Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Edison Blue Amberol Records - Cylinders

Let’s begin with a little history lesson:

While working on a telephone transmitter in 1877, Thomas Edison made sketches for a machine that would record and play back sound, all which is engraved in tinfoil. Edison’s employee John Kruesi, built the first phonograph based on Edison’s sketches.

Fast-forward 9 years to 1886, the Volta Graphophone Company was formed with Alexander Graham Bell, Chichester Bell and Charles Tainter. This company was created to control patents on a new and improved phonograph called a Graphophone. This machine left out the tinfoil and instead used engraved wax cylinders to record these sounds. 

The following year, Thomas Edison decided to get back into the game and again concentrated on the phonograph. He made the new phonographs based on wax cylinders.

They work the same way as a normal flat record. The phonograph would spin these cylinders and a needle would fit in the grooves. 

In 1889 pre-recorded cylinders began to be sold. Initially, they were usually only found in early jukeboxes at taverns and arcades, but before long the phonograph players started making their way into private homes, and of course so did the cylinders. The cylinders were initially made of a soft wax which would wear out after being played repeatedly. Once they were worn out, they still had smooth wax on them which could be reused for new recordings (these early phonographs were usually designed to record as well as play back).

They began using a harder wax on these cylinders after a few years so that they could be played many more times without being worn out. Eventually the brittle wax cylinders were replaced with celluloid (a hard plastic) cylinders which were extremely durable. The Edison cylinders I recently found are made of celluloid.

Edison Blue Amberol Cylinders were around between 1912 and 1929. As mentioned above, these celluloid cylinders were much more durable: they would not shatter when dropped like the earlier wax cylinders. While durable, they are not perfect: many of these would be difficult to play today as these celluloid cylinders were more likely to shrink or deform over time if stored improperly (let’s face it, most were probably never stored properly, but instead kept in basements, attics or garages for nearly a century). The cores of the cylinders were made of plaster. This plaster material helped reduce the amount that the celluloid would shrink, but if stored in poor conditions it would split over time.

Each of these cylinders had a play time of approximately four minutes. This was an improvement over most wax cylinders which usually clocked in around two minutes.

The cylinders were packaged in cardboard tubes. They had a removable lid on one end (I’m missing the lids for these cylinders). The cylinder “boxes” usually had generic designs. The recording name was printed on a label attached to the box and also on the edge of the cylinder along with the catalog number.  One of the boxes I have is called Amberol (without “Blue”). Initially, Edison records that were named Amberol were made of wax, and had a smaller groove. Once Edison acquired the patent for celluloid technology, they altered the name to Edison Blue Amberol Records. I do not believe the cylinder I found in the Amberol box is wax. I figure a celluloid cylinder was simply misplaced in the wax cylinder box.

Edison Blue Amberol Records were the last type of cylinder that Edison made. In 1915, Edison Company began manufacturing “Diamond Disc” records (early flat records that were ¼” thick… I’m on the hunt for one), but they still continued to manufacture these cylinders until 1929.

While these cylinders are not something I am capable of playing, I am very happy to add these to my collection. They are very retro looking and really display nicely up on a shelf in my record room. The history alone is what caught my interest.

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