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The End of the Line for Edison Cylinders
Fig 1

Edisonís favorite invention was the phonograph. Beyond the machine itself, Edison was wedded to the cylinder from his first tin-foil phonograph in 1877 to the end of manufacturing in 1929. The advantage of a cylinder in his mind was that the surface speed of the needle tracking in the recordís groove is constant for the length of the cylinder. With recordings on discs in contrast, the surface speed of the needle relative to the groove increases as the needle moves inward, and that can decrease sound quality.

Edisonís first commercial cylinders in 1896 were brown wax, which played for two minutes. These suffered from low volume, and they wore down quickly. Their competitors were the 7" hard discs of the Berliner Gramophone Company. While the sound quality of Berlinerís discs was worse than Edisonís cylinders, the discs were less breakable and could be stored more easily. Edison touted the advantage that you could do home recordings with his cylinder machines. This was not possible with the gramophone discs.

In 1902, Edison introduced black wax cylinders, which were more durable and played louder than the brown wax ones, but as the years progressed, he fell behind the competition in several ways. Lambert introduced celluloid cylinders, which were much more durable than wax, although home recording was not possible. Victor and Columbia made larger diameter disc records to increase playing time and introduced double sided discs, with recordings on both sides. Despite this competition, Edison clung to his wax cylinders. In 1908, Edison introduced the four-minute wax Amberol cylinder, with a longer playing time. The finer grooves of these cylinders, however, were easily damaged.

Fig 2
Fig 3

Edison was falling further behind the disc competition, not only in playing time and ease of storage, but also in prestige. Starting in 1899, Berliner had the foresight to record classical artists and opera stars on his discs. Given the poor recording quality, many refused, but those that signed up established the tradition, carried on by the Victor company, of recording the highest quality music.

Finally in 1912, Edison introduced the Blue Amberol cylinder, made of celluloid. These allowed Edison to continue his manufacture of cylinder machines, a business which was now exclusively his. By the late 1920ís, Edisonís cylinder business was losing money. It was time to shut it down and clear the shelves.

The ephemera related to this close-out is in an envelope mailed March 21, 1929, with 12 pieces of literature to John Atwood, a potential customer (Fig 1). (It is possible that Atwood used the envelope to file previous mailings, but it looks like these papers were all mailed together.) There is no indication that this is the end-of-the road, but the mailing includes the very last "Latest Edison Amberol Records", Form 5229 for May (Fig 2). Just a few more cylinders were issued in 1929 beyond this list. There are also forms for the "Latest Edison Amberol Records" for November 1926, and February (2) and April (2) 1929.

Fig 4
Fig 5

The cover letter (Fig 3) urges the customer to take advantage of a special limited time offer to buy an Amberola phonograph (Fig 4). Given the perilous straits of the Cylinder Phonograph Division at that time, this seems a little disingenuous, if not close to fraudulent. Enhancing the Edison Companyís sanguine view is the inclusion of the "First Edition" of "The Golden Treasury of Edison Blue Amberol Records" (Fig 5). This was issued in 1927, and there was no second edition.

Fig 6

Most impressively, there is a large poster (38 x 64 cm), showing all of Edisonís outside horn phonographs from 1900 to 1912 (Fig 6). The later models could play the Blue Amberol cylinders, and there were attachments and reproducers available for purchase to allow earlier models to play them. All in all, quite a comprehensive sales pitch for a dying company! The Cylinder Division of the Edison Company closed its doors for good at the end of December 1929.