The Story of Sound part 2: “Canned music” and a war of formats

In the first part of the Story of Sound blog series, we travelled back in time to the late 1800s to discover who the first inventor was to create a machine which both recorded and played back sound, what the first recorded words were, and what common kitchen item was used as a component for the first ‘talking machine’. Find this blog post here

After Thomas Edison successfully developed the Phonograph in 1877, a machine which could both record and play back audio, he moved his attentions away to other areas of invention. However, his progress in the advances of recording sound did not go unnoticed, with other inventors picked up the baton including Alexander Graham Bell and Charles Tainter. The Phonograph, despite its success in both capturing and playing back audio, had its limitations. The design incorporated a recording cylinder covered in soft tin foil, onto which a stylus would imprint grooves as determined by the vibrations of the sound. However, the tin foil was frail, resulting in a poor sound quality when the audio was played back. Bell and Tainter resolved this by replacing the foil coating with wax. Their improvements to Edison’s design resulted in the development of their own machine, called the Graphophone. The potential held within these early machines ignited a competitive market, and, having successfully invented the first electric light bulb in 1887, Edison quickly rejoined the race to produce the most successful recording machine.

A wax cylinder recording preserved at the British Library


Wax Cylinders:

Edison utilised the idea of using wax cylinders, improving his Phonograph to produce better quality, more durable recordings. While the earliest cylinders were made from a blend of plant and animal waxes, the variability of these meant that they were soon replaced by a standardised alternative made from a metallic soap composite. Although not technically made of wax, this gave the cylinders a brown waxy coating that they needed and were known for. 

 To begin with, cylinder recordings had to be made in real time, and the only method for creating multiple copies was to re-record a performance again and again. This was impractical, and eventually a moulding process was developed to allow for mass production. The turn of the 20th century saw a boom in wax cylinder manufacturing. During their hey day, standard cylinders were approximately 10 cm (4 inches) in length and 5.7 cm (2 1/4 inches) in diameter. They played for around 2 minutes, and could be replayed up to 100 times. Cylinders were sold in cardboard tubes, with cardboard caps on each end, one of which was a removable lid. Both the shape and the packaging earned recordings which were made on wax cylinders the nick name of ‘canned music’. ‘Canned music’ later became a term associated with film and theatre, when pre-recorded ‘canned music’ was used instead of live musical performances, out of which grew the technique that is today referred to as lip syncing. In the 1930’s, the term ‘canned music’ was used by the American Federation of Musicians who formed a new organisation called the Music Defence League, waging a war on the idea of pre-recorded music taking the place of live artists in theatre and film.

Thomas Edison’s wax cylinders dominated the early market for commercially released recordings, with additional ‘wax blanks’ also available for home recordings. These were claimed to be reusable up to 100 times, each new recording made by physically shaving off the indented grooves of the previous, before re-recording. 

A War of formats

Wax cylinders saw their greatest popularity approximately between the years 1896 and 1915. However, despite initially dominating the market with low costs, an alternative and competitive format would soon see a much greater and long lasting success. 

 In 1887 a German American inventor called Emile Berliner became the first person to stop recording upon cylinders. Instead of etching a groove around a cylindrical shape to record the sound, a spiral groove was instead etched into a flat disc. The sound was played back by placing the disc upon Berliner’s machine, the Gramophone, which rotated the disc and used a needle upon an ‘arm’ placed in the discs grooves to transmit the sound. 

The earliest discs were made from glass or metal, and eventually shifted to plastic. Initially the sound quality of disc recordings was tinnier then that of cylinders, and the discs were easily damaged after multiple playbacks. However, the format was rapidly improving, and by the 1920s, discs overtook cylinders once and for all, with even Thomas Edison marketing his own version of Berliner’s product. Discs had become cheaper and more simple to produce, they were easily stacked and stored, and the ability to record upon both sides gave discs much more capacity than wax cylinders. 

Although we do not have any wax cylinder recordings within our sound archives at Norfolk Record Office, our Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project partner, The British Library, has some examples of this forgotten format which saw the birth of sound recording and spurred inventors like Berliner to advance the market. 

Examples of wax cylinder containers, preserved at the British Library
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2 Responses to The Story of Sound part 2: “Canned music” and a war of formats

  1. Pingback: Story of Sound Part 3: Shellac to vinyl, how World War Two changed the record | Norfolk Record Office

  2. Pingback: The Story of Sound part 4: Wire, War-time secrets, and Walkman’s | Norfolk Record Office

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