Two Edison cylinder records (on either end) and their cardboard storage cartons (center).
The phonograph was invented by Thomas Edison on 18 July 1877 for recording telephone messages, his first test using waxed paper. In early productions, the recordings were on the outside surface of a strip of tinfoil wrapped around a rotating metal cylinder.
In early productions, the recordings were on the outside surface of a strip of tinfoil wrapped around a rotating metal cylinder. By the 1880s wax cylinders were mass marketed. These had sound recordings in the grooves on the outside of hollow cylinders of slightly soft wax. These cylinders could easily be removed and replaced on the mandrel of the machine which played them. Early cylinder records would commonly wear out after they were played a few dozen times. The buyer could then use a mechanism which left their surface shaved smooth so new recordings could be made on them.
Early cylinder machines of the late 1880s and the 1890s were often sold with recording attachments. The ability to record as well as play back sound was an advantage to cylinder phonographs over the competition from cheaper disc record phonographs which began to be mass marketed at the end of the 1890s, as the disc system machines could be used only to play back pre-recorded sound.
In the earliest stages of phonograph manufacturing various competing incompatible types of cylinder recordings were made. A standard system was decided upon by Edison Records, Columbia Phonograph, and other companies in the late 1880s. The standard cylinders were about 4 inches (10 cm) long, 2¼ inches in diameter, and played about two minutes of music or other sound.
Over the years the type of wax used in cylinders was improved and hardened so that cylinders could be played over 100 times. In 1902 Edison Records launched a line of improved hard wax cylinders marketed as "Edison Gold Moulded Records".
Paper slip from 1902 cylinder
Cylinders were sold in cardboard tubes, with cardboard lids at each end. These containers helped to protect the recordings. These containers and the shape of the cylinders (together with the "tinny" sound of early records compared to live music) prompted bandleader John Philip Sousa to deride the records as canned music (though that did not stop him recording on cylinders). Record companies usually had a generic printed label on the outside of the cylinder package, with no indication of the identity of the individual recording inside. Early on such information would be written on the labels by hand, one at a time. Slightly later, the record number would be stamped on the top lid, then a bit later the title and artist of the recording would be printed on to labels on the lid. Shortly after the start of the 20th century, an abbreviated version of this information (together with the name of the record company) would be printed or impressed on to one edge of the cylinder itself. Previously the actual cylinders had no such visual identification. However they would have a spoken announcement of the song or performance title, recording artist, and record company recorded on to the beginning of the recording.
Small paper inserts with the recording information were placed inside the package with the cylinders. At first this was hand written or typed on each slip, but printed versions became more common once cylinders of certain songs were sold in large enough quantities to make this economically practical. Note that in the example in the image below, from Edison Records, 1902, the consumer is invited to cut out the circle with printed information. This paper circle could then be pasted either to the lid of the cylinder container, or (as this example prompts) to a spindle for this cylinder in specially built cabinets for holding cylinder records which were marketed by record companies. Only a minority of cylinder record customers purchased such cabinets, however.
Portion of the label on the outside of a Columbia Records cylinder package, before 1901. Note the title of the recording is hand written on the label.
Hard plastic cylinders
In 1906 the Indestructible Record Company (hihihi) began mass marketing cylinder records made of celluloid, an early hard plastic, that would not break if dropped and could be played thousands of times without wearing out. This hard inflexible material could not be shaved and recorded over like wax cylinders, but had the advantage of being a nearly permanent record. (Such "Indestructible" style cylinders are arguably the most durable form of sound recording produced in the entire era of analogue audio before the introduction of digital audio; they can withstand a great number more playbacks before wearing out than such later media as the vinyl record or audio tape.)Advantages of discs
Both the disc records and the machines to play them on were cheaper to mass-produce than the products of the cylinder system. Disc records were also easier and cheaper to store in bulk, as they could be stacked, or when in paper sleeves put in rows on shelves like books. In 1908 Columbia Records introduced mass production of disc records with recordings pressed on both sides, which soon became the industry standard. Patrons of disc records could now get two recordings for less than the price of one on cylinder.
Mention should also be made of the superior advertising and promotion done by the disc companies, most notably by the Victor Talking Machine Company in the United States and the Gramophone Company/HMV in the Commonwealth. Great singers like Enrico Caruso were hired to record exclusively, helping put the idea in the public mind that that company's product was superior.
Cylinder records are once again being manufactured but out of modern long lasting materials. The Vulcan Cylinder Record Company of Sheffield, England currently boasts nearly two dozen titles in both 2 and 4 minute sizes, mostly dubs from original material but also some recent acoustic recordings.