The Edison Cylinder - Where it All Started

Ever wonder why record companies are still called “record companies” even though most of them have nothing to do with making records anymore?

Most of us think of records being the round flat vinyl thingies that came before the CD was around. The term “record” was in common usage long before that and is actually meant in the archive sense. So in actual fact a CD is a “record” and a digital sound file is also a “record”.

Before Cds, vinyl, 78rpm discs came the Edison Cylinder.

Named after its famous inventor, the Edison cylinder was the first recording medium that music was commercially released on. The record was encoded on a wax cylinder that was played on a spindle. Mass production of cylinders started in 1888 and continued until 1930.

Edison cylinders were either blank for home recording/Dictaphone purposes or had a label on them if an artist was being contracted to make a commercial recording (in fact it was called a “record label”). Early wax cylinders were delicate affairs and were stored in specially made cans for protection (ever heard the phrase “canned music”?)

The early cylinders deteriorated easily and could hold only 2 minutes of sound. In subsequent years a more robust amberol version was produced that could hold 4 minutes of music.

Post world war one saw a steady decline in the popularity in the cylinders as the phonograph record was being produced. The new records could be stored easier, the sound fidelity was better and the players were cheaper to manufacture.

Here is a great video that demonstrates how the cylinders were recorded and played back. The video shows the artist making the recording and the final recording is played back in minutes. No electricity is involved in the process, its all done with clockwork.

Another great site worth checking out is which is a digital library archive that is being made of Edison cylinder recordings. You can go there and do a search for old recordings and listen.

Till next time

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