Thomas Alva Edison was indisputably the inventor of the phonograph, and the first major manufacturer of these machines. His wax cylinder machines found their way into hundreds of thousands of homes, and entertained millions.
Less well known is Edison's bungling attempts to follow up on the success of the cylinder phonograph. Although acoustically superior to Berliner's disc-playing gramophone, the cylinder machines began losing ground to discs in 1901 and were almost moribund after the first world war. When Edison finally relented, he didn't follow the rest of the pack.
The below are excerpted from *The Fabulous Phonograph* by Roland Gelatt:
"The great wartime phonograph boom came along just in time to accelerate the fortunes of Edison's new Disc Phonograph. It had been officially unveiled in October 1913, when the cylinder was failing fast as a viable article of commerce; and it was pubicised with all the elan that Edison's ingenious advertising department could muster."
((( All of the records you are likely familiar with, be they shellac 78, 45 singles or 33 /13 RPM vinyl LPs, have laterally cut grooves. Vertical cuts were a holdover from cylinders, but actually offered better sound == SEJ))) "The combination of vertical-cut recording, individually ground diamond styli, and Edison's usual high standards of construction acted to make these instruments superior acoustically to any competing talking machine...."
"Highly paid singers were put under contract: Emmy Destinn, Frieda Hempel, (((etc.))). But Edison was incapable of utilizing this talent to anyone's satisfaction but his own. He was constantly interfering with the choice of repertoire and would stubbornly refuse to issue recordings that bore the approval of both his own recording directors and the artists themselves."
(((Due to their popularity in Europe, and Edison's own output, American phonograph manufacturers of the Teens produced machines with adaptors that allowed them to play both lateral and vertical cut discs. These faded away as the superior marketing and star-power of Columbia and other major labels overwhelmed the market. -- SEJ)))
"In 1925 electrical recording had delivered the final blow to Edison's vertical-cut cylinders and discs. (((Even when played back on an acoustic machine, electrically mastered discs captured a greater range of sound and allowed musicians to play naturally, rather than directing their efforts at a recording horn. -- SEJ)))
"At first the Edison publicists had tried to maintain that electrical recording figured in the mysterious Edison 'secret process'(...) but despite the insinuations (...) the records continued to be recorded mechanically. To offset this drawback, the Edison company launched a long-playing record in 1926 that would give up to twenty minutes of uninterrupted entertainment per side.
"But no one at Thomas A. Edison, Inc. bothered to unfold the possibilities. Complete symphonies, entire operas were not found among the long-playing records issued. Instead there appeared a collection of dinner music played by the Hotel Commodore Ensemble and some operatic overtures played by Sodero's Band and the American Symphony Orchestra. Not one Edison 'Long Playing Record' contained a piece of music lasting longer than the standard four minutes."
(((Edison introduced a few electrically recorded, standard lateral-cut records in the summer of 1929. Ten weeks later, on November 1st, the company announced that it was discontinuing product of both phonographs and records, including its "Blue Amberol" plastic cylinder recordings, which continued to sell steadily in a few parts of the South, decades after the rest of the country had relegated them to attics and junkheaps.)))
(((While Columbia and Berliner shellac records remain accessible to this day, thanks to the still-honored practice of putting a 78 rpm setting on turntables, Edison's vertical cut disks are utterly unplayable without one of the specialized machines designed to accommodate them. They are truly dead media.)))
Stefan Jones (SeJ@aol.com)