At some point time around the year 2008 the last physical audio format, the cd, seems to have nearly winked out of existence. Its replacement? An army of wispy, intangible files including mp3, .aiff, wave, ogg vorbis, flac and many others. Of course, many of these formats produce very high-quality audio, and I can now pack a collection of music the size of a small public library on my phone, but audio files can seem insubstantial compared to some of the larger audio formats of the past. As it happens, record companies have been introducing new formats since the 1890’s, but one was of colossal size is probably unfamiliar to most of todays’ music listeners.
While I couldn’t resist using the picture of the giant disc on the right for this post, the term “record” — as in, “let’s listen to some groovy records” — usually meant a cylinder recording in the late 1890’s. The cutting edge at the time was the cylinder record variously known as the Graphophone Grand or Concert Record, depending on whether you meant the Columbia or Edison product. It was a huge cylinder with a diameter of 5 inches and it dwarfed the typical 2 inch cylinder of the day.
The chief virtue of the new cylinder was that it reproduced high frequencies much more faithfully and that it was much louder than previous cylinders. The advertising literature was rapturous about the new improvements. One advertisement for the Graphophone Grand described the machine as the “greatest achievement of the art” of recording. At a demonstration in Washington, DC, Columbia’s representative and chief lawyer, Philip Mauro, declared it simply, “the greatest of all mechanical achievements.” The editor of the trade magazine, The Phonoscope, exhibited a bit more restraint when he marveled, “a song can be reproduced by it with such volume as to be heard above the voices of a large congregation singing. A speech can be reproduced so as to be heard far and further than the human voice can carry sound.” One of the first stores to carry the machines promised huge profits to salesmen exhibiting the machines to large audiences.
Despite the rhetoric, the basic technology was not really new. Chicago inventor Leon F. Douglass had manufactured 5-inch cylinders months before the release of the Graphophone Grand. In fact, Edison had been waiting on a patent related to the format since the early 1890’s, but Columbia beat him to the market with a consumer model. In the extremely litigious world of the 1890’s recording industry, suits and injunctions started to fly. Boldly — considering that their claim was weaker than Edison’s — Columbia started by suing a Horace Sheble and Ellsworth Hawthorn of Philadelphia for manufacturing an unauthorized machine. Such action gave the company, in the words of historian Roland Gelatt, “the reputation of racing into court at the slightest provocation.” Gelatt notes that there were those in the 1890’s who felt that the company’s chief asset was attorney Philip Mauro, who had secured many valuable patents for the company.
Some of the most impressive developments related to the new, large-cylinder format were those made by previously mentioned Leon Douglass while making the new player that he dubbed The Polyphone. Douglass, like the developers of the Graphophone Grand, was interested in loudness and fidelity of the cylinder player. At the time all cylinder players created sound using a needle connected to a reproducer which, in turn was connected to a large amplifying horn. The needle vibrated in sympathy with indentations in the groove of the cylinder and conveyed those vibrations to the reproducer, what Victor later called the soundbox, which created the sound. The faint, tinny sound from the reproducer was amplified and given a more natural, bass-rich sound by the player’s horn.
Relying on simple, additive principles, Douglass contrived to have two needles ride, one following the other, in the groove of a single cylinder. Each stylus was connected to its own reproducer and horn. If one horn created loudness X, then two horns would create loudness 2X. Since one needle followed the other at a distance of x, there was a slight delay. In fact the delay was what is now known as “reverb” and effect used half a century later and requiring a large room or “echo chamber.” Later methods of creating reverb and other delay effects relied on electronic circuitry. Such effects became widespread in the 1950’s and later. In any case, Douglass’s feat of creating reverb by completely mechanical means on a cylinder recording is remarkable.
Douglass, in fact, went slightly berserk with the idea of recording and playback with multiple horns. According to The Phonogram, Dougalss claimed that in the lab he had added first 10 and then 25 horns to a single cylinder. He claimed that with 25 horns, he had amplified the sound by a factor of two over the original sound projected into the recording horn. Like, reverb, this degree of amplification only became widely available in recording studios decades later and then required the use of electrical circuitry. At this time he also, perhaps most incredibly, managed to make a multi-track recording using cylinder technology. For this he used four recording horns connected to cutters each etching adjacent sections of the same cylinder. By this method the bass, baritone, tenor, second tenor of a vocal quartet could all be recorded simultaneously. Recording studios wouldn’t be using multi-tracking for commercial records until the advent of magnetic tape in the late 1940s and 1950s.
Douglass continued working in the record business and continued inventing. His later inventions included a magnetic torpedo used in World War II, a device using a camera and periscope for underwater photography, improvements for color motion pictures. He remained on the cutting edge until his death in 1940. At the time of his death he was reportedly working on the topic of communication between planets!
The fate of the Graphophone Grand and the Edison Concert Record was not rosy at the turn of the century, however. Columbia increasingly bent its efforts to marketing a disk recording. While Edison stuck with the format in the early years of the new century, consumers seem to have found the format cumbersome. Edison also introduced new more durable cylinders made by what they termed the moulded process, and these were as loud as the Concert Record at the more convenient size. By April 1905 the company’s in-house magazine, The Edison Phon0graph Monthly announced that the new cylinders had “driven the large concert Records out of the market” (p. 12). They continued to offer the recordings as special orders and they also introduced an eight-dollar attachment that could convert the larger concert machines so they could use the smaller cylinders.
Soon disc recordings were outselling cylinders by a large margin, and this interesting and fascinating chapter in the history of the early recording industry was over.