Below is how first appeared on the Internet.   Actually, this digital "snapshot" was made when the website was about 12 days old and would soon be moved to its current address from its original, and rather less intuitive address —

At that time, the site took up less than 2 megabytes and consisted of two pages.   Page one was the "big scroll" main page (it hadn't occurred to me yet to break it into smaller separate pages).   The second page was the Cylinder Music Tape Library, the precursor to my Cylinder Music Shop.

I haven't checked yet to see if any of my links to other websites still work!

Early Recorded Sounds & Wax Cylinders

You are about to enter the delightfully low-tech world of early recorded sound.

Whether you are a newcomer or old-hand to old-old-time sounds, you'll enjoy this voyage into the wonderful sounds of the early twentieth century.

Overview of Contents

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The First Phonograph

Before CDs, before vinyl LPs and 45s, before fragile 78 disk records...

        ...was the era of cylinder records.

From the earliest phonographs in 1877, courtesy of Mr. Thomas Edison, the cylinder was the preferred geometric form for a record. The first records were strips of tinfoil, the predecessor to household aluminum foil, wrapped around a 4-inch diameter drum. The drum was hand-cranked at about 60 revolutions per minute (RPM) and the phonographic apparatus made sound impressions upon the foil. The expected lifetime of a foil recording was short, because after a few playbacks the foil would often rip.

Original replica of the first phonograph.
Photo credit 1.

Phonograph recording on tinfoil.
Photo credit 5.

Click here to see a close-up showing the sound impressions.

Please note:    Click on the images to see a full-sized view.

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Wax Cylinder Records

Two-minute wax cylinders.
Photo credit 5.

By 1888, a cylinder record standard had emerged; it was made of wax and had shrunk in size to a little over 2" in diameter and 4" long -- and it was brittle. Recording at a standard 100 grooves per inch, early wax cylinder recording speeds varied -- slower speeds like 90 RPM for spoken material would yield a 4 minute recording, faster speeds from 120 to 160 RPM for music would run for about 2 minutes. Within a few years, phonographs were being sold for the home market and by 1902 the recording speeds were standardized to 160 RPM.

Edison 'Home' model B phonograph, 1906.
Photo credit 5.

Close-up of Edison 'Home' phonograph playing an old wax record.
Photo credit 5.

Please note:    Click on the images to see a full-sized view.

By late 1908, 160 RPM 4-minute wax cylinder records became available. The groove density was doubled from 100 to 200 per inch, thus the playing time doubled (see note 1). Columbia records got out of the cylinder record business in favor of disk records in 1909. Victor records never sold cylinder records, preferring the disk format. Edison continued making two-minute cylinders until late 1912. Edison finally stopped making all entertainment records, cylinders and disk, in October 1929 -- one day before the stock market crash.

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Early Recording Sessions

Sound Waves Untouched by Human (or Electronic) Hands

Edison music room, Orange, New Jersey laboratory, 1890-93.
Photo credit 1.

Click here to see a close-up (see note 2).

Edison music room, Orange, New Jersey laboratory, 1905.
Photo credit 1.
Although the world was entering the era of electricity, a suitable electronic method for recording sound was to prove elusive until the 1920's. Early phonograph recordings were accomplished literally by brute force -- all acoustically: The performers would stand before a funnel-shaped horn attached to a phonograph and belt out their tunes. High volumes of sound were required to force the recording diaphragm (made variously of glass, mica, and copper) to vibrate sufficiently to force the cutting stylus to make a good carving on the blank wax cylinder.

Due to the inflexibility of the recording diaphragm, some instruments did not record well. Instruments producing complex sounds, such as the violin, recorded weakly. Not surprisingly, horned instruments recorded best. Consequently, marching band numbers were prominent in many early recordings. To produce a clear recording, the number of instruments would also be kept to a minimum -- 15 or so for a band, 4 or so for a chorus. Therefore, many early recordings present a simpler music by necessity.

Low-Tech Defined...

Edison blank cylinder, carton and cotton batting.
Photo credit 5.

Today, recording and disseminating sounds is direct and simple. Spare a thought for how far things have come: With no method for mass-producing copies of a single recording, early inventories of recordings were created by huddling multiple phonographs near the performers. Each phonograph would be operated simultaneously, each making a recording of the performance, the recorded cylinders would then be replaced with fresh blanks, and the process repeated.

"Making a Band Record with Thirteen Recording Horns."
Photo credit 3.

This way, for example, a band could make from 10 to 15 recordings per take. The band would then repeat the same tune, take after take. At around five-minutes per take, about 144 records could be produced per hour ... all being well. Pity the singing performers: Only about 4 phonographs could acceptably be used simultaneously -- netting about 48 records per hour ... another reason band music was popular in the early days.

Click here to listen to an example of just such an early band recording.
From 1896, the Liberty Bell March (91K WAV file) by the Edison Concert Band.

[ Facsimile of The Phonogram, 1891, page 226. ]

Phonograph Records by the U.S. Marine Band

The music of the United States Marine Band, of Washington, D.C., is now so well known to the users of the phonograph and the patrons of coin-slot machines, that The Phonogram, desiring to give its readers precisely what they want, irrespective of cost, has procured, after considerable effort and expense, the fine photograph of that band while it is making records for the Columbia Phonograph Company. The photograph shows the band in full uniform, as it appears when playing for the President of the United States at the White House, on state occasions, or in the grounds of the White House in pleasant weather.

Photo credit 2.
See note 3.

Click here to see a close-up.

This is, in many respects, the most celebrated band in the world. It can play, without notes, more than five hundred different selections. Much of the music played by this band to the phonograph has been arranged especially by the band with a view to the best phonograph effects; and the patient experimenting of Professor Bianchi, who is in charge of the musical department of the Columbia Phonograph Company, has borne fruit in an output of superior records.

