The Earliest Wax Cylinders (1887-1894)
Bell buoy / J. W. Myers. North American Phonograph Co [no number]. 1891 or 1892
After Edison's pioneering work in tinfoil recording, his laboratory focused
on the invention of the incandescent light bulb and the development of
the underlying infrastructure that would ultimately support its widespread
adoption. Where Edison left off, Alexander Graham Bell, his cousin Chichester,
and Charles Sumner Tainter filled the void and began tinkering with Edison's
design. By the mid-1880s, their efforts resulted in several key technological
sound recording developments--in particular, the establishment of wax
as the new medium of choice and the design of a cutting stylus that would
etch a groove, as opposed to just making an indentation, as the tinfoil
phonograph had done. These advances, which allowed for a more durable
sound recording of better quality, were crucial for the subsequent development
of the cylinder medium as well as the immediate commercial viability of
the three men's cylinder machine, the Graphophone, initially sold through
the nascent Columbia company. Edison, having initially been approached
as a collaborator, rebuffed the trio, returning instead to improve upon
his original invention by himself. By the time the Graphophone debuted
in 1887, he picked up where the trio's developments left off, determined
to do even better.
Edison's work, as well as his canny marketing abililities, paid off.
By the late 1890s, following several refinements to the wax medium and
the cylinder phonograph machine, as well as protracted legal battles with
Columbia, Edison's brown wax cylinders emerged under the North American
Phonograph Company name. The cylinders established a previously unseen
level of market dominance in regional markets across the country, in competition
against Columbia and Emile Berliner's new disc format. As the legend goes,
Edison believed the cylinder phonograph would be a smash hit with the
business community as a convenient office dictation device. Yet the
success of the musical cylinders quickly convinced Edison otherwise, and
as the cylinder medium evolved, entertainment became the most lucrative
use for early sound recording technology.
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