First Investigations

The very first hints that I found in regards to how cylinder recording blanks were made in the old days came in 1978. That was when I started going to the Milwaukee, Wisconsin public library to look through the Official Gazette of the U.S. Patent Office.

At first I went straight to the index volumes and skimmed through them looking for anything about phonographs and cylinders.

The following is a table taken from highlights found there:


Phonographs Records Columbia Year
  May 8   1888
  Apr 12   1889
  Nov 12   1890
  Jun 17   1890
  Oct 18   1892
Oct 27     1896
May 31   July 6 1898
    Jun 13 1899 (celluloid)
Jun 26     1900
Sep 25     1900
Aug 7     1900
Dec 31 Feb 5, Oct 1 Sep 17 1901
  Nov 11, 18 Nov 25 1902
Nov 17   Mar 10 1903
  Jul 5, Aug 9   1904
Aug 29, Oct 3 Feb 14, May 23   1905
  Feb 27, Apr 17, Jul 31   1906
  Jun 4   1907
  Mar 23   1908
  Jul 12, #964221   1910
  Sep 29   1914
  Dec 4   1917


The rough categories of "phonographs", "records" and "Columbia" were easy ones to see quickly. With this list, then the individual patents were looked up by date.

The first hint of the materials was seen in Patent 430,274 from June 17, 1890. It lists: "Made of metallic soap, lead soap, mixture of oleate and stearate of lead" "Plaster paris base"

Then, from Oct. 18, 1892: "The process of duplicating phonograms carrying a phonographic record, consisting first of indenting the original record upon a phonogram; 2nd, constructing a matrix or mold of such original record by depositing thereon a coating of metal by vaporizing metal in a vacuum in which the record is placed, and 3rd, producing duplicate phonograms from such matrix, substantially as set forth" --This paragraph is not for making blanks but it describes the Gold Moulded process which actually came to commercial use some 8 years after this was written!

Then, from June 26, 1900: "Improved reproducer" which describes a playing stylus which has the shape of "a curved bearing surface which engages the record groove and reduced in its longitudinal dimension, whereby the reproducing surface may ACCURATELY TRACK a wave having its width greater than its length. The device being of such form as not to engage simultaneously the descending and ascending slopes of the waves, substantially as set forth" --This is the description of the model C trunkated "doorknob" stylus.

Patent #393,967 of Dec. 4, 1888 tells about a recorder stylus that looks like a hooked chisel. Some text from a patent dated April 2, 1889 mentions "diaphragm of glass" and "recording point wider than playback" Then it says this:

1) Wax and stearic acid.
2) Ceresin and stearic acid.
3) Ceresin, beeswax, and stearic acid.
4) Proportions by weight:

  • 100 parts ceresin
  • 25 parts beeswax
  • 25 parts stearic acid

This was the very early wax made for the first cylinders used on Edison's "Improved Phonograph" (There is some speculation that this was the formula used to make the very light colored blanks in the famous picture of Edison reclining after working several days on the Improved Phonograph) This was only a mixture of waxes, no metallic soap just yet.

Then, by Nov 12, 1889, there is another one which says: "Blank base of hard rubber or ebonite with outside materials having roughly the same coefficient of expansion namely stearate of metal and oleate of metal.

There it is: Stearate of Metal! (The oleate turned out to not work so well because the oleaic acid content led to the oozing of liquid on hot days and those early blanks had to be recalled by Edison. But, the stearate of metal turned out to be the working method. No oleate required! But, back in 1978, I did not know anything about this at all, this was the first time I had ever seen these words.

So, that is the condensed version of my first investigations into Edison cylinder recording blanks. There are many more interesting patents to read and related drawings to look at that all have to do with various parts of the process. There are steam heated reaming machines and many, many varieties of composite blanks made of pasteboard cores soaked in asphaltum and coated with metallic soap.

Those patent searches at least served to lead me in the right direction and to have some idea of what questions to start asking.

At this point I still had no recorders, no blanks, no shaver, no recording horns, just some copies from the patent books at the library.

Next Segment: Shaver and Dictaphone Blanks