The Disc v the Cylinder

Richard Osborne

London Consortium

On 3 December 1877, the evening before constructing the first phonograph, Thomas Edison and his assistants sketched out three possible recording formats. These were a continuous strip (similar in concept to a tape cassette), a cylinder, and a disc. Edison selected the drawing of the cylinder machine. Despite his eventual entry into the world of disc recording, the cylinder remained Edison’s preferred format until his retirement from the record business in 1929.
    Emile Berliner’s work progressed in the opposite direction. Berliner invented the gramophone, the disc playing machine that ultimately triumphed over Edison’s phonograph. His discs are the precursors to the shellac and vinyl records that dominated music production in the twentieth century. However, his original US gramophone patent, dated 8 November 1887, mentions ‘a groove wave-line upon a strip or sheet’, and his accompanying drawing is of a cylinder. [1]  Berliner, at this point, was creating recordings by a method of photoengraving. This involved a complicated process of splitting and flattening cylinders. [2]  It became apparent that a flat disc provided a more suitable and workable format; before the year was out, the disc was adopted for Berliner’s machines. Despite continual modification of his recording process there is no evidence that he ever reconsidered the use of the cylinder.

These two rivals had different conceptions of sound recording. In June 1888 Thomas Edison wrote:
the phonograph will do, and does at this moment accomplish, the same thing in respect of conversation which instantaneous photography does for moving objects; that is, it will present whatever it records with a minute accuracy unattained by any other means. [3]
A month earlier, speaking to the Franklin Institute, Emile Berliner outlined his plans for the gramophone. He stated:
A standard reproducing apparatus, simple in construction, and easily manipulated, will, at a moderate selling price, be placed on the market. Those having one, may then buy an assortment of phonautograms, to be increased occasionally, comprising recitations, songs, and instrumental solos or orchestral pieces of every variety. In each city there will be at least one office having a gramophone recorder with all the necessary outfits. Persons desirous of having their voice taken will step before the funnel and, upon a given signal, sing or speak, or they may perform an instrument. While they are waiting the plate will be developed, and when it is satisfactory, it is turned over to the electrotyper or to the molder in charge, who will make as many copies as desired. [4]
Edison and Berliner’s statements reflect the ways in which their thinking had been guided by their machines. Edison’s cylinder was a relatively straightforward home-recording device. It could quickly capture and play back the spoken word. Hence, the phonograph did offer a parallel to the photographic process: it was natural to think that it would be used to capture the fleeting moments of sound just as the camera captured the fleeting moments of vision.
Berliner’s disc recording process was more complicated. Recording was firmly in the hands of experts, and took place away from the home. Here the customer is only allowed a ‘reproducing’ apparatus. Cylinder manufacturers had contemplated, but not mastered, the automatic duplication of recordings. But duplication was implicit in Berliner’s method. One that he developed using separate recording and playback discs. [5]
Berliner, therefore, emphasised a different set of attributes. The advantage of his recordings is not that they are instantaneous, but that you can make as ‘many copies as desired’. He does not contemplate using his gramophone as a dictation machine (Edison’s preferred used for his phonograph); instead, he talks about the user developing of a collection of pre-recorded discs. Later in the same speech Berliner even has a conception of the future music industry, he states: ‘Prominent singers, speakers, or performers, may derive an income from royalties on the sale of their phonautograms, and valuable plates may be printed and registered to protect against unauthorized publication’. [6]
It is tempting to cast Berliner as a capitalist visionary – the centralised control of the recording process and the mass duplication of originals provided the economic basis for the expansion of recorded music. These factors - unique to the gramophone and its disc - helped Berliner’s disc-recording process to catch up with, and eventually overtake, the market for cylinder recordings. It is Jacques Attali’s argument that this ascendancy of the disc over the cylinder (and therefore of professional over amateur music) is a precursor to twentieth-century economics. In his book Noise he states:
[M]usic is illustrative of the evolution of our entire society: deritualize a social form, repress an activity of the body, specialize its practice, sell it as spectacle, generalize its consumption, then see to it that it is stockpiled until it loses its meaning. [...] Everywhere we look, the monopolization of the broadcast of messages, the control of noise, and the institutionalization of the silence of others assure the durability of power. [7]
Attali believes that the centralised control of the recording apparatus was a deliberate economic ploy.
It is not hard to find evidence to support his case. In the June 1903 edition of the Talking Machine News, Britain’s first recording journal, one of the writers states: ‘I have many times been asked how to make disc records, and the only reply I can make is that it is not only a trade secret, but that it needs costly and elaborate machinery’. He then locates one of the ‘heads of a big disc factory’ and asks him if it will ever be possible for the amateur to make discs. The reply: ‘We hope not, and shall do as much as possible to keep the outsider from doing so’. [8] 
And it wasn’t just the disc companies who controlled production in this manner. Most Americans first experienced sound technology via Edison’s ‘automatic phonograph’ of the 1890s. The important innovations of this particular cylinder machine were that it had no home recording function and that it could only play commercially manufactured records.
It would seem that the nascent recording industry had quickly realised the virtues of Berliner’s restrictive recording process. In its own advertising, Berliner’s company boasted that the disc would ‘never be tainted by amateur offerings’. [9]  This promise has been kept: unique among the major recording formats there is no home-recording process for the vinyl disc.

