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.
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
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.
Edison’s “talking machine” or “phonograph” as it was dubbed – a neologism derived from Greek literally meaning “sound writer” – was the first device capable of recording and playing back sound. Though initially intended for use in office work and language teaching, his phonographs soon became a public attraction. Set up in public spaces and used to play back recorded music on Edison cylinders, these coin-operated machines quickly became a lucrative business.
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.
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 xylophone achieved a very authentic reproduction quality. Numerous popular and classical works were arranged especially for this instrument.
Using this method, only a few cylinders could be used at a time for recording. Originals were duplicated mechanically using a duplicating machine. It wasn’t until 1902 that Edison developed the basis for the mass production of chilled cast iron cylinders with the gold casting process, which were less sensitive and had hardly any ambient noise when played.
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.
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.
Phonographs were now available for retail purchase in a variety of designs and price categories. But even the classic standard phonograph still cost 90 marks in 1901, a purchase that workers earning the average weekly wage of 25 marks could hardly afford.
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).
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.
Competition between the cylinder and the shellac recordThe 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.
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.