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Phonograph cylinder

Phonograph Cylinder

The earliest method of recording and reproducing sound was on cylinder phonograph recordings.

Table of contents

Early development of the phonograph cylinder The very first recordings in the 1870s by Thomas Edison were done on the outside surface of a strip of tinfoil wrapped around a rotating metal cylinder. By the 1880s wax cylinders were mass marketed. These had sound recordings in the grooves on the outside of hollow cylinders of slightly soft wax. These cylinders would commonly wear out after they were played a few dozen times; they could then either be traded in as partial credit for purchase of new recordings, or have their surface shaved smooth so new recordings could be made on them.

Early cylinder machines of the late 1880s and the 1890s were often sold with recording attachments. The ability to record as well as play back sound was an advantage to cylinder phonographs over the competition from cheaper disc record phonographs, which could only play back sound.


Making a home recording


Listening to a cylinder with rubber ear-tubes.

In the earliest stages of phonograph manufacturing various competing incompatible types of cylinder recordings were made, but in the late 1880s a standard system was decided upon by Edison Records, Columbia Phonograph, and other companies; these were about 4 inches (10 cm) long, 2 inches in diameter, and played about 2 minutes of music or other sound.


Proper way to hold a cylinder record: put fingers on the inside; do not touch the outer surface which has the recording.

Commercial packaging


Two Edison cylinder records (on either end) and their cardboard storage cartons (center).

Cylinders were sold in cardboard tubes, with cardboard lids at each end. These containers helped protect the recordings. These containers and the shape of the cylinders (together with the "tinny" sound of early records compared to live music) prompted the nickname Canned music.


Portion of the label on the outside of a Columbia Records cylinder package, before 1901. Note the title of the recording is hand written on the label.

Record companies usually had a generic printed label on the outside of the cylinder package, with no indication of the identity of the individual recording inside. Early on such information would be written on the labels by hand, one at a time. Slightly later, the record number would be stamped on the top lid, then a bit later the title and artist of the recording would be printed on to labels on the lid. Shortly after the start of the 20th century, an abreviated version of this information (together with the name of the record company) would be printed or impressed on to one edge of the cylinder itself. Previously the actual cylinders had no such visual identification. However they would have a spoken announcement of the song or performance title, recording artist, and record company recorded on to the begining of the recording.

Small paper inserts were with the recording information and placed inside the package with the cylinders. At first this was hand written or typed on each slip, but printed versions became more common once cylinders of certain songs were sold in large enough quantities to make this economically practical.

Note in the example on the right, from Edison Records, 1902, the consumer is invited to cut out the circle with printed information. This paper circle could then be pasted either to the lid of the cylinder container, or (as this example prompts) to a spindle for this cylinder in specially built cabinets for holding cylinder records which were marketed by record companies. Only a minority of cylinder record customers purchased such cabinets.

Further improvements of commercial cylinders

Over the years the type of wax used in cylinders was improved and hardened so that cylinders could be played over 100 times. In 1902 Edison Records launched a line of improved hard wax cylinders markeded as "Edison Gold Molded Records".

In 1906 the Indestructible Record Company began mass marketing cylinder records made of celluloid, an early hard plastic, that would not break if dropped and could be played thousands of times without wearing out. This superior technology was purchased by the Columbia Phonograph Company. The Edison company then developed their own type of long lasting cylinder, consisting of a type of plastic called Amberol around a plaster core, these were called Amberol cylinders. Around the same time Edison introduced 4 minute cylinders, having twice the playing time of the old standard cylinder, achieved simply by shrinking the groove size and spacing them twice as close together in the spiral around the cylinder. Most (but not all) Amberol cylinders are of the 4-minute variety. Edison phonographs for playing these improved cylinder records were called Amberolas.


Package lid (left) and rim of Edison "Blue Amberol" cylinder

Cylinder recordings continued to compete with the growing disc record market into the 1910s, when Columbia (which had been making both discs and cylinders) switched exclusively to discs, and Edison started marketing their own disc records. However Edison continued to sell new cylinder records to consumers with cylinder phonograph machines through 1929. The latest of the new cylinders were simply dubs of disc records.

Cylinder phonograph technology continued to be used for dictaphone recordings for office use into the early 1950s when the cylinder dictaphone was supplanted by audio tape.

External Links

  • Tinfoil.com (http://www.tinfoil.com/) - History of phonograph cylinders; listen to many examples dating from 1878 through 1912
  • Phonograph cylinders (http://www.btinternet.com/~bill78/cylinder.htm) on Bill Clark's 78rpm Record site



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