Music Week journalist Adam Woods claimed recently that, ‘while the vinyl record only seems to look more iconic as time goes by, the public image of the CD is increasingly bedraggled’. [10]  Is the recordable CD to blame? Bruce Springsteen has commented:
Today I hardly know a band without a CD. Any local band, I go to their show and they’re selling a CD. But that wasn’t the case in the ‘60s and early ‘70s. The machinery, the technology, to make records was not in your hands. So when I got a record contract I was the only person I had ever known who had been signed, that was the big change, and then we made a couple of records and they didn’t sell that well, but still it was miraculous. [11]
Vinyl continues to be talked of as a format with special qualities. Twenty years after its supposed obsolescence it is still manufactured. Sales of 7” singles are even on the increase. However, Attali’s argument casts the survival of the vinyl format in a new light. This ‘icon’ has been created via a professional/amateur divide erected by the forces of capitalism. Stephen Struthers has reinforced this point. He states:
discs of recorded sound can only be made by a process of manufacture that is difficult and costly to set up. This usefully hinders the entry into the market for discs of competitors who might engage in price competition, but more particularly, and what is sociologically important, distinguishes a social division of labour between producer and consumer, allowing producers to maintain control over recorded material, and hence over consumers. [12]
This divide is essential for, and central to, the appeal of the vinyl format. Here though, I wish to contemplate the extent to which it was deliberately sought out and exploited by the early recording pioneers.
It should be noted that, while Berliner’s advertisements boasted about the exclusivity of his discs, the cylinder companies were emphasizing the opposite. The Columbia Phonograph Co. maintained, ‘other so-called talking machines reproduce only specially prepared cut-and-dried subjects, the Graphophone does much more; it repeats your voice; your friend’s voice; songs sung to it or stories told to it’. [13]  As they fought in the marketplace, there is an element to which disc and cylinder companies had to emphasize the relative benefits of their machines.
It is telling that, away from the advertising spin, Berliner worked on a gramophone that would match the cylinder’s home-recording ability. In 1901 he patented ‘An Apparatus for Producing Sound Records’. Although this apparatus does not appear to have come to fruition, several disc-recording devices were marketed, including, in 1919, the ‘Renoplex Gramophone Attachment’. Reviewing this machine the Talking Machine News states, ‘There have been many Home Recorders put upon the market since the gramophone was first invented, but none of them, so far as we are aware, has been a success’. [14] 
The ascendancy of private over public recording was not a deliberate plan, hatched by Berliner in 1888. Despite the fact that his easily duplicated disc shape lends itself to the manufacture of mass-produced music, and that it is Edison’s cylinder process that is best matched with home recording, Berliner gives equal weight to both public and private recording in his Franklin Institute speech. He visualised the public coming to his studios to ‘sing or speak, or [...] perform an instrument’. It transpired that they didn’t want to. Nor would the public ever truly embrace Edison’s proposed ‘registry of sayings, reminiscences, etc., by members of a family, in their own voices’. [15]  Or any form of home recording for that matter. In a letter in the July 1905 Talking Machine News one reader states, ‘The possibility of making one’s own records has generally been the principal selling point of the cylinder machine’, but points out, ‘the insignificant quantity of blanks now sold’. [16]  It transpired that what the consumer really wanted was the recordings of professional musicians and singers. And, in expressing this desire, they led, rather than followed, the industry.

At the turn of the century three companies dominated the market for recorded music in both the United States and Britain: Berliner’s National Gramophone Company (operating as the Gramophone Company in the UK; later to transform into EMI); the Columbia Phonograph Co.; and Edison’s National Phonograph Company.
While Edison remained convinced that cylinders provided the superior means of sound reproduction, Columbia wished to enter the disc trade. In early 1902, they began to manufacture discs alongside cylinders. Ten years later, in July 1912, the company’s dealers were informed of ‘The Finish of the Cylinder Record’. [17]  Henceforth Columbia would only produce discs. The following year the British recording journal the Sound Wave editorialized, ‘Reverting now to the cylinder record, it is no use blinking as to the fact that its popularity has very nearly reached vanishing point’. [18]  Within ten years the cylinder had virtually disappeared.            Dave Laing has asked, ‘How to account for this victory of the limited “playback” variant over the cylinder that could also be used to record?’. He claims, ‘Here the literature on phonograph history is silent’. [19]  This isn’t quite the case. The early UK recording journals – Talking Machine News, Phono Trader and Recorder and Sound Wave - help to illuminate matters.

1.    Recording

The interesting thing to note here is that, as the disc gained ascendancy, there were fewer boasts about the cylinder’s recording ability. In 1905 the Talking Machine News states, ‘salesmen have been wont to dwell lovingly upon the charm of “home made records”’, they add, ‘This novelty is, however, fast wearing off’. [20]  By 1908 they are noting of the cylinder and its ability to record, ‘Why do not the manufacturers cultivate this side of it more? We have often wondered? It has never been as fully exploited as it might have been’. [21]
    It is worth reiterating that this was not a restrictive capitalist ploy. With the exception of Columbia (and, from 1906, the French company Pathé) the early record companies made either cylinders or discs, not both. If there had been a large market for home recording it would have made absolute sense for the cylinder companies to continue to push their machine’s ability to record, and to make a virtue of this factor in their advertising. There wasn’t. Ultimately, the unwillingness of the public to make home recordings favoured the disc-producing companies. The limitations of the gramophone meant that it was associated only with professional recordings. The resulting cultural prestige was essential, if unplanned.

2.    Duplication

According to Fred Gaisberg, head of recording at the Gramophone Company:
The stumbling-block to the rapