78 Revolutions per Minute, Pt. 2: The Decline of the Wax Cylinder

Technological changes in the music industry and the ways in which consumers culturally embrace these changes are important yet overlooked components of pop song history. Depending on consumer tastes, popular formats replace each other time and time again. In more recent times, specifically in the past decade and a half, the mp3 digital file has replaced the popularity of the compact disc, a format which enjoyed tremendous commercial success during the 1980s and 1990s. This is partly due to technological changes and availability of computers and electronic methods of purchase like iTunes. But the consumer culture and changing attitudes towards music technology in the current Club Banger Era have aided in this transition. In the twentieth century, consumers of pop songs had to purchase a hard copy album of music from a retailer. In the twenty-first century, consumers can purchase popular music one song at a time with the click of a mouse or a tap on a smartphone, onto which it is downloaded for immediate play. This change in culture has led to a precipitous fall in sales of the CD format; according to Nielsen SoundScan, a leading tracker of album sales, the CD album in 2013 was at its lowest levels since records had begun in 1991.[1] American culture has also become more portable and with mp3 files and the various devices that play them, consumers can fit an entire music collection in their pockets, unlike CDs in whose physical dimensions prohibit such portability. This sort of cultural shift happened in popular music history with the decline of the wax cylinder and the Edison Phonograph during the 1910s.

Not only did cultural shifts leave the wax cylinder out of favour for the music purchasing consumers, it also led to the downfall of Edison Records, one of the first big record companies in the United States. While the 78 rpm disc record had been standardized by Victor and Columbia, the wax cylinder format needed improvement, including the materials with which it had been produced and the amount of music that the cylinder could contain. But it becomes evident that technological progress and innovation do not equal changes in consumer culture and sentiment, influenced by the decorative and functional disc-only Victor Victrola. By 1915, the cylinder format was essentially exclusive to Edison Records, a company that had taken pride in producing cylinders and yet had commenced manufacturing their own disc format. However, such an innovation in their disc technology would not translate to sales and consequently led to Edison’s marketing campaign of infomercial-like Tone Tests demonstrating the format to live audiences. By the middle of the 1920s, with new technologies of radio and electrical recording slowly making advancements in the music industry, the wax cylinder and Edison Record had fallen behind the times during the Jazz Era and eventually out of business in 1929.

During the first few years of the twentieth century, the market for commercial music, apart from sheet music sales, was dominated by the wax cylinder. The business environment for companies producing cylinders and the machines which played them had been relatively stable by 1903. The sort of litigious business environment which would consume the disc market between 1907 and 1909, had already been settled for the cylinder format during the 1890s, leaving two large companies in the cylinder trade, Edison Phonograph and Columbia Graphophone as well as some other smaller firms like National Phonograph and Lambert.[2] By this time, consumers had had exposure to and familiarity with the cylinder as a form of music entertainment for nearly fifteen years, unlike the disc record, which had been standardised as recently as 1901. For Edison, the Phonograph brand name was so popular and famous that it became a synonym for any talking machine on the market, regardless of manufacturer or format. The manufacturing process for cylinders had improved and a new, easier moulding method[3]decreased consumer costs by 1902. Sales and manufacturing of cylinders were doubling every year during this time. In its 1902 fiscal year, the National Phonograph Company alone, manufactured nearly four and a half million wax cylinders; a year later, this figure nearly doubled to over seven and a half million.[4] According to one estimate, the cylinder outsold the disc record four to one in 1903.[5] During the first decade of the twentieth century, a stable business environment and lower cost products had increased sales of wax cylinders to great success.

