The History of the Edison Disc Phonograph

Photograph of Thomas A. Edison listening to the New Edison Diamond Disc Phonograph. Advertisement in The Gramophone, December 1923.
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Cylinders peaked in popularity around 1905. After this, discs and disc players, most notably the Victrolas, began to dominate the market. Columbia Records, an Edison competitor, had stopped marketing cylinders in 1912. The Edison Company had been fully devoted to cylinder phonographs, but, concerned with discs' rising popularity, Edison associates began developing their own disc player and discs in secret. Dr. Jonas Aylsworth, chief chemist for Edison, and later after his retirement in 1903, a consultant for the company, took charge of developing a plastic material for the discs. The aim was to produce a superior-sounding disc that would outperform the rivals' shellac records, which were prone to wear and warping. Another difference from competitors' discs was that the vertical-cut method was to be used for the grooves. In this manner, the stylus would bob up and down in the groove, rather than from side to side or laterally. Ten-inch records would run for 5 minutes per side at approximately 80 r.p.m.

Although Edison associates initially worked on the project in secret, when Edison discovered it, he took control of this new project and gave it much of his personal attention.

Aylsworth molded phenol and formaldehyde mixed with wood-flour and a solvent into a heat-resistant disc. This material always remained absolutely plane (flat), which was essential as it formed the core of the disc record. A phenolic resin varnish called Condensite was applied to the core, and then the disc was stamped in the record press. The finished 10" disc weighed ten ounces, heavier than most, partially due to the 1/4" thickness of the record. A diamond point was obtained for the stylus. The Disc Phonograph and the Edison Discs were designed to be an entire system, incompatible with other discs or disc players.

The new Edison Disc Phonograph was shown for the first time publicly at the Fifth Annual Convention for the National Association of Talking Machine Jobbers at Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on July 10-13th, 1911. The press reported that the new machine was based on Edison's British 1878 patent in order to deter claims of copyright infringement with Victor or Berliner. The new machine was also mentioned in the Edison Phonograph Monthly in July of 1911, but it was over a year before disc players or discs would be offered for sale.

By the end of 1912, three basic models of the Edison Disc Phonograph had been designed, ranging in price from $150 to $250, and the company salesmen took them around the country. Soon after, the choice of models was extended to feature less expensive players and luxury machines in stylish wood cabinets. Prices for the discs ranged from $1.15 to $4.25, but later were changed to $1.35 to $2.25. The discs were expensive to make because of the complicated chemical processes used for them.
Albert Spalding; cover, Edison Diamond Points, May 1916.
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Initial public reaction was not encouraging for several reasons. The Edison cabinets were deemed to be less attractive than the Victrolas, and customers were required to buy Edison discs only for Edison players, since they were not compatible with other players. The laminated surface of the discs also had a tendency to detach from the core material, and surface noise was frequently apparent, which contradicted the aim of perfection that the company was trying to achieve with its recordings. Still, the phonographs and discs were touted as being acoustically better than those of the competitors. In order to bolster claims of superiority, Edison claimed that his records could be played 1,000 times without wear.

Recitals were also conducted to prove the merit of the discs. Edison recording artists would sing along with a disc recording of their voices, daring the audience to be able to tell the difference. In late 1915, Edison began its famous Tone Tests, which featured artists alternating their live performance on a darkened stage with that on the disc in front of large audiences, challenging them to detect a difference. Reaction was positive to these tests, and reinforced the Edison motto that the discs were "re-creations" of performances, not merely recordings of them.

Additional advertising for the Diamond Disc was secured through promotion of the Edison film The Voice of the Violin, made in 1915, which featured a Tone Test by Anna Case. (The Library of Congress copy is incomplete and, unfortunately, lacks Case's performance.)
Photographs of the Sheraton cabinet Disc Phonograph ($1000), the French Gothic Cabinet Disc Phonograph ($4000), Small French Gothic Cabinet Disc Phonograph featured in Edison Diamond Points, Jan. 1917, pgs. 16, 17 and 19.
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On the disc label, sides were indicated by "L" and "R", referring to the left side or the right side when stored vertically. The early disc issues contained the Edison trademark, Edison's image, the title of the selection, and the composer, all pressed into the glossy black surface of the disc using a half-tone electrotype. The early issues did not carry the artists' names, reflecting Edison's policy of not seeking out name acts, but supposedly relying on the quality of the music alone. In 1915, the artists' names began to be added to the labels. In 1921, black paper labels with white Roman type began to be used, and were changed at the end of 1923 to white labels.

By 1916, demand increased for console cabinets to house the disc players. The Edison Company produced a series of period models to compete with those of the Victor Company. The designer for the cabinets was H.D. Newson from the W.A. French Furniture Company of Minneapolis. Named "The Art Models," these cabinets came in English, French, and Italian period styles, as well as Gothic styles. Prices ranged from $1,000 to $6,000. Advertising for these models made it clear that the players themselves were the same as lower-priced models; the inflated cost was for the cabinet.

In 1917 when the U.S. became involved in World War I, the Edison Company created the Army and Navy Model in answer to a request for machines from the United States Army Depot Quartermaster in New York. The simple, basic machine sold for $60. The Department of War never purchased any, but individual units bought them, some taking them overseas. The Army and Navy Model was discontinued after the war's end.

By 1917, the Disc Phonograph had garnered considerable success in the marketplace. This good fortune continued for almost seven years. In contrast, the cylinder phonograph business declined; by 1925, the remaining cylinder customers had to order directly from the factory. By 1920, Edison was the only disc company not using steel needles or the lateral method of grooves.
Advertisement for the Army and Navy Model New Edison Phonograph, Edison Diamond Points, Aug. 1917, p. 19.
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By 1924, business began to sour with the advent of competition from radio. Operations were cut back, and experimentation began with long-playing records. These were introduced in October 1926 along with four new console disc phonographs. As a concession to the marketplace, attachments were also offered so that the Edison phonographs could play the laterally-cut records of competitors.

By the latter half of the 20s, the company started to diversify its interests in an attempt to stay viable. Thoughts of moving pictures with sound led the company to develop an Ediscope which featured still pictures with narration. This was envisioned as being appropriate for the children's market, since it could be used for fairy tales and educational nature talks. Work was also begun on the Cine-Music Phonograph, which was conceived to supply musical accompaniment to motion pictures.

Edison entered into the radio business in 1928 by taking over the Splitdorf-Bethlehem Electrical Company of Newark, a move which allowed him to produce radio-phonographs. The Edison Company further expanded into the field of radio by making programs for radio on long-playing discs. Radio station WAAM of Newark, New Jersey, agreed to use the new Rayediphonic Reproducing Machine and Radiosonic records in 1929, with the first Radiosonic broadcast being aired on April 4. It appeared that the company had finally found a profitable outlet.

In the summer of 1929, the Edison company gave in to the popular trend and introduced the Edison Portable Disc Phonograph with New Edison Needle Records, offering both the Diamond Discs and the new needle records simultaneously.

These changes did not measurably improve business, and on October 21, orders were given to close the Edison disc business, with the company stating that it would focus on the manufacture of its radio-phonographs in the future.


Information for this section was culled from the following sources:

Frow, George L. The Edison Disc Phonographs and the Diamond Discs: A History with Illustrations. Kent, U.K.: Flo-Print, 1982.

Gelatt, Roland. The Fabulous Phonograph: From Tin Foil to High Fidelity. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1955.

Marco, Guy A., ed. Encyclopedia of Recorded Sound in the United States. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1993.

Read, Oliver, and Walter L. Welch. From Tin Foil to Stereo: Evolution of the Phonograph. Indianapolis: Howard W. Sams & Co., Inc., 1959.

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