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Consuming Passions: The Record As An Art Object
Berliner disc

Last century, when inventors and entrepreneurs strived to perfect recorded sound, the aim was primarily status and cash. The indifferent performances they recorded meant only cheap entertainment and profitable business. A few Individuals like Fred Gaisberg foresaw the process as a unique historical document. But no one predicted the phenomenon of the collector - especially those who want only to possess and admire a record just for qualities other than content.

In the early years disc recordings were manufactured from some unusual substances as well as a variety of sizes, speeds and colors. Emile Berliner's first discs issued circa 1890 were 5" In diameter, (as are today's compact discs) and made of a hard rubber or cellulose-like material. They were laterally cut as opposed to Edison's vertically-cut cylinders. Meant to be played on a hand-wound toy Gram-O-Phone the playback speed was as uncertain as the recording speed. But a nominal 78 rpm can be assumed. As with all discs prior to 1908 they were pressed on one side only, and were black in color.

Marconi Velvet Face disc

Berliner's 7" discs appeared about 1894 and the pirates soon followed. The extremely rare American Vitaphone (circa 1898) reportedly dubbed from Berliner masters and red in color. During complicated legal proceedings several new comers issued 7" records. They included Columbia, Climax, and the dark blue American Odeon. The pirate Zon-O-Phone (in 7" and 9" format) and the embryonic Victor company were also active. Later Canadian Berliners were brown in color and had a brass centre hole.

The first 10" shellac discs were offered by Berliner in England circa 1900. This size and substance soon became standard with Gramophone and Typewriter in Europe and the American Victor and Columbia. To this point most discs were cut in the Berliner lateral method. The exception was French Pathe. Starting in 1906 they issued discs based on the vertical method, in sizes from 8 1/2" to a massive 20" version that weighed 6 lbs. The nominal speed was 90 rpm but the 20" Concerts were to be played at 120 to 130 rpm!

The first truly flexible (but not unbreakable record was Introduced by Marconi (of wireless fame) in 1907. Made of plastic, the "Velvet Face" surface soon succumbed to the heavy pick-ups of the day.

Columbia initiated double-faced records in 1907 and Victor soon followed. The 10" size was used for popular music and the 12" for classical. But both firms experimented with a 14" version for classical that proved unsuccessful. These are now extremely rare. Visually interesting items from this period were issued by Columbia licensees. Standard Discs had a 1/2" spindle hole, Harmony 's was 3/4" and Arentino had an amazing 3" chasm.

Edison diamond disc

Edison entered the market in 1913 with a 1" thick, vertically-cut, laminated "Diamond Disc" with a playing speed of 80 rpm. During the 'teens Victor, Columbia and Edison dominated the North American scene, but many new (and often short-lived) hopefuls issued records of interest to collectors. Small records were not yet extinct. Little Wonder presented 5 1/2" single face gems from circa 1911 to 1919. The Emerson Company, formed. in 1919, gave us 5 1/2", 7", 9" and 10" 78's. The lengendary Bettini also pressed 7" discs In Italy. From 1917 an abstract five color vertical cut was pressed by Aelolan-Vocalion and a bizarre triangular record, the Pan, came from England.

The 1920's saw the rise and fall of many unusual records. (Victor finally dropped its one side only Red Seal in 1921. They considered this an innovation.) A 12" variable speed disc was produced in England by World Records in 1923. requiring a special gear for playback. It soon disappeared. Other rarities from the period include Blu-Disc, made of a dark blue substance, the flexible New Flexo (both American) and the microgroove Marathon and unbreakable Duophone from England.

Thomas Edison, just before quitting the record business in the middle of decade, offered both a long play 33 1/3 rpm Diamond Disc and a Berliner electrically recorded disc. But it was too little, too late for TAE and both the LP and the "Needle Cut" are very rare today. The first 16" LP's were used by theatres to accompany silent films. Few survive today.