Updated: Mar 22, 2022
By Tyler Stemerman Photos Courtesy of Thomas Edison National Historical Park
The ability to record and then listen to sound has been around for less than two hundred years. New advances in technology occur every year. Compact discs were the standard for playing music up until almost 20 years ago and could be used in cars or home stereos, but each disc could only hold about 80 minutes of audio. In the present day, our phones can store hundreds of hours of music and stream from various music-sharing apps. Sound recording is often taken for granted, because it is accessible on even simple devices.
The first recording device’s capabilities, however, was far more limited and primitive; it was called a phonograph. It used what is called a “wax cylinder,” and its invention led to the ultimate development of the processes we use today to listen to recorded sound. While Edison is often remembered for his invention of the light-bulb, he also created the first device capable of playing back sound. In Menlo Park, New Jersey, Edison was working on a new invention that would allow people to record telephone communications when he discovered another way to record sound. By using a stylus on a hand-cranked, tinfoil-covered cylinder, Edison was able to record himself singing, “Mary Had A Little Lamb”, and then play it back. The stylus would make grooves on the tinfoil caused by the vibrations of the singer’s or speaker’s voice, creating a recording which could then be played back and heard by the same means. Once this process worked, Edison showed the public his new device. He quickly became known by the nickname “Wizard of Menlo Park”. Edison filed for a patent for his phonograph on December 24, 1877 and only worked on it very briefly after the patent was approved, choosing instead to continue his work refining his other invention, the light-bulb.
The development of the phonograph would have languished, but Alexander Graham Bell (who had recently received his patent for the first practical telephone) advanced the technology. He used the money awarded by the French Government (the Volta Prize) to continue his research in acoustical and electrical research. Bell, along with his cousin and a colleague, devised an improvement upon Edison’s tinfoil cylinder by replacing the tinfoil with wax. This made the phonograph more efficient because the wax was more durable; the tinfoil cylinders would break after a couple of plays. Thomas Edison was aware of Alexander Graham Bell’s work, and once Edison had invented the light-bulb, he returned to his work on the phonograph, now utilizing wax cylinders.
It was initially unclear how to market the invention. Even though Edison first recorded himself singing, his original intention was not to record music. Rather, he thought it’s best use was for dictating business information. This idea failed, in part, because offices employed stenographers who reacted negatively to the device’s introduction. Edison also toyed with the idea of adding wax cylinders and phonograph players inside dolls to allow them to speak, as well as creating musical cylinders for coin-slot phonographs, precursors of the jukebox.
Ultimately, in the 1890s, Edison started selling his phonographs and wax cylinders for pure entertainment. The cylinders contained recordings of songs - and even comedic dialogue. The popularity of the phonograph was growing, but the early cylinders could only record two or three minutes of audio.
Another issue Edison tackled was how to mass produce the cylinders. At the time, performers making a record were required to repeat their performance multiple times in order to make copies. In 1901, Edison found the solution. By using a harder wax and molding the cylinders instead of engraving them with a stylus, he was able to create 120-150 copies of a single recording in one day. Unfortunately, by that time, the round phonograph (or gramophone) had made made its appearance - essentially doubling the recording time available. Edison nevertheless was determined to keep the cylinder alive. Because of the alluring appeal of the new phonograph records, the wax cylinder was obsolete by the Jazz Age.
Although record players and vinyl were eventually replaced by the 8-track tape player, cassette recorder, and then the compact disc player (now further eclipsed by iTunes and mp3 players), vinyl is staging a comeback among
audiophiles. Edison’s wax cylinders may be gone, but they are not forgotten! This November, Vermont will celebrate the original technology and innovation with wax cylinder day.