|Parent company||Thomas A. Edison, Inc.|
|Founded||June 28, 1888
Defunct October, 1929
Revived c. 1990s
Jesse H. Lippincott
|Distributing label||(independent, mostly through dealers, jobbers, and mail order)|
|Genre||Variety (classical, popular, etc.)|
|Country of origin||United States, some major European countries|
|Location||West Orange, New Jersey|
|Official Website||[No official link] Unofficial link|
Thomas A. Edison invented the phonograph, the first device for recording and playing back sound, in 1877. After inventing and patenting the phonograph, Edison and his laboratory turned their attention to the commercial development of (electric lighting), playing no further role in the development of the phonograph for a decade.
The earliest phonograph was something of a crude curiosity, although it was one that fascinated much of the public. Early machines were sold to entrepreneurs who made a living out of traveling around the country giving "phonograph concerts" and demonstrating the device for a fee at fairs. "Talking dolls" and "Talking clocks" were manufactured as expensive novelties using the early phonograph.
In 1887 Edison Labs turned their attention back to improving the phonograph and the phonograph cylinder.
In 1888 the Edison company debuted the Perfected Phonograph, Edison produced wax cylinders 4 inches (10 cm) long, 2<pi> inches in diameter, playing some 2 minutes of music or entertainment, which became the industry standard. Experimental music records were made around this time. The "brown wax" cylinder made its debut in March/April 1889. "Electric Light Quadrille" by Issler's Orchestra (external link) is an example of an 1889 brown wax cylinder (Superbatone #734--"The Real Sound of Ragtime").
Blank records were an important part of the business early on. Most phonographs had or could be fitted with attachments for the users to make their own recordings. One important early use, in line with the original term for a phonograph as a "talking machine", was in business for recording dictation. Attachments were added to facilitate starting, stopping, and skipping back the recording for dictation and playback by stenographers. The business phonograph eventually evolved into a separate device from the home entertainment phonograph. Edison Record's brand of business phonograph was called The Ediphone; see Phonograph cylinder and Dictaphone. Edison also holds the achievement of being one of the first companies to record the first African-American quartet to record: The Unique Quartette.
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A notable technological triumph of the Edison Laboratories was devising a method to mass produce pre-recorded phonograph cylinders in molds. This was done by using very slightly tapered cylinders and molding in a material that contracted as it set. To Edison's disappointment the commercial potential of this process was not realized for some years. Most of the regional Edison distributors were able to fill the small early market for recordings by mechanical duplication of a few dozen cylinders at a time. Molded cylinders did not become a significant force in the marketplace until the end of the 1890s, which was when molding was slow and was used only to create pantograph masters.
Mass producing cylinders at the Edison recording studio in New Jersey largely ended the local Edison retailers early practice of producing recordings in small numbers for regional markets, and helped concentrate the USA recording industry in the New York City - New Jersey area, already the headquarters of the nation's Tin Pan Alley printed music industry.
In 1902, Edison Records introduced Edison Gold Moulded Records, cylinder records of improved hard black wax, capable of being played hundreds of times before wearing out. These new records were under the working title of "Edison Hi-Speed Extra Loud Moulded Records", running at the speed of 160 RPM instead of the usual (ca. 1898-1902) speed of 144 RPM or (ca. 1889-1897) 120 RPM. Until ca. 1898, Edison's speed was 125 RPM.
In 1908, Edison introduced a new line of cylinders (called "Amberols") playing 4 rather than 2 minutes of music on the same sized record, achieved by shrinking the grooves and spacing them twice as close together. New machines were sold to play these records, as were attachments for modifying existing Edison phonographs.
In November 1912, the new Blue Amberol Records, made out of a type of plastic similar to celluloid invented by Edison labs, were introduced for public sale. The first release was number 1501, a performance of the Rossini's overture to his opera Semiramide, performed by the American Standard Orchestra. The Blue Amberol records were much more durable than wax cylinders. The Edison lab claimed a 3000+ playback quota for the Blue Amberol. In that same year, the Edison Disc Record came out.
In 1910, artists' names began to be added to the records; previously, Edison's policy was to promote his cylinders (and up until 1915, discs) based on the recognition of composers and the works recorded theron in lieu of the performers themselves.
Edison Records continued selling cylinders until they went out of business in 1929. However, from January 1915 onwards the first of the that were Blue Amberols dubbed from Edison's Diamond Disc matrices, appeared on the market. By 1919, the last decade of production, these were simply dubs of their commercial disc records intended for customers who still used cylinder phonographs purchased years before.
