It’s easy to get caught up in the technology that we use on a daily basis. Because it surrounds us in everything we do, we often take for granted that which we have ready access to. We are surrounded by scientific and technological marvels that have come about in such a short span of time. Audio recording and playback is a marvel in its own right, worthy of becoming a wonder of man, when you consider the advancements that have been made in a little over one hundred years. When we quickly thumb through touch screens selecting the mp3 of choice, we don’t typically think about days not long past where music poured from groves in wax – from the days of Edison’s phonograph cylinder.
Cylinder records were the earliest method for recording and reproducing sound – at least on a commercial level. They were in fact the original “record” but were not the flat disc or “vinyl” that most people think of when they think of records. These records were 4″ cylinders that were just over 2″ in diameter. When they were played back they held about two minutes worth of music or sound. Not the most ideal medium for listening to a lengthy sonata but back then – during the late 1800’s – this was quite a feat.
Hearing music produced from a rotating wax cylinder is certainly a far cry from the blaring intensity of music pouring out of a portable Bose sound system. If only Edison could see what his inventions had led to.
Thomas Edison was certainly a man of many talents and thousands of inventions. He struck gold with the phonograph on July 18 of 1877 with his initial test of the invention – though it wasn’t intended to be used for any kind of musical recording. Edison was intent on making a system that could record telephone messages.
In the Beginning
His first trial consisted of tinfoil wrapped around a hard cylinder. While it worked and was effective for testing purposes, tinfoil was far too frail and was an impractical choice for commercial production. Edison turned to wax cylinders that were created by various individuals including Alexander Graham Bell.
By the mid 1880’s wax cylinders were being mass marketed. The wax was layered with grooves containing the sound recordings. While effective at producing sound, the wax used in production for these cylinders gave them a short lifespan. For many owners, the cylinders used in the phonograph would typically wear out within a few dozen uses. Thankfully, the devices that allowed playback of record cylinders also came with a mechanism for recording. By shaving down the cylinders outer layer, a new recording could be placed on the worn out record cylinder. The ability to both playback and record sound and music made the record cylinder extremely popular, however there was some competition emerging in the market that Edison had not expected.
There’s always someone Trying to Do it Better
In 1888, ten years after Edison’s invention, Emile Berliner invented the first lateral-cut disc record. At first the disc record was used primarily for toys but around 1894 Berlinger began marketing his disc records under the Gramophone label. While the sound quality was poor initially Berlinger was able to have it improved quickly. There was a great deal of appeal to the disc records though initially they offered the same amount of recording as the phonograph cylinder – about 2 minutes.
Despite the similarity, disc records began to soar in popularity toward the end of the 1800’s. In an attempt to head off the growing advantage of the disc record, Edison began experimenting with new materials in his phonograph cylinder records.
Building a Better Mouse Trap… again
The earliest cylinders were made of a soft combination of paraffin and beeswax. In 1890, Charles Tainter patented a harder phonograph cylinder made of carnauba wax which temporarily replaced the softer wax cylinders Edison originally used. Over the next dozen years, the type of wax used was constantly refined and hardened in order to create cylinders that offered a high replay value – with many capable of being played more than 100 times before the grooves would wear out.
The unfortunate problem with phonograph cylinders was that the wax, no matter how it was manufactured, was still very fragile. Because of this, they could be easily broken if dropped or mishandled. Disc records were far sturdier, and to keep the competitive edge an early record company began producing cylinder records made of a hard plastic called celluloid in 1906. This material wouldn’t break when dropped and had thousands of plays to it before it began to wear out.
The Downward Spiral of Phonograph Cylinder Interest
Despite the advantages and possibilities that phonograph cylinder records offered, they simply could not compete with the disc record. The machines were cheaper to produce and easier to stock and store at home. The decline of the commercial phonograph cylinder record began circa 1910 and was completely pulled from the market in 1929.
Currently much progress has been made with the transfer and archival of phonograph cylinders. Optical scanners have been developed which basically photograph the grooves in the record. The digital scans can then be read by computer software. Thus, cylinders can be listened to without the use of a stylus (needle) which means that further wear to the cylinder is avoided and a better quality sound can be recovered. Optical scanning and image processing can eliminate the crackles and pops often heard on records – both cylinder and disc records – and do it better than the current software applications restore records transferred using a stylus. Even deeply scratched and broken records will be restorable.
So the future of audio transfer and restoration of both phonograph cylinders and the more widely known 33 ? and 45 RPM records so popular until the late 1980s, will involve technology that most of us haven’t heard of yet. Optical audio reconstruction will provide better quality digitizations while better preserving the original recording.
Author: jimmyrThis author has published 2 articles so far. More info about the author is coming soon.