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Norman Bruderhofer's
Cylinder Guide

Brown Wax Cylinders

Edison brown wax cylinder, 1899

Brown wax cylinder represent the 'archetype' of an Edison wax cylinder and were first made in 1888. However, the first wax cylinders are not to be credited to Edison but are based on the development by Chichester Bell and Charles Sumner Tainter, financed by Alexander Graham Bell. 1884 was the fateful year where both developers came to the idea of using a wax composition instead of the common tinfoil as introduced by Edison. Their phonograph was called Graphophone, a simple wordplay. 1886, Bell and Tainter were able to present a working dictation phonograph that was recording its contents on a cardboard cylinder covered with thin layer of wax. Like Edison, their major intention was also for the use of taking dictation, not music. Bell and Tainter's efforts to start cooperation with Edison were doomed from the first day when he vigorously refused to do any business "with Alexander Graham Bell and his pirates." After 10 years of negligence, Edison finally realized that in case of further inactivity he was going to loose "his baby".
That was his major reason for starting his own researches. In 1888, after an assumed shift of 72 hours, Edison finished the first working prototype of his so called "Perfect Phonograph" which - in no way accidentally - also used a wax cylinder. Unlike the cylinders by Bell and Tainter, Edison's cylinders consisted completely of wax and were quite thicker. This ingenious design allowed shaving off a thin layer and reusing the wax cylinder for multiple times. Because of mutual patent claims between Bell and Edison, it mostly remained as a cold economic war, which was mainly carried out by competitive phonographs and records. Edison's format finally achieved broadly acceptance of the vast majority and the Graphophones, then also using Edison format cylinders, gained an important percentage in home and parlor entertainment.

A predominant amount of the commercial recordings made up the mid-1890's was recorded directly, i.e. the customer normally received an original recording. During the early years, technicians already searched for practical ways of duplication to gain profits as performers were paid for each session - regardless of the amount of recordings they made. A hugely organized industry of a cost-intensive collecting society did not exist yet. The first duplicates were made by connecting a playing phonograph with a recording one by the use of a rubber tube. The result was anything but satisfying; however still good enough to be sold.
The more practical solution was found in pantographic duplication machines, which recorded a blank more directly from the original cylinder. This method improved the sound quality significantly. With some further adjustment it was now even possible have some little amplification, of course, only done mechanically. Using a pantograph, about 100 copies of merchantable quality could be made from a single master cylinder. The invention of electric sound amplifiers was still decades away.

Brown wax cylinder made by the Columbia Phonograph Company, 1899

Brown wax cylinders were commercially discontinued by Edison in 1902 with the introduction of the new Gold Moulded Record (also just called Moulded Record or later Standard Record). The last commercially recorded brown wax cylinders were likely made in Europe by small labels until about 1906. An exact dating of such cylinders is therefore only possible with the availability of discographies or other references. Furthermore it is known that some companies sold their pantographic duplicates as originals too, a true misleading advertising. Columbia was one of the fewer companies that also sold brown wax cylinders made by the moulding process (1902-1904), but soon they changed to a harder black wax formula too.

Edison Studio Pantograph, ca. 1899
Edison Studio Pantograph, ca. 1899
Here shown for testing purposes only with a 1907 gold moulded cylinder
that is transferred to a new blank brown wax cylinder.

Listen here to an example in stereo, left channel copy, right channel original:

In 1898, Columbia introduced a new luxury format of cylinders with a diameter of 5". These so called Grand Graphophone cylinders required a compatible phonograph with a larger mandrel and did only provide the same playing time of 2-3 minutes - just like a standard cylinder, related to the recording speed. Because of the higher surface speed, the volume and clarity was improved and Edison stepped into this business just one year later with his identical Concert cylinders. However, this format could not achieve a wide customer acceptance as the price was over twice as much as regular cylinder record did cost plus a quite cumbersome handling. With the introduction of the Gold Moulded cylinders in 1902, the separate production of these oversized cylinders was discontinued. Also other brands such as Lambert, Pathé (France) and Edison-Bell (England) made concert cylinders for a few years but were also quite unsuccessful. In 1909 owners of concert phonographs could still order current titles, which were then custom made by the old pantographic process, of course, without any quality advantages.

Typo: "Graphaphone"
"Graphaphone" instead of "Graphophone":
This typo remained undiscovered for several
years on Columbia's cylinder boxes.

Playing and handling

Brown wax cylinders are extremely sensitive and fragile. Because of the direct recording manufacture, the wax is softer than those of the later black wax cylinders. With the use of any old acoustic phonograph, these cylinders should be played more than necessary as they tend to wear relatively fast and the noise/signal ratio will change for the worse. Therefore, the recording will become quieter with every (acoustic) playback. Many of these early cylinders were already recorded at low volume and will play accordingly. Digitization with the help of low-weight modern pickup systems can be very helpful in this case.

However, any acoustic playback of wax cylinders at a temperature exceeding 25°C (77 °F) should be absolutely avoided as wear may increase significantly.

Acoustic playback with an Edison phonograph must be only accomplished with a suitable reproducer. In general, brown wax cylinders can be played with any intact Automatic or Model B (not to be mixed up with the much later Diamond B!) reproducer. Later reproducers as the far more common Model C carry an unsuitable doorknob stylus and should not used with brown wax like Model K, H and O. Be sure to always have the correct reproducer selected as the wrong model may cause irreversible damage to the cylinder!

Because of the long time span of brown wax production, virtually any playback speed can be found which usually varies between 90 and 185 rpm. In most cases, the desired speed will be found between 120-160 rpm. Although several standard speeds existed (120, 125, 140, 144 and 160 rpm), it is not uncommon to find any other possible speed. For a proper speed adjustment, a good hearing and tonal comparison will be necessary. This may easily result in odd speeds such as 136 rpm.

Mold on a brown wax cylinderSevere destruction by mold is a well-known problem than can affect all kinds of wax cylinders. Mold growth is often caused by humid conditions like microscopic amounts of cached water inside a cylinder box, caused by ordinary "basement/barn/attic climate". The destructive effect is then done by the fungus, which eats the wax, usually starting at the surface where groove was cut. The remains can be easily called a microscopic lunar landscape. During playback one can hear a distinctive, scratchy and hissing noise. Normally the mold is already dead and cannot be reactivated. However, spores tend to be always in the air and therefore, a cylinder should be given enough ventilation during storage. This can be easily accomplished by not closing the box with a lid. Just leave it loose on the top. Alternatively, a tight-closed closed can be used together with a small package of silica gel to avoid growing humidity. Mold affection can be easily determined by visual inspection. Usually, it appears as white or light-brown spots of various sizes. Heavy mold affection can also include the full surface of a wax cylinder. Cylinder storage at normal living room climate is generally not a problem. For very special cylinder records, acid-free archival storage boxes are available. Bear in mind that these archival boxes are under no circumstances appropriate for transportation or any kind of shipping.

Rapid temperature changes must be avoided at any case; otherwise it may cause hairline cracks and an economically total loss of a record. Never touch the groove surface of any wax cylinders as even invisible fingerprints can react with the wax composition over months and will cause disturbing spots (not to be mixed up with mold). These spots cannot be removed.

© 1998-2020 by Norman Bruderhofer