Edison Records was eventually run by Thomas Edison's son, Charles Edison.
Cylinders that are mentioned from 1888 are sometimes called "yellow paraffin" cylinders, but these cylinders are not paraffin, which is a soft oily wax and does not hold up under many plays. They could be a number of formulas tested by Jonas Aylsworth, Thomas Edison's chemist. Most of the surviving 1888 recordings would be formulated from a combination of 60% ceresin wax, 20% stearic acid, and 20% beeswax. A record of this kind has a cigar-like smell, and is physically very soft when first molded. In a year's time, the record would harden quite considerably.
In late 1888, metallic soaps were tried. At first a lead stearate was used, but in the summer months, these records started to sweat and decompose. In 1889, Aylsworth developed an aluminum wax, using acetate of alumina and stearic acid with sodium hydroxide added as a saponifying agent. It was found these records were much more durable. Problems arose, however, since there was no tempering agent and hot weather caused these records to decompose. Two problems contributed to this, stearic quality varied from different makers; Aylsworth purchased some from P&G and found it had too much olaic acid in it. The next cause of the problem is that all stearic acid without a tempering agent takes on moisture, and after many experiments it was found that Ceresine was ideal. To make the wax hard, sodium carbonate was added. Even so, a few batches of records still had some problems and became fogged. The fog problem arose from acetic acid left in the wax, this problem was solved when higher temperatures were used to make sure all the acetic acid was boiled out of the wax. As such, the records from 1889-1894 are a reddish brown color due to the long cooking time. By 1896, Edison started using hydrated alumina in place of acetate of alumina. The use of hydrated alumina (sheet aluminum dissolved in a mixture of sodium carbonate, sodium hydroxide, and distilled water) made better records, and the wax could be manufactured in a shorter period of time. Using the hydrated aluminum resulted in more desirable blanks, with fewer defects and shorter production time.
The Columbia Phonograph Company used Edison recording blanks until 1894. The North American Phonograph Company was dissolved in the fall of 1894, and Edison quit supplying blanks to Columbia, who had purchased 70,000 blanks from 1889-1894. Columbia was frantic to find a solution to make cylinder blanks in house, and the recipe for making Edison's wax was a well kept secret. Thomas McDonald started doing experiments with wax alloys with poor results: the records fogged or decomposed in the summer, just like the early Edison blanks. The Columbia company had a deadline to either supply recordings, or have their contracts cancelled and be sued for loss of records. Columbia resorted to attempt to steal secrets from Edison company by hiring old Edison Phonograph Works employees, such as Mr. Storms. Unfortunately for Columbia, the names of the components used by Edison were not labeled with ingredients but were instead indicated by letters (i.e. A, B, C, D...), keeping the identities of these components a secret. Paraffin, Ceresine, and Ozokerite all look similar, making the tempering agent even more difficult to be identified by the wax mixer. Wax mixers were given instructions on how much of the lettered components to put in the mixture, and how to process it, but no idea as to what the ingredients actually were. It took over a year for Columbia to come up with the formula for cylinders. Columbia placed an ad in the Soap Makers' Journal for a practical man to work with metallic soaps. Adolph Melzer, a soap manufacturer from Evansville, Indiana took the job. Melzer came up with a formula comparable to Edison's with the exception of the tempering agent (using paraffin instead of ceresine). By 1901 The Gold Molded (originally spelled Moulded) process was developed by Thomas Edison and Jonas Aylsworth (Edison's Chemist) with input from Walter Miller, the Recording Manager of Edison Records.
 This discussion was gleaned from testimonials Walter Miller, Jonas Aylsworth, Thomas Edison, Adolphe Melzer, and Charles Wurth.
At first, no method of mass production was available for cylinder records. Copies were made by having the artist play over and over or by hooking two machines together with rubber tubing (one with a master cylinder and the other a blank) or copying the sound mechanically. By the late 1890s, an improved mechanical duplicator, the pantograph, was developed which used mechanical linkage. One mandrel had a playback stylus and the other a recording one, while weights and springs were used to adjust the tension between the styli to control recording volume and tracking.
