Edison Cylinder Records
The earliest method of recording and reproducing sound was on phonograph cylinders. Commonly known simply as "cylinder records".  In their era of greatest popularity 1888 - 1915, these records had an audio recording engraved on the outside surface which could be reproduced when the cylinder was played on a mechanical / acoustical phonograph.  The competing disc-shaped records triumphed in the market place to become the dominant commercial audio medium around 1910.  Commercial mass production of phonograph cylinders ended in around 1929.

Edison Cylinder Records with Cardboard Storage Tubes.

These are Typical and Popular Cylinder Phonograph Players

The phonograph was originally conceived by Thomas Edison on 18 July 1877 for recording telephone messages. In early production versions the recordings were done on the outside surface of a strip of tinfoil wrapped around a rotating metal cylinder.  By the 1880s wax cylinders were mass marketed.  These had sound recordings in the grooves on the outside of hollow cylinders of slightly soft wax. The cylinders could easily be removed and replaced on the mandrel of the machine which played them.  Early cylinder records would commonly wear out after they were played a few dozen times.  The owner of these cylinders could bring the worn cylinders back to the dealer to be traded in as partial credit for purchase of new recordings or have their surface shaved smooth so a new recording could be made on the new surface.  In 1890 Charles Tainter patented the use of hard carnauba wax as a replacement for the common mixture of paraffin and beeswax previously used on phonograph cylinders.

A Street Vendor Selling Cylinder Records.

Early cylinder machines of the late 1880s and the 1890s were often sold with recording attachments.  The ability to record as well as play back sound was an advantage to cylinder phonographs over the competition from cheaper disc record phonographs which began to be mass marketed at the end of the 1890s.

In the earliest stages of phonograph manufacturing various competing incompatible types of cylinder recordings were made, but in the late 1880s a standard system was decided upon by Edison Records, Columbia Phonograph, and other companies.  Cylinder records are about 4 inches long and 2¼ inches in diameter.  The original cylinders could play about 2 minutes of music or spoken word.

It was typical that most recordings would have a verbal introduction of the artist and the program in the first few seconds of playback.  Many of the selections I have here in my collection have such introductions.

Over the years the type of wax used in cylinders was improved and hardened so that cylinders could be played over 100 times. In 1902 Edison Records launched a line of improved hard wax cylinders marketed as "Edison Gold Molded Records".

In 1906 the Indestructible Record Company began mass marketing cylinder records made of celluloid, an early hard plastic, that would not break if dropped and could be played thousands of times without wearing out. This hard inflexible material could not be shaved and recorded over like wax cylinders, but had the advantage of being a nearly permanent record. "Indestructible" style cylinders are arguably the most durable form of sound recording produced in
the entire era of analogue audio before the introduction of digital audio.  They could withstand a great number more playbacks before wearing out than such later media such as vinyl records or even audio tape.

The Edison company then developed their own type of long lasting cylinder, consisting of a type of plastic called "Amberol".  This material was applied to a plaster core which made them extremely durable.  Most of the playable cylinder records around today are of this type.

Around the same time Edison introduced 4 minute cylinders.  These new cylinders had almost twice the playing time of the old standard cylinder.  This was achieved by simply shrinking the groove size and spacing them twice as close together in the spiral around the cylinder. Most, but not all "Amberol" cylinders are of the four-minute variety.

Edison phonographs for playing these improved cylinder records were called Amberolas.

In the era before World War I, phonograph cylinders and disc records competed heavily for public favor.  The audio fidelity of a sound groove was not inherently better if it is engraved on either a disc or a cylinder.

The cylinder system had certain advantages.  Wax cylinders could be used for home recordings, and "indestructible" types could be played over and over many more times than the disc. Cylinders usually rotated at a greater speed than discs, creating a greater surface velocity of the stylus in the groove.  This higher surface velocity had the advantage of improved audio fidelity.  Since constant angular velocity translates into constant linear velocity, the radius of the spiral track is constant.  Cylinders were also free from the inner groove problems suffered by disc recordings.

In 1900 cylinder records were of notably higher audio quality than the competitive disc records of the same era.  However, as disc makers improved their technology and the material used in manufacturing disc records, by 1910 the fidelity differences between the two systems were nominal.

Cylinder phonographs used a worm gear to move the stylus synchronously with the grooves of the recording and disc record players relied on the grooves to pull the stylus along.  This resulted in cylinder records having a much longer life with less media degradation.  However, the mechanism for playing cylinder records was more costly than the disc player counterpart.

Many cylinder phonographs used a belt to turn the mandrel.  Slight slippage of this belt could make the mandrel turn irregularly resulting in pitch fluctuations.  Disc phonographs using a direct system of gears would turn more constantly.  The heavy metal turntable of disc players would act like a flywheel which would minimize speed wobble.

In 1908 Columbia Records introduced mass production of disc records with recordings pressed on both sides, which soon would became the industry standard.  Patrons of disc records could now get two recordings for less than the price of one on cylinder.

Cylinder recordings continued to compete with the growing disc record market into the 1910s.  Disc records would finally win the commercial battle within a decade  Columbia, which had been making both discs and cylinders, switched exclusively to discs and Edison soon started marketing a disc type record of their own.  Edison continued to sell new cylinder records and players through 1929.  The latest of the new cylinders were soon simply dubs of disc records and as such are of lower fidelity than their disc originals.

Cylinder phonograph technology continued to be used for dictaphone recordings for office use well into the early 1950s.  In 1947, Dictaphone replaced wax cylinders with their Dicta Belt technology, which cut a mechanical groove into a plastic belt instead of into a wax cylinder. This was later replaced by magnetic tape recording.

In 1996, the band They Might Be Giants recorded the song "I Can Hear You".  This record was made without electricity on an 1898 Edison wax recording studio phonograph at the Edison National Historic Site in West Orange, New Jersey. Here is a sample of that song.

Preservation of cylinder recordings

Due to the nature of the acoustic recording medium, playback of cylinders can cause degradation of the recording.  Presently, the only professional machine manufactured for the playback of cylinder recordings is the Archeophone Series I player, designed by Henri Chamoux. The Archeophone is presently used by the Edison National Historic Site, Bowling Green State University, Chapel Hill, NC and The Department of Special Collections, Donald C Davidson Library at The University of California, Santa Barbara.

Other "plug-in" mounts incorporating the use of a Stanton MK II magnetic cartridge, have been manufactured from time to time.  Many collectors use these devices to archive their collections of cylinder records.


In an attempt to preserve the historic content of the recordings, cylinders can also be optically read with a digitizing microscope and converted to a digital audio file.  The resulting sound clip can even be better than stylus playback from the original cylinder.  Having an electronic version of the original recordings enables archivists to open access to the recordings to a wider audience. This technique also can also be used on cylinders that are broken or damaged in a way that would make it impossible to play them acoustically.  A google search of "Fadeyev & Haber" will net an interesting read of this unique process.

A Digital Realization of Acoustical Record Groves

There have since been many inventions for the purpose of recording and distributing music and other audio programming.  Today, the MP3 format created by the Fraunhoffer Group in Germany, has become the standard for this purpose.  I have created a select batch of cylinder records on this site that are a good example of the quality and type of entertainment typical for that time in our history.