But there were glaring disadvantages of the wax cylinder compared to the new disc record,including the cylinder’s materials, length of media and basic compatibility between machines. The materials composing the wax cylinder were fragile. Wax cylinders during the early twentieth century were made with a wax coating surrounding a cardboard tube and reinforced with some metal wiring or plaster of Paris. If dropped on the floor, they could crack; and if exposed to high enough heat, they could melt, rendering the cylinder unplayable. The disc on the other hand had been made of a much stronger shellac material. The amount of music on a cylinder also left the format lacking, standard cylinders issued by Edison and Columbia measuring two inches in diameter, four inches in length and 100 threads per inch on its surface, just over two minutes worth of material.[6]The 10” standard disc record produced by Columbia and Victor could play just over three minutes of material on each side with a total of around six minutes worth of music. Since the cylinder was three-dimensional rather than the two-dimensional record, there were geometric difficulties regarding compatibility between machines, leaving consumers to upgrade or update their machines. Standard cylinders had a two-inch diameter, while others like various “Opera” or “Concert” brands had a five-inch diameter and there was often no compatibility between machines; some unusual sizes of cylinders were unique to certain machines,[7] leaving consumers to play specific brand cylinders on specific machines. If consumers wished to purchase larger diameter cylinders, then either a new machine or an adaptor for the mandrel of the existing machine would have to be purchased.[8] Records, on the other hand, no matter which brand or length of disc, could be played on machines of other manufacturers. Despite their popularity, there were numerous areas upon which cylinder companies could improve their products.

Companies had looked for ways to make improvements on their products, addressing the amount of musical material their cylinders contained and the materials from which cylinders had been manufactured. The disc record contained more music and cylinder companies had to increase space to compete with discs. Once method of increasing the amount of the cylinder’s musical capabilities involved physically increasing the length of the cylinder from four to six inches. Columbia was the first to attempt to lengthen the cylinder in this method with its new “Twentieth Century” line of Graphophones in 1906. But lengthening the cylinder produced greater fragility of an already delicate format and the six-inch cylinder added a mere one minute of additional material.[9] In 1908, Edison Phonograph thought that they had the solution to increase content, by increasing the number of threads per inch from 100 to 200. By making the grooves of the cylinder thinner, record companies could effectively double the amount of material on the cylinder without increasing its size. But another trend was happening with the growing interest of using celluloid by cylinder companies. Durability was an issue as early as the late 1890s, when cylinders had undergone a change from a soft brown wax material to a more durable black wax format that could more easily be mass-produced by moulding. Celluloid would have the advantage of easier mass production as well as adding strength for the new finer 200 TPI format. Even though there were comparative difficulties with cylinders in relation to discs, record companies were working on product development to improve them.

Despite the potential improvements in the cylinder product, there were challenges in adapting them to machines including litigation about the use of celluloid material so desired by record companies. One such challenge was that new technological improvements of the cylinder required consumers to frequently purchase updated repeaters and styli and in some cases, entirely new machines in order to play new cylinders. For example, consumers had to purchase brand new Twentieth Century Machines which retailed for $100 in 1906,[10] with longer mandrels to accommodate Columbia’s “Half Footer” cylinder. The 200 thread per inch cylinder which pushed content to four minutes also caused difficulties with talking machine companies since there were many 100 TPI cylinders and machines already on the market requiring upgrades. Edison Phonograph adapted by providing machines with interchangeable repeaters which could play both cylinder formats. Columbia Graphophone standardized the stylus in its machines to accommodate both 100 and 200 TPI cylinders.[11]However, regarding the stronger celluloid material, there were challenges in bringing the material to market, particularly for Edison Phonograph.The much smaller Lambert Talking Machine Company owned the celluloid patent since 1900 and it was consequently unavailable to other manufacturers to use in their cylinders until Lambert went bankrupt in 1906,[12]after Lambert went out of business, the Indestructible Talking Machine Company filled the void by producing the “Albany Indestructible” celluloid cylinders. But for the Edison, celluloid would be out of reach; the entire stock of Albany Indestructible cylinders had been perpetually purchased by Columbia who were intent on recording celluloid cylinders as well,[13] leaving Edison out of the market for celluloid cylinders. Instead, Edison Phonograph produced a harder metallic soap material and a new “Amberol” brand cylinder, but the new material was simply a much more brittle and fragile, version of the wax cylinder.[14] Even though there were advancements in the cylinder format in length and materials, there were compatibility issues with machines and business difficulty of rights to use celluloid.