The Edison team had experimented with Vacuum Deposited Gold masters as early as 1888, and it has been reported that some brown wax records certainly were molded,although it seems nobody has found these, in recent years, or can identify them. Frank Albert Wurth. The Edison Record, "Fisher Maiden", was an early record that was experimented with for the process. The 1888 experiments were not very successful due to the fact the grooves of the cylinders were square, and the sound waves were saw-tooth-shaped and deep. The records came out scratched and it was very time consuming. Many failures and very few that come out. (See The Edison Papers Project, Record Experiments by Jonas Aylsworth 1888-1889)
The Gold Molded process involved taking a wax master and putting it in a vacuum chamber. The master record was put on a spinning mandrel, the pump sucked all the air out of a glass bell jar, and 2 pieces of gold leaf were hooked to an induction coil. The current was turned on, a magnet was spun around the outside to turn the mandrel, and the gold vaporized a very thin coating on the master. This master was put on a motor in a plating tank and copper was used to back the gold up. The master record was melted, then taken out of the mold to reveal a negative of the grooves in the metal. The master cylinder had to have wider feed as the grooves shrink in length through each process. The master mold is used to create "mothers" and these are then further processed to make working molds.
The Gold molded record used an aluminum-based wax, like the post-1896 Edison brown wax. However, carnauba wax was added, as well as pine tar and lampblack resulting in a black, shiny, durable record. The molds with mandrels placed in the center were heated and dipped in a tank of the molten wax. These were removed and trimmed while still hot, and put on a table from where the molds were put in lukewarm water. The water caused the records to shrink in diameter so that they could be removed. The records were then trimmed, dried and cleaned, then later put on warm mandrels for 2 hours where they shrank evenly. Jonas Aylsworth developed this formula.
In 1908, Edison introduced Amberol Records which had a playing time of just over 4 minutes. The process of making the finished record was the same as the Gold Molded records, however a harder wax compound was used. In 1912, celluloid was used in place of wax, and the name was changed to Blue Amberol, as the dye was a blue color. The master was recorded and then the process of making the mold was the same as the Gold Molded process. What is different is that a steam jacketed mold with an air bladder in the center was used. Celluloid tubing was put in the mold and the end gate was closed. The rubber bladder expanded the celluloid to the side of the heated mold, and printed the negative record in positive on the celluloid. The bladder was then deflated, and cold air was used to shrink the tubing so the celluloid print could be removed. The printed tubing was put in a plaster filler. When the plaster was hard the cylinders were then baked in an oven, then the ribs made on the inside of the plaster with knives. The records were cleaned and then packaged.
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In October 1912 the Edison Diamond Disc Record was introduced. Edison Laboratories had been experimenting with disc records for some 3 years, as the general public seemed to prefer them to cylinders. The thick Edison Discs recorded the sound vertically in the groove rather than laterally (as was the case with Pathé's discs), and could only be played to their full advantage on Edison Diamond Disc Phonographs. This combination produced audio fidelity superior to any other home record playing system of the time. However Edison Discs and phonographs were more expensive than the competitors. This together with the incompatibility of the Edison system with other discs and machines had an adverse effect on Edison's market share. Nonetheless, Edison Discs for a time became the third best selling brand in the United States, behind Victor and Columbia Records.
With World War I various materials used in Edison Discs came in short supply, and many discs pressed during the war were made in part with such make-shift materials as could be acquired at the time. This resulted in problems with surface noise even on new records, and Edison's market share shrank.
Prior to the war Edison Records started a marketing campaign, hiring prominent singers and vaudeville performers to perform along side and alternating with Edison records of their performances played on top-of-the-line "Laboratory Model" Edison Diamond Disc Phonographs. At various stages during the performances, all lights in the theater would be darkened and the audience challenged to guess if what they were hearing was live or recorded; accounts often said that much of the audience was astonished when the lights went back up to reveal only the Edison Phonograph on stage. According to a book published by the Edison company titled Composers and Artists whose Art is Re-Created by Edison's New Art (ca. 1920), the first such comparison test or "tone test" as Edison copywriters referred to them, took place at Carnegie Hall on April 28, 1916 with Marie Rappold of the Metropolitan Opera providing the live vocal performance.
In 1928 the Edison company began plans for making "needle cut" records; by which they meant standard lateral cut discs like the "78s" marketed by almost every other company of the time. The Edison "Needle Cut" records debuted the following year. The audio fidelity was often comparable to the best of other record companies of the time, but they sold poorly as Edison's market share had declined to the point where it was no longer one of the leading companies and Edison had few distributors compared to leaders like Victor, Columbia, and Brunswick.
Edison Records closed down in 1929. The record plant and many of the employees were transferred to manufacturing radios. The masters for the Edison Records back catalogue were purchased by Henry Ford, and became part of the collection of the Henry Ford Museum. They were recently deaccessioned by the museum and sent to the Edison Historic Site (National Park Service) in New Jersey. Edison then died in 1931. Some of the Edison catalogue is in the public domain and available for download at the following address at the Library of Congress website.