Thomas Alva Edison and his phonograph for playing Edison cylinders in a press clipping from 1888.
© Stadtmuseum Berlin

Canned music

Now mostly forgotten, an invention by Thomas Alva Edison allowed for the sound of instruments to be recorded and reproduced faithfully for the very first time: the Edison cylinder. This truly revolutionary technology turned Berlin into a media metropolis.

by Anne Franzkowiak

For decades, the record was the leading medium for reproducing sound, speech and music. It was followed by magnetic tape, the tape cassette and the compact disc, or CD for short. The mp3 ushered in a new era of digital media, revolutionising the music market in the 2000’s and ending the need for a playback device other than a PC, “iPod” or smartphone. But in this lineage of evolving media, a technology for reproducing sound, once synonymous with the technological revolution, has mostly fallen into obscurity: the Edison wax cylinder for the phonograph.

The machine sings, speaks and makes music

“Sensational innovation, colossally loud, full-bodied and natural in reproduction”

With descriptions like these, companies in Berlin advertised the ground-breaking “talking machine” around 1900. When it first made its appearance, listening to music at home without any musical skills of one’s own had first become possible just a few years prior thanks to the advent of mechanised musical instruments that used storage media such as wooden cylinders, perforated discs and music rolls. This made it possible to play melodies using a variety of sound sources but by no means to authentically reproduce music.

At the same time that these instruments were being developed, another completely separate field of research was opening up. On 24th December 1877, Thomas Alva Edison filed a patent application for a new, revolutionary technology in Orange, California (USA), which was granted on 19th February. He had succeeded in recording and reproducing the human voice on tin foil.

The rise of the wax cylinder

With the aim of producing a suitable recording medium for Edison’s phonograph, Irish chemist Chichester Alexander Bell and US American technician Charles Sumner Tainter coated a hollow cardboard cylinder with a layer of wax. This resulted in increased sound fidelity and playback quality. They applied for a patent for their invention, known as the “Graphophone”, which was awarded in 1886. Spurred on by this competition, Edison began reworking his invention, which had lain dormant for years. In 1888, he introduced a hollow cylinder made entirely of wax.

Edison Standard phonograph, ca. 1905 (exterior view)
© Stadtmuseum Berlin
This new medium ushered in the era of acoustic recording technology, which gave rise a flourishing global entertainment industry. Sound vibrations entered the diaphragm of the phonograph’s recorder via a horn. A needle then engraved these vibrations into the wax as a continuous vertical groove with a “hill and dale” structure. In contrast, the grooves in shellac records, developed later, used a lateral cut (side-to-side).
A spring motor ensured the steady, rotating movement of the cylinder inserted into the phonograph. The heart of the apparatus was a nickel-plated cylinder shaft onto which the wax cylinder was placed. The cylinder rotated under the sound box, which was guided on a mandrel. To play the recorded soundtrack, a blunt stylus transferred the sound vibrations to the reproducer diaphragm. From there, the sounds were amplified by the horn.
Edison Standard phonograph, ca. 1905 (interior view)
© Stadtmuseum Berlin
Brown soft wax cylinder, Edison blank cylinder and tubes
© Stadtmuseum Berlin
Almost all units could be equipped with a playback sound box and a recorder, which opened up previously unimagined possibilities, even for laypeople. With minimal skill, people could record their songs and speeches onto a cylinder. Fleeting moments could now be captured and preserved for the ages. Departed relatives achieved immortality through their recorded voices, while “phonograms” featuring the latest news or birthday greetings were sent to friends and family. Talking clocks announced the time every quarter of an hour. Medicine, education and scientific research also benefited from this new technology.

Thanks to a material thickness of six millimetres, the soft surfaces of the brown wax cylinders could be shaved down, allowing for multiple reuses. “Edison blank cylinders” cost only one mark and could be reused 15 to 20 times. Special tinctures and devices built into the phonograph were used for shaving. Handling the hardened wax required the utmost care as the cylinders were extremely fragile and sensitive to the mere touch of the hands. Even in the cardboard tubes in which the cylinders were sold and stored, mould growth occurred under unfavourable climatic conditions, such as humidity and temperature fluctuations, which irreparably destroyed the surface of the cylinder.

