The Pioneer Era of Recording

(For the latest rundown on all the Vinyl Record Day posts for 2008, click here.)

On this Vinyl Record Day, it’s worth noting that the earliest records weren’t made of vinyl at all. Neither were they flat discs. They were wax cylinders, an improvement over Edison’s original tinfoil recordings of 1877, which could only be played back once. The first commercially available cylinder recordings wouldn’t appear until 1889. They were sold exclusively to “phonograph parlors,” which first appeared in San Francisco and spread across the country in the 1890s. You’d pay a nickel to sit at a desk and choose a recording by speaking into a tube, then you’d listen through a separate tube as an operator in another room played it for you.

At first, each record had to be custom-made, one at a time. In other words, to make five copies of a song required a performer to sing it five different times, although strong-voiced singers could sometimes make decent recordings on multiple machines at once. In 1890, Edison’s North American Phonograph Company hit upon an innovation, playing a single master recording into a series of tubes connected to other phonographs that would make copies of the master. Refinements to the system soon made it possible for record companies to make 150 copies at a time. Still, masters deteriorated quickly, and it was often necessary for performers to sing a song hundreds of times to meet the demand for copies.

In the fall of 1890, Columbia became the first record company to issue a catalog of recordings; it’s at that point the “record industry” can be said to have begun. Phonogram, the first publication devoted to the industry, debuted in January 1891. In 1892, North American began marketing cylinder players for home use. Like all new technologies since, early adopters had to pay high prices—$150, equivalent to over $3,000 today—and the manufacturer struggled to keep up with demand. And like all new technologies since, the price swiftly fell. In 1894, Columbia began selling a $40 home player. By the end of the decade, Edison would introduce a player priced at half that. Phonographs became a necessary accessory in most middle-class homes.

In the middle of all this, an incompatible competing medium entered the field. Emile Berliner, inventor of the microphone, began marketing the gramophone to home users. Instead of cylinders, his invention used flat, wax-coated zinc discs, like the LPs, 45s, and 78s familiar to us now. The first gramophone discs had music on only one side. In 1908, Columbia began advertising double-sided recordings, and buyers preferred getting two songs for the price of one. With that, the cylinder’s popularity began to decline, even as Edison introduced a new generation of “unbreakable” cylinders. (These Blue Amberol cylinders are commonly found in antique stores today.) Columbia stopped producing cylinders in 1912; Edison kept producing them into the 1920s, as they remained popular in rural areas that didn’t have easy access to new technology.

So by 1912, the disc vs. cylinder battle was over. The next major transition was only a few years away. From Edison’s day, recordings had been made acoustically—performers sang or played directly into a recording horn and the captured sound caused a needle to vibrate, cutting grooves into a recording medium. Electric recording was developed in the 1920s, employing microphones, amplifiers, and an electromagnetic cutting stylus. The switch from acoustic to electric recording marks the end of what is known as the Pioneer Era of Recording. Although there would be refinements along the way, the basic principles of electric recording would remain unchanged until the digital era.

Coming tomorrow: Meet a few of the superstars of the Pioneer Era, by any reasonable accounting some of the biggest stars of the 20th century, people who are nevertheless almost entirely forgotten.


3 responses

  1. Quite the good read! An excellent accounting of the early era and I see that even in its ‘infancy’ the battles over mediums.

    Thank you for all your work on this project.

  2. Fascinating! Thanks, JB. Looking forward to the next chapter.

  3. Great post. Edison’s cylinder player is certainly a marvel of engineering. Many thanks for including me in the swarm.


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