Recorded Sound: Phonograph and Discs

Thomas Edison - inventor of the phonograph, among other things.

This is the second post in a series exploring the history of the technology used to record sound, and how advances in these technologies affected music.

In 1877, Thomas Edison publically announced his invention of the phonograph. It worked in a very similar manner to Édouard-Léon Scott’s phonautograph, substituting a sharp metal cutter as its marking implement, and a writable cylinder as its recording medium. The key difference between the two inventions is that Scott’s could only record the shape of sound waves, while Edison’s could record and play sound. Edison’s cylinders were first made of tinfoil, but the indentations in the foil wore out rather quickly when played back more than a few times. These cylinders were replaced with various forms of wax, eventually settling on celluloid. Since the phonograph, recording technology has advanced, and with it came a very large and prosperous recording industry.

After Edison developed the first tin foil phonograph in 1877, his laboratory turned its attention the incandescent light bulb. This opened the door for Alexander Graham Bell, his cousin, and Charles Sumner Tainter to pick up where Edison left off. These three men envisioned the wax cylinder, as well as a cutting stylus that would etch grooves into the wax - unlike Edison’s current system, with a stylus that merely made indentations in the foil cylinder. The three called their invention the Graphophone, which was sold by the Columbia Company. Edison was approached by Bell to be a collaborator and help further develop the Graphophone project, but he declined the offer so he might improve on his original invention.

Thomas Edison at an early model of his tin foil phonograph.

Edison developed a number of improvements to his phonograph, as well as improvements to the wax recording medium. Among these was the development of a very hard metallic soap that replaced wax as the material for cylinders. To make it easy, Edison and his competitors still referred to the cylinders as being made of wax, even though they were not.

Edison’s phonographs and cylinders dominated the markets by the late 1890’s. He advertised his phonograph not only to record music, but to serve a variety of different purposes. In an 1878 edition of North American Review, he advertised his phonograph to aid in the following tasks:

  1. Letter writing and all kinds of dictation without the aid of a stenographer.
  2. Phonographic books, which will speak to blind people without effort on their part.
  3. The teaching of elocution.
  4. Reproduction of music.
  5. The "Family Record"--a registry of sayings, reminiscences, etc., by members of a family in their own voices, and of the last words of dying persons.
  6. Music-boxes and toys.
  7. Clocks that should announce in articulate speech the time for going home, going to meals, etc.
  8. The preservation of languages by exact reproduction of the manner of pronouncing.
  9. Educational purposes; such as preserving the explanations made by a teacher, so that the pupil can refer to them at any moment, and spelling or other lessons placed upon the phonograph for convenience in committing to memory.
  10. Connection with the telephone, so as to make that instrument an auxiliary in the transmission of permanent and invaluable records, instead of being the recipient of momentary and fleeting communication.

While phonographs did enjoy success in some of these tasks, they were widely used to record music. Some families had phonographs in their homes, and were able to purchase blank cylinders and pre-recorded cylinders. These pre-recorded cylinders were mostly recordings of music. Concert bands, orchestras and even individuals recorded on cylinders, and companies such as Columbia duplicated them, and sold the recordings. Thus began the days of being able to listen to recorded music in the home. Before cylinders, people would have to attend concerts to hear music, or play the piano or other instruments in their homes. Now, if a family owned a phonograph or cylinder player, they could purchase recordings and have a full band or orchestra right in their house.

An Edison home phonograph, with a molded cylinder.

In 1902, the Edison Company and Columbia began marketing molded cylinders. Creating a master mold and using it to duplicate cylinders was a much easier way of duplicating recordings. With this system, Edison and the Columbia company were able to record music and rapidly duplicate it onto cylinders. They would then market and sell these cylinders. This same basic model is still in use today. Record companies record artists, duplicate the music onto CD’s (and sometimes LP’s) and sell them to individuals.

A few years before the beginning of WWI, discs began to make an appearance on the market and directly competed with Edison and other cylinder companies. Cylinders were said to have better audio fidelity than discs, but they did have some drawbacks. The phonograph used a system of worm gears to move the stylus in synchronization with the grooves on the cylinder rather than rely on the grooves to pull the stylus along. This meant that cylinders were rather durable, but the gear system made phonographs rather expensive to manufacture. Additionally, cylinders could only record about 2-3 minutes of sound due to their size. While the compact size of cylinders sacrificed recording space, it made recording at home or in the field relatively easy.

In comparison, discs and the turntables on which to play them were much less expensive to mass produce. Discs also greatly exceeded the cylinder’s recordable space, since both sides of a disk could be molded with recordable grooves. Disks could also be easily stamped with information as to what audio was contained on the disk, eliminating the need to use recording time identifying the contents of a cylinder. Along with their low manufacturing costs and wealth of recording space, they were very easy to pack and store tightly, saving room in houses and stores. However, since discs relied on the grooves themselves to pull the stylus, they suffered from rather quick degradation. When a disk is turning, the linear velocity is greater on the outside of the groove than the inside. Over time, the stylus would flatten the outside of the groove leaving the disk unplayable. Home recording was possible with discs, but it involved machinery that was cumbersome and difficult to operate.

Despite the drawbacks to discs, they became the industry standard for recording around 1910. Cylinders were still produced by a small number of companies and were mainly used for dictation in offices, but by 1929 cylinders ceased to be manufactured.

A Columbia disc phonograph.


The library at the University of California Santa Barbara has amassed a very large collection of wax cylinders, and has begun digitizing the audio from the cylinders. They have made these digitized audio files available online in their Cylinder Audio Archive. You can find these recordings and more information about the ongoing project here:

To see a demonstration of a phonograph being used to record, watch this video from the Thomas A. Edison National Historic Site: 


Next, we’ll explore electronic recording, the introduction of microphones and how this expanded the recording industry.

~Stephen Cannistraci