With regard to musical records, it may be here stated that anyone possessing an ordinary knowledge of the phonograph can make them, but perfect records are only obtained by using the utmost care and precision in placing the horns and by the perfect running of the phonograph.

Soon, primitive duplicating methods were devised by connecting one phonograph to another. An early approach used a hollow rubber tube running from the master phonograph to the recording phonograph. Later, direct linkage connected the reproducing stylus of the master to the recording stylus of the other phonograph thus duplicating pantographically. Only a limited number of copies could be made using these techniques due to degradation of the original recording. By mid-1902, cylinders could be copied by a molding process. This was a big improvement and cylinder prices dropped. At the same time, the wax itself was changed from a soft brown wax, which limited the playback lifetime of recordings, to a firmer black metallic soap-wax concoction.

Many two-minute cylinder recordings were self-announcing. This was a standard practice due largely to the lack of labelling on the early wax cylinder records, and also because, silly as it may sound, there was no reason not to self-announce the selections. By 1904, Edison began labelling his cylinders on their edge, and by 1909 most Edison records were generally no longer self-announcing.

Click here to listen to a self-announcement (85K WAV file).

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A Gallery of Two-Minute Wax Cylinders

Light brown wax.

Medium brown wax.

Darker brown wax.

Dark grey wax; early molded cylinder.

Black wax; labelled molded cylinder.

Edison cylinder cartons.

Edison carton & cylinder, 1899.

Close-up of the carton's left face; right face.

Edison carton & molded, unlabelled cylinder, 1904.

Edison carton & molded, labelled cylinder, 1908.

Columbia cylinder cartons
Columbia records were sold through Sears-Roebuck under the name Oxford.

Close-up of an 1898 Columbia carton's front face; left face; right face.

Columbia wax cylinder

Photos credit 5.

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Explore the December 22, 1900 Issue of Scientific American


"The Manufacture of Edison Phonograph Records"

Casting Blank Records Turning the Blanks
Making Band Records

See note 4.

Making Violin Solo Records

See note 5.

Testing the Records Testing the Phonographs

Photos credit 4.

Please note:    Click on the images to see a full-sized view.

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Sounds of the Early Twentieth Century

Cylinder Excerpts...

Please note:    These WAV file excerpts provide a fair quality sound (being compressed 4-to-1 from the original); they were sampled at 11KHz using the Microsoft 4-bit DVI ADPCM format which is supported by most software supporting standard WAV files. You may need to inform your browser how to handle WAV files before you can "click-and-play". If you have difficulty playing these excerpts: For PC users, try Media Player, Sound Recorder, or CoolEdit; for Macintosh users, try SoundApp.

An Hour with the Sounds of the Early Twentieth Century...

Two-Minute Wax Cylinder Phonograph Recordings

-- Available on Cassette --

Volume 1    Volume 2

Compiled and edited by Glenn Sage

Enjoy an hour of two-minute wax cylinder phonograph music recorded on high-quality cassette tape. Although wax cylinders were originally recorded acoustically, they have been reproduced here directly from the original cylinders using an electronic means that captures all the available sound (see note 10).

To find out more about the cylinder music tape library, click here.

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Photograph credits:
Courtesy Edison National Historic Site, West Orange, New Jersey.

The Phonogram, 1891, pg. 226. Courtesy Library of Congress, Recorded Sound Division.

Talking Machine News, September 1903, pg. 77. Courtesy Library of Congress, Recorded Sound Division.

Scientific American, December 22, 1900, Front page. Courtesy Library of Congress, Adams Science Reading Room.

Author's collection.

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At the time, extending playing time was all the rage. Disk records of that time could play for 4 minutes, so the rush was on to do the same for cylinders. Certainly, the 2 minute limitation did not do justice to most symphonic works. But, on the other hand, many popular tunes simply had to be stretched with musical "filler" to work up to 4 minutes. And I have to confess my preference: There is a certain immediacy, vitality and even musical resourcefulness present in the two-minute cylinder works that you do not often hear in other recordings. To me, once again Edison got it right -- the two-minute playing time is an acceptable standard -- even if market forces seemed to indicate otherwise.

In this close-up you'll find, among other gems, an 1878 improved tinfoil phonograph, a few early 1890's Class M (electric) phonographs, a box of wax cylinders, and an 1890 Edison Talking Doll (regarding the failure of which Edison said, "The voices of the little monsters [was] exceedingly unpleasant to hear.")

Only three photographs of recording sessions using multiple phonographs are known by me to exist. Each are presented here. I would very much like to be proved wrong! If you have seen or otherwise know of any others, please let me know: With only three extant photographs, the find of even one more would represent a huge 33% increase in our body of reference material!

Note the overhead wires and lever near the phonographs used to simultaneously operate the phonographs. The band playing is probably the Edison Concert Band. Note that the band is probably rehearsing because the conductor is blocking a few of the phonograph horns -- something he would not be doing if they were doing an actual take. See related note 3.

The soloist is Charles D'Almaine. Notice how close to the horns the soloist needed to get, but not too close because if he were to hit a horn, it would produce an audible "thunk" on the recording. The accompanying piano is elevated so that the loudest portion of its sounding board is closest to the horns. With this setup Charles D'Almaine could easily have been performing Shepherds' Dance (as heard on tape volume 1, side 1). Wires are seen running from the phonographs to a set of batteries which powered the phonograph motors. See related note 3.

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To learn more:

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Links to Related Topics

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Copyright (C) (P) 1996 Glenn Sage, Portland, Oregon.
All Rights Reserved.
Telephone:  503/289-4343,   E-mail:

Installed:    August 31, 1996.
Last updated:    September 11, 1996.