The Victor Victrola, a hornless cabinet machine, however, had caused an abrupt cultural change in the talking machine world and in the culture of the cylinder market, causing both Columbia and Edison to react to a change rather than produce new wares to advance cylinder technology. By 1910, the Victrola’s sales were increasing after four years of availability and so were sales in disc records. Between 1907 and 1911, sales in the Victrola blossomed from 3500 to 93,700[15] and more and more consumers were beginning to opt for hornless cabinet machines and increasingly the disc record. Columbia, at this time, began issuing and recording more discs and fewer cylinders releasing its own hornless cabinet machine in the Grafanola, a hopeful rival to the Victrola. However, Edison was left behind in this cultural transition. Although Edison, according to Fabrizio and Paul, had produced some of the “finest cylinder machines for collectors” with the cygnet line of machines in 1911,[16] Edison reacted to the cultural trend of the Victrola by eliminating external horn machines entirely in 1912 and focusing their attention on a new line of Amberola cabinet machines. Like many of the competitors’ machines, the Amberola was initially a higher-end product, but soon, a confused product line and inferior machine parts would plague Edison and its introduction of the Amberola cabinets.[17] While the Victrola had a cohesive look and an established brand, the Amberola line of products lacked such cohesion and many of the machine parts were upcycled from cheaper machines, leaving quality to the wayside. While Columbia and Victor were focusing on cabinet products which featured play of discs, Edison lost footing with their own line of machines to keep up with the trend.

With the cylinder market deflating, Edison had been essentially alone in cylinders, but Thomas Edison himself was looking for new and better methods of sound reproduction no matter the geometry of the format, cylinder or disc. After Columbia had ceased its use of cylinders entirely in 1912, the celluloid record became available for Edison. A new product, the Edison Blue Amberol cylinder, of course, available after the consumer purchased updated compatibility technology for older machines,was stronger and provided better reproduction than other cylinder models.[18] The Blue Amberol reproduced sound much better than the Amberol, but during the first half of the 1910s, it had become evident that cylinders were losing to the disc records of Columbia and Victor. Even at this stage, Edison was beginning to look for alternatives to the cylinder and began experimentation with its own disc format in 1910, even dropping the Phonograph brand name, synonymous with the cylinder, and reorganizing the brand as Thomas A Edison Inc.[19] But in developing a disc format, Thomas Edison wanted nothing to do with the 78 rpm format and believed that he could produce a product which could reproduce sound much better than other records and retain consumer loyalty to the Edison brand.[20] Edison worked on his own format, the vertical cut, which had reproduced sound by hill-and-dale movements rather than side-to-side movements of lateral cut disc records, the result was the Edison Diamond Disc.Edison’s innovative vertical cut record became briefly influential with companies like Pathé converting to vertical cut in 1915 and Emerson Records issued their own Universal cut records in 1916 which could be played on both formats. Despite being a leader in cylinder machines, Edison was adapting to consumer trends by producing discs, but relied on their own method for playback technology.

By 1915, the cylinder format was falling out of favour while the disc was growing in popularity, which led to ambivalent times at Edison who had thrown all of their resources at the Diamond Disc. The consumer culture had shifted to the disc, the Victrola and the famous recording stars of Columbia and Victor, which left Edison Inc behind the consumer tastes of the the middle of the 1910s.Edison himself was frequently befuddled by consumer tastes, he even had a disdain in the popular music Edison Records was recording during the Ragtime era, regarding popular music as “trash.”[21] As well, other companies like Brunswick were producing their own popular cabinet disc machines by 1916, showing that new companies were favouring discs over cylinders. But for Edison personally, music was not just a consumer product bought and sold, he thought that he could perfect recreating sound and began marketing the Diamond Disc for its ability to reproduce music. Edison took to showmanship and marketing to demonstrate the power of the Diamond Disc and brought it to theatres across the country through so-called Tone Tests, theatrical infomercials for the Diamond Disc in which a performer competed with the machine in front of an audience, to experience the similarities between the Edison disc and a live performance. Between 1915 and 1925, millions of American’s participated in Edison Tone Tests, according to David Morton.[22] A program from one of these Tone Tests not only advertises that it is “impossible to distinguish” between the machine and the singer’s voice, but also its back page offered advertisements for the performer’s new recordings on Edison Diamond Disc.[23] But the diamond disc and Amberola machines failed to sell and by 1920, it was evident that the heyday had not only come and gone for the wax cylinder, but also for the Edison Company.

