trimming was not necessary, the ribs made inside with a lathe. During time the automatic moulding machine 80,000 records could be made a day
From 1889-1896 the total  production of the recording industry was around two million records.
The Development of cylinder formulas.
Because we make cylinders we can share with you the trial an error development of the formula, for the two major record companies, Edison and Columbia.

Jonas Aylsworth, the man who developed the formula for Edison records, began making the first batches of cylinder waxes for the perfected phonograph, from 1887-mid 1888, natural waxes were used such as stearic,beeswax and Ceresine. The first solid Edison wax cylinder records, although somewhat soft, held together pretty well, with no affects to the surface. Edison Record composition number 871 was used Before December 1888, and the regular formula used, however after the natural waxes and was an aluminum based wax, much like the later waxes, except no sterate of soda, or parrifine, ceresine, or other tempering agent added. It was very hard and did not cut well, and wore out recording cutters and shaving knives quickly. So farther experimentation led to the idea that it needed to be softened to cut better, so Aylsworth developed Edison formula number 957 in December of 1888 it used oleic acid as a softening agent. 957 was the regular formula used at Edison Phonograph Works from December 1888 till May nth of 1889, and known as "Regular Wax" . It was found out that these records began to sweat in the heat of the summer, and had to be recalled. Olate of Soda was formed and was the cause of the sweating effect, of the olate coming to the surface, being drew out by moisture in the air. So more experiments had to be done, and Jonas Aylsworth had visions of losing his job. Aylsworth recalls these cylinders as being "dull and etched looking." Next came composition 1029, This was the classic "Edison Brown Wax." Formula and used with little variations up till the arrival of black moulded wax, and up to 1908 for recording blanks, for home recording outfits. The only Changes made, through the years,was to the aluminum elements from powdered acetate of alumina to sheet aluminum and without acetic acid. Formula 1029 used stearic acid,sodium stearate,aluminum stearate and ceresine as the tempering agent.
November 1894, Columbia hires Purchasing agent for Edison Phonograph Works- John C English. He discloses a formula based on items he purchased, sells the secret to Columbia for $500.00. It was a "Gold Brick" and did not work. (The materials were correct, but not manipulated properly, so acetic acid spoiled the wax.) McDonald made and sold Columbia Blanks based on the English formula, starting in April 12th,1895- By may 26, 1895 Mc Donald writes to Melzer (who is working on the good formula for Columbia) that the English formula started to sweat and the records spoiled. Note that Columbia Phonograph Company was part of the Alliance of the North American Phonograph Company, and relied on blanks from Thomas A Edison's Edison Phonograph Works. Columbia had purchased 70,000 blanks from Edison Phonograph Works, from February 1889-November 1894. 1894-95 was a tough time as Columbia had gone independent due to the breakup of the North American Phonograph Company in August 1894, note that Edison still sold recording blanks, for a while after the breakup. Columbia knew it would be cut off from Edison Phonograph Works and started doing experiments and research on it's own. A man named Dodge, who worked on formulas (In House as Melzer was working from his Indiana location, Columbia needed immediate blanks.) for Columbia states that by may 1894, That the records " had a bluish white encrustation that appeared on the surface, resembling mold." These were a stearic, Castile soap and lead oxide compound, tempered with white ozokerite. Other blanks were made of refuse, broken records of Edison Phonograph Works blank from the United States Phonograph Company, a former branch of North American. September 1894. Mc Donald puts and ad in the American Soap makers journal for "A practicable Man who can work with hard soaps, not for washing purposes" The advertisement is answered by Adolf Melzer of Evansville Indiana, who owns a soap making business. Melzer works on the formula and it is suitable for record making blanks, very similar to Edison's formula. Melzer works from September 1894-December 3rd 1894 it is ready for use by Columbia, it is not shipped until December 1st. Columbia Balks at the price of the research of $500.00. Melzer upset by a letter from Mc Donald states that "I would gladly pay $500.00 for solutions to our own soap making problems", and instead, asks for a nice Graphophone for his parlor. It is a fateful turn, as for a Graphophone made of un-salable parts, a base for the fortune, of what is to become Columbia Records are based. A sample of records and formula were sent to Columbia by Adams Express from Melzer and arrived on January 3rd 1895. January 18, 1895 Mc Donald makes the first batch of Melzer based records. He does not do so well, as he is not a chemist. and writes Melzer back that he did not do well on his first attempt. Melzer arrived at the Columbia Bridgeport Facility and stayed from Feb 9th-19th, 1895 to help fix problems. Things were somewhat better,however they had problems with pinholes in the blanks, and so Melzer had to come back to fix this matter from July, 19th-30th of 1895. The problem was purely mechanical, the pots they were using were like a water pitcher, and the foamy top wax, went in the mold and had bubbles in it, a teapot type pouring pot was used and the problem was solved. A man named Fargo was then in charge of making the Melzer composition for Columbia records. Melzer formula No. 409 used for Columbia Records are Stearic Acid, Cocinic acid (coconut oil) Hydrate of Alumina and Caustic Lye. At times the Cocinic acid was replaced with Paraffin.

Edison's With Perfected Phonograph!
Edison's after five days and nights of continuous work taken June 16, 1888.

Recording cylinders on several machines.
How records were duplicated up to 1898.



This is a rare photograph showing an 1890s Violin recording session.  The machines are Class M electrical phonographs (Note the batteries on the floor.) You can see the stacks of blanks to the side of the recording machines, for replenishing for the next set of records.  The horns are about 26" long and 6" at the opening. The recording diaphragm is a no. 5 glass . Today in 2002 we do use this recording method for making our live cylinders, and the same kind of studio recorder as used in this photo. I use Triumph spring motor machines.  The  class Ms used in this photo are next to impossible to obtain today.