From sound to cylinder

The first commercial recordings entailed a complicated process for recording artists. First, the piece of music selected had to be adapted to the cylinder’s playing time, which was only two minutes, a task which required an experienced arranger.

Conductors shortened orchestral works and ensured the optimal position of the musicians in the recording room. Recordings were generally made using only one large recording horn, as can be seen in the adjacent image. Not all instruments were equally suitable for sound recording: woodwind and brass instruments achieved a more natural sound through the recording box diaphragm than stringed instruments. Wind instruments such as horns and bassoons were therefore used to play the bass parts in the place of double basses and cellos.
Orchestra recording
Phonographische Zeitschrift, vol. 5, 1904, no. 52, p. 977

The xylophone achieved a very authentic reproduction quality. Numerous popular and classical works were arranged especially for this instrument.

The recording process was particularly awkward for singers, who had to stand just a few centimetres away from the recording horn and sing directly into it. Every mistake meant that the recording had to be repeated. The accompanying photograph of German-American opera singer Carl Jörn (1873-1947) vividly illustrates this elaborate process. The following recording from the opera Cavalleria Rusticana features Carl Jörn.
Singer Carl Jörn
Phonographische Zeitschrift, vol. 5, 1904, no. 40, p. 726

American companies conquer Berlin

The phonograph remained little known in Berlin until the 1890’s, even though scientists working with Werner von Siemens had received a phonograph demonstration in 1889 and Kaiser Wilhelm II and Reich Chancellor Otto von Bismarck had enthusiastically discussed cylinders that same year. Princess Victoria Luise, the youngest member of the imperial family, wouldn’t receive a phonograph for Christmas until 1901.

Advertising leaflet “Edison Phonograph”, 1908
© Stadtmuseum Berlin
It wasn’t until the late 1890’s, once the phonograph had become accessible to laypeople, that Thomas Alva Edison’s National Phonograph Company began selling their products internationally. While Edison’s products were available in Europe through importers, his new European customers wanted a repertoire that corresponded with their local musical tastes. Edison’s sound engineers recorded music during their travels through Europe and sent their recordings to the United States for duplication and export.

In 1904, Edison’s company established a branch in Berlin located at Am Südufer 24/25 (today Friedrich-Krause-Ufer) in Moabit, which was responsible for the entire Northern European market. The complete manufacturing process of the cylinders – from recording to casting to the galvanoplastic production of matrices – took place in a giant factory on Engelufer (today Engeldamm) in Berlin-Mitte.

For those who didn’t have their own phonograph, the Edison automatic phonograph – the world’s first jukebox – was often set up in inns and parlours, where listeners could play a cylinder for the cost of only ten pfennigs – an “epoch-making, profitable business” as one advertisement put it.
Brochure for “Edison Automatic Phonographs”, 1908
© Stadtmuseum Berlin

Berlin, capital of the “talking machine” industry

A pioneer of the “talking machine” era, Albert Költzow operated the Continental Phonograph Co.at Blücherstraße 6 in Kreuzberg from 1890. While the company initially built expensive devices based on the US model intended to be used as fairground sensations, Költzow and technician Wilhelm Bahre would go on to develop the first low-cost devices in Berlin. His “Puck” model deviated from the box-shaped design of American models by placing the complete mechanism on a cast-iron base shaped like a lyre (see image).

Lyre phonograph, around 1902
© Stadtmuseum Berlin
In order to achieve the simplest design for the least amount of money, the mandrel used to guide the sound box was positioned directly at the exit of the horn, so that the groove immediately took over guiding the needle – a technique that was later also used for playing shellac records. Without a mandrel to guide the recorder, these devices were only suitable for playing cylinders. “Elegant, clean and pure in tone”, the Lyra phonograph satisfied the demands of many households for musical entertainment in 1902 and was sold en masse.
Phonographische Zeitschrift, 7. Jg, 1906, Nr. 7, S. 861

A noticeable upswing in the Berlin production of phonographs only began when a large number of smaller and medium-sized factories started to produce devices and sound carriers at the same time. From 1900, this industry was centred in Kreuzberg in the area surrounding Ritterstraße.

Fritz Puppel GmbH shop window, Ritterstraße 43
Phonographische Zeitschrift, vol. 8 1907, no. 21, p. 522
The area offered the idea spatial conditions for machine construction and cylinder production and was also home to the supply industry and wholesale trade. Elaborately designed promotional window displays on the ground floor were aimed at bulk buyers. The production and storage areas were located on the floors above and in the courtyard buildings. A housing estate built in the 1960’s has erased every trace of the former “talking machine quarter”.
Shop window of Anton Nathan, Ritterstraße 79
Phonographische Zeitschrift, vol. 8, 1907, no. 21, p. 523
Advertisement of the company A. Lieban & Comp.
Advertisement of the company A. Lieban & Comp.

Competition between the cylinder and the shellac record

The shop of Adolf Lieban & Co. located at Friedrichsgracht 58 (Berlin-Mitte) advertised artistically crafted and recorded Lieban cylinders of the highest quality from 1901. A professional baritone singer himself, the owner had stage experience and valuable knowledge of vocal technique, which proved useful in his sound recordings. He carefully selected his performers, primarily renowned singers from the stages of Berlin, including his brothers Julius, Adalbert and Siegmund.
In addition to cylinders, Lieban’s factory, the Lyrophon-Werke A. Lieban & Co. GmbH located at Gitschiner Strasse 91, produced new types of records made of the resin-like material shellac under the name Apollo-Records starting in 1905, which would gradually conquer the market. The competition between the cylinder and the record was officially underway, though the cylinder remained in demand and was produced by Berlin companies like Adler Phonograph Comp. (“Gloria Goldguss-Walzen”), General Phonograph Co.(“Echo Goldguss-Walzen”) and the Felix Schellhorn company (“Stentor Guss-Records”).
Cylinder boxes from the collection of the Stadtmuseum Berlin
© Stadtmuseum Berlin

Cylinder boxes from the collection of the Stadtmuseum Berlin

Sales figures for phonographs and cylinders in Berlin remained largely unchanged until 1905, after which point interest in the medium began to wane. With the gramophone rising in popularity, the German company Carl Lindström Gesellschaft mbH discontinued their production of phonographs as early as 1907. From 1903 onwards, the double-sided record with its longer playing time gradually displaced the cylinder from the market, which also had an effect on the sale of phonographs.

Edison wasn’t able to extend cylinder playing time until 1908, when his Amberol cylinders doubled the number of grooves while maintaining the same cylinder length for a playing time of four minutes. He derived the brand name Amberol from the English amber, which referred to the cylinder’s new harder and higher quality wax mixture. To play these cylinders, the phonograph’s sound box had to be laboriously replaced, as a stylus with higher pressure on the fine grooves was needed. From 1909 onwards, units were produced to accommodate both cylinder systems.

But all of Edison’s innovations could not hide the fact that the cylinder’s technical possibilities had been exhausted. Despite good results in terms of sound quality, even Edison’s unbreakable Blue Amberol cylinder, developed in 1912 and made of celluloid, a plastic compound mounted on a moulded plaster core, could not revive the business. Playing time remained limited, which restricted repertoires and made it impossible to play longer classical works in particular.

The potential of the record, on the other hand, was far from exhausted. It was also easier to handle, effortless to store and, above all, simple and inexpensive to reproduce. Even Edison began producing records from 1912, the Diamond Disc, which he developed himself but which failed to catch on. In 1929 Edison stopped producing phonographs and closed his company.