Edison continued to produce the Diamond Disc as well as the wax cylinder until going out of business in 1929 with music in another transition to radio. The collapse of the popularity of the wax cylinder shows that, no matter how much change went into progressing and improving the technology, there were no technological methods of changing consumer sentiment and culture of what they want to buy. When faced with the longer playing disc record, Columbia issued a lengthier cylinder that was more fragile and required consumers to purchase new machines. The 200 TPI format which doubled the content on a cylinder required thinner styli in machine and the celluloid material released by Columbia between 1908 and 1912, also required consumers to acquire new repeaters and styli. For Edison, their Amberol records were brittle and failed expectations and the Amberola machines in response to Victor’s Victrola had substandard machine parts from cheaper models of Phonograph. Eventually, with Edison alone in the cylinder market and heavily promoting the reproduction benefits of the poorly-selling the wax cylinder format, which continued to be marketed to rural customers, slowly disappeared throughout the 1920s.

References

“A Test of Tone Re-Creation given by Mr. Glen Ellison and the New Edison Diamond Disc Phonograph.” Nipperhead.com. http://www.nipperhead.com/old/tonetest01.htm.

Aldridge, Benjamin and Frederic Bayh. The Victor Talking Machine Company. Camden, NJ: RCA Sales Corporation. 1964.

Baldwin, Neil. Edison: Inventing the Century. New York: Hyperion. 1995.

Bruderhofer, Norman. “Lambert Cylinders.” Norman Bruderhofer’s Cylinder Guide. http://www.cylinder.de/guide_lambert-cylinders.

“Columbia ‘Twentieth Century’ Cylinder Ads (1906).” 78RPM Records, Cylinder Records & Phonographs: The Mainspring Press Record Collector’s Blog (blog). 14 August 2013. http://78records.wordpress.com/2013/08/14/columbia-twentieth-century-cylinder-ads-1906/.

Cylinder Preservation and Digitization Project. Department of Special Collections. University of California Santa Barbara. “Edison Amberol Cylinder (1908-1912).” http://cylinders.library.ucsb.edu/history-amberol.php.

——-. “Edison Gold-Moulded Cylinder (1902-1912).” http://cylinders.library.ucsb.edu/history-goldmoulded.php.

——-. “Edison Blue Amberol Cylinder (1912-1929).” http://cylinders.library.ucsb.edu/history-blueamberol.php.

DeGraaf, Leonard. “Confronting the Mass Market: Thomas Edison and the Entertainment Phonograph.Business and Economic History, 24, (1995): 89.

“Edison Amberol Cylinder (1908-1912).” Found on Cylinder Preservation and Digitization Project, Department of Special Collections, Donald C. Davidson Library, University of California, Santa Barbara. http://cylinders.library.ucsb.edu/history-amberol.php

Fabrizio, Timothy C. and George F. Paul. The Talking Machine: An Illustrated Compendium, 1877-1929. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishers. 1997.

Klinger, Bill. “Cylinder Records: Significance, Production and Survival.” Association for Recorded Sound Collections, Library of Congress. 08 March 2007. http://www.loc.gov/rr/record/nrpb/pdf/klinger.pdf.

Milner, Greg. Perfecting Sound Forever: An Aural History of Recorded Music. New York: Faber and Faber, Inc. 2009.

Mokoena, Tshepo. “Album Sales Fall to Lowest Even in US.” The Guardian (London). 16 January 2014. http://www.theguardian.com/music/2014/jan/16/physical-album-sales-fall-lowest-ever-level.

Morton, David. Off the Record: The Technology and Culture of Sound Recording in America. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press. 2000.

Rutgers University. The Thomas Edison Papers. “Edison Companies.” Last updated 20 February 2012. http://edison.rutgers.edu/list.htm.

Stross, Randal. The Wizard of Menlo Park: How Thomas Alva Edison Invented the Modern World. New York: Crown Publishers. 2007.

 

[1] Tshepo Mokoena, “Album Sales Fall to Lowest Even in US,” The Guardian, (London), 16 January 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/music/2014/jan/16/physical-album-sales-fall-lowest-ever-level (accessed 23 May 2014).

[2] Timothy C Fabrizio and George F. Paul, The Talking Machine: An Illustrated Compendium, 1877-1929, (Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishers, 1997), 44.

[3] Cylinder Preservation and Digitization Project, Department of Special Collections, University of California Santa Barbara, “Edison Gold-Moulded Cylinder (1902-1912), http://cylinders.library.ucsb.edu/history-goldmoulded.php, (accessed 22 May 2014).

[4] “Phonographs Manufactured by the National Phonograph Co., 1896-1904,” contained in Leonard DeGraaf, “Confronting the Mass Market: Thomas Edison and the Entertainment Phonograph,Business and Economic History, 24, (Fall 1995), 89.

[5] Bill Klinger, “Cylinder Records: Significance, Production and Survival,” Association for Recorded Sound Collections, Library of Congress, 08 March 2007, http://www.loc.gov/rr/record/nrpb/pdf/klinger.pdf.

[6] “Edison’s Gold-Moulded Cylinders (1902-1912),” http://cylinders.library.ucsb.edu/history-goldmoulded.php.

[7] Fabrizio and Paul, 108.

[8] Ibid, 142.

[9] Ibid.

[10] “Columbia’s ‘Twentieth Century’ Cylinder Ads (1906),” 78RPM Records, Cylinder Records & Phonographs: The Mainspring Press Record Collector’s Blog (blog), 14 August 2013, http://78records.wordpress.com/2013/08/14/columbia-twentieth-century-cylinder-ads-1906/.

[11] Fabrizio and Paul, 150.

[12] Norma Bruderhofer, “Lambert Cylinders,” Norman Bruderhofer’s Cylinder Guide, http://www.cylinder.de/guide_lambert-cylinders, accessed 22 May 2014.

[13] Fabrizio and Paul, 150.

[14] Cylinder Preservation and Digitization Project, Department of Special Collections, University of California Santa Barbara, “Edison Amberol Cylinder (1908-1912),” (accessed 22 May 2014), http://cylinders.library.ucsb.edu/history-amberol.php.

[15] “Victrola Sales Figures,” contained in Benjamin Aldridge and Frederic Bayh, The Victor Talking Machine Company, (Camden, NJ: RCA Sales Corporation, 1964), 60.

[16] Fabirio and Paul, 177

[17] Greg Milner, Perfecting Sound Forever: An Aural History of Recorded Music, (New York: Faber and Faber, 2009), 46.

[18] Cylinder Preservation and Digitization Project, Department of Special Collections, University of California Santa Barbara, “Edison Blue Amberol Cylinder (1912-1929),” (accessed 22 May 2014). http://cylinders.library.ucsb.edu/history-blueamberol.php.

[19] Rutgers University, The Thomas Edison Papers, “Edison Companies,” last updated 20 February 2012, http://edison.rutgers.edu/list.htm.

[20] Neil Baldwin, Edison: Inventing the Century, (New York: Hyperion, 1995), 318.

[21] Thomas A. Edison qtd in Randall Stross, The Wizard of Menlo Park: How Thomas Alva Edison Invented the Modern World, (New York: Crown Publisher, 2007), 223.

[22] David Morton, Off the Record: The Technology and Culture of Sound Recording in America, (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2000), 22.

[23] Program from “A Test of Tone Re-Creation Given by Mr. Glen Ellison and the New Edison Diamond Disc Phonograph,” Nipperhead.com, http://www.nipperhead.com/old/tonetest01.htm, accessed 25 May 2014.

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About morganhowland

I am a recent college graduate with a degree in American History. I am also a music nerd who likes keeping up with current music and knowing anything about pop songs of the past. Combining the two ambitions into a blog of essays on various topics of popular song history seems like an appropriate thing to do.

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