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The Development Of Cylinder Records - Part 1

The story of the development and actual first production of the cylinder record really begins after Edison had put aside his initial venture into sound recording. Public enthusiasm for that new wonder from the Edison lab, the Tinfoil Phonograph, had declined by the late 1870's and Edison had already turned his interests to what was destined to become an even greater achievement, the development of the incandescent light bulb.

Under two contracts with the newly-formed Edison Electric Light Company, one in 1878 and the other in 1881, Edison agreed to cease work on developing the phonograph and concentrate his full attention on finding a viable medium for the transmission of cheap and reliable artificial illumination. These contractual commitments would not be fulfilled until January 1886. In the meantime, this left the field open to other researchers to ensure the future of the cylinder.

Alexander Graham Bell, whose years of research in acoustics had led to the successful demonstration of the telephone in 1877, was astonished that he had not grasped the rather simple principles of the Tinfoil Phonograph and been its inventor. With the recently awarded Volta prize of $25,000 granted Bell in recognition of his development of the telephone, he opened a laboratory in Washington, D.C. to continue experimentation in related fields. Enlisting the aid of a relative, Chichester A. Bell, and a scientist, Charles Sumner Tainter, they began to devote increasing attention to the improvement of the phonograph. Very quickly it became apparent to them that the most serious drawback of this machine was the use of tinfoil as the recording medium and they experimented with the use of a wax compound onto which sound vibrations could be incised or engraved.

Initially they simply constructed a machine identical to Edison's and filled the grooves of the metal cylinder with wax. After five years of intensive research they introduced, in 1886, an instrument which they called a Graphophone on which the tinfoil had been replaced by a removable wax-coated cardboard tube measuring 6" by 1 5/16" which slipped onto the metal cylinder. In 1887, the American Graphophone Company was formed to market these machines and cylinders primarily in the District of Columbia.

Meanwhile, Edison returned to what he had always stated was his "favourite invention", the phonograph, and began also to experiment with wax as the recording medium for his cylinders. (Edison had in fact suggested the possibility of using wax in his original 1878 patents.) In 1887 he unveiled his new, improved phonograph which bore a striking resemblance to Bell and Tainter's in basic design. It too used wax as the recording medium; however, the important difference was that Edison's cylinders were made of solid wax which could be shaved and re-used while the Graphophone cylinders could be recorded upon only once. Further mechanical improvement of the phonograph took place and in June 1888, (after five days and nights of exhausting labour!), Edison introduced his Perfected Phonograph to compete with the Graphophone in the business market.

At this point in the 'competition', with both concerns poised to begin the legal battles which seemed inevitable to determine whether Bell/Tainter or Edison could claim creative patent to the new design of talking machine, a businessman, Jesse H. Lippincott, convinced them to allow him to merge both concerns into one company to market both the phonograph and the Graphophone. Thus was born the North American Phonograph Company, formed in July, 1888, with full control of the Edison patents and with exclusive sales rights to the Graphophone. Part of the agreement stipulated that the Graphophone was to be referred to as the Phonograph-Graphophone.

The machines which this company marketed were made in four different classes according to whether they were run by mains electricity, electricity from a battery, a water motor or a foot treadle. It is frustrating for today's collectors because since these first generation of cylinder machines were leased and not purchased outright by customers, almost none has survived.

Initially, the principal function of the talking machine was understood as a dictating aid in the business office and Lippincott's sole aim was to arrange the lease of these machines through regional companies to business firms. Within a year, thirty-three companies were licenced.

Both Edison and Tainter described in articles during 1888 the advantages to the business trade of their cylinder process. Edison, in the North American Re- view for June described his solid wax cylinder in the following words:

"A single wax cylinder, or blank, may be used for fifteen or twenty successive records before it is worn out. But if the record is to be kept, the wax blank must not be talked upon again, and is simply slipped off from the metal cylinder and filed away for future reference. It may be fitted on to the cylinder again at any time, and will at once utter whatever has been registered on it. One of these wax blanks will repeat its contents thousands of times with undiminished clearness.... The wax cylinders can be sent through the mails in little boxes which I have had prepared for that purpose, and then put upon another phonograph at a distant point, to be listened to by a friend or business correspondent..., For the present it has been decided to make all the phonographs of uniform size, so that a record put upon the machine in New York may be placed on another machine of the same pattern in China, and speak exactly as it was spoken to on this continent.... This uniform size and pattern make the thing perfectly practicable in offices which have business connections all over the globe... Persons having a large correspondence can talk all their letters into the phonograph in a very short time, and leave them to be listened to and copied by an assistant, without the delay involved in stenography or the trouble of going over and correcting the copyist's work, which is almost inevitable under the conditions of dictation now prevailing."