Edison Brown Wax Cylinder Records

Thomas Edison invented the phonograph in 1877 but didn't work on developing it into an entertainment medium for over a decade. 1878 saw a brief effort to market a tinfoil model people could record themselves on, the same kind Edison used to discover sound recording. When he invented the light bulb soon after he turned his full attention to it. Abandoning other projects was even part of the terms of contract with the Edison Electric Light Company. However, others took up the cause in the 1880s like Chichester Bell and Charles Sumner Tainter in their Volta Laboratory. The American Graphophone Company was another, inspired by Volta and eventually merging with it to later become Columbia Records. There was also Emile Berliner who developed the novel medium of disc records. Thomas Edison re-entered the industry in 1886 and formed The Edison Phonograph Company the following year. However, it and other cylinder companies quickly became part of the monopolistic North American Phonograph Company of investor Jesse H. Lippincott until 1894.

Mass-producing cylinders for the home market quickly proved challenging. Each record was an original but a group of recording phonographs, up to ten or twelve, would surround the artist(s) in order to get that many finished cylinders. Artist(s) would have to perform again and again "in the round" until enough records were produced for public demand. Oftentimes, later dates in the studio for the same selection would be need if inventory sold out. A duplicating process known as pantographing was soon developed where each of those original ten or twelve cylinders could be placed on a machine with a blank on a second mandrel and transferred with two connected styli. The originals could be played at least a few dozen times, sometimes up to 100 or 200 as materials and tech improved. However, they still wore out quickly and later copies came out weaker and sometimes were even sold at a discount because of it. Artist(s) still had to re-record popular titles when masters wore out. This and a lack of detailed studio logs for all these sessions are why precise recording dates can't be ascribed to most all Brown Wax cylinder recordings.

Lippincott's enterprise went bankrupt in 1894 and Thomas Edison re-entered the market in 1896 by forming the National Phonograph Company. Entertainment cylinders were offered starting in 1897. By the end of the year, an electroplating process was introduced that allowed for molded copies of the original "in the round" masters to be made and used as pantograph masters. Soon after, giant five-inch cylinders were used as masters in order to reduce loss-of-quality in dubbing to the final product. However, even these giants were marketed to the public for a short time as "Concert Cylinders" for their louder volume and higher fidelity. By 1902, Edison perfected a process to produce molded cylinders, called Gold Moulded Records, as a finished product for the public. The sale of Brown Wax cylinders was immediately halted and remaining titles in the catalog were deleted on July 25, 1902.

The earliest Brown Wax cylinders were nearly white, getting darker over time. However, coloring wasn't always consistent. The term "Brown Wax" itself is a misnomer. They were actually made of saponified tallow and other ingredients. They are still very soft and delicate though, not tolerating a great number of plays before wear becomes apparent. Modern play with an inappropriate machine and/or reproducer can easily be deadly for them. They are also susceptible to white mold growth in humid conditions. Tiny spots or large swaths can appear. Fingerprints from improper handling can also start growth. Yet, most growth nowadays is dead and inactive so its best to leave it because removal will leave even noisier pits from the material it has eaten.

Brown Wax cylinders set standards that lasted several generations beyond their own time. They are 4-3/16 inches long and 2-1/8 inches wide with a tapered interior that holds the cylinder on the mandrel. Their speeds range from about 125 RPM for early issues (Columbias could be 120 RPM) to 144 RPM for later ones. Final Brown Waxers can be 160 RPM, matching a new standard set for the Gold Moulded line in 1902. Finally, Brown Wax cylinders have no information printed or written on them, titles or otherwise. This is why spoken introductions are given at the beginning of most all wax cylinders, a practice that continued even on physically-labelled Gold Moulded Records. The cylinder box and a paper insert can also be useful to identify selections, but oftentimes the insert is lost and the box doesn't have the title written on it.

Encoded Speed: 192 Kbps

Stephanie - Gavotte
Edison Grand Concert Band
Edison Brown Wax #89
Note: Played at 140 RPM.
Here's a version with reduced highs.

Massa's in the Cold, Cold Ground
W. Paris Chambers (cornet) (w/ piano)
Edison Brown Wax #2422
Note: Played at 132 RPM. Some tiny spots of light mold. They sound bigger than they are though.

When the Leaves Came Drifting Down
A. D. Madeira and Byron G. Harlan (w/ piano)
Edison Brown Wax #7382
November/December 1899-1902
Note: Played at 160 RPM, thus likely much closer to 1902. Worn, but not too bad. Old fingerprints at the beginning and end of the cylinder affect the sound. Volume drop from 0:41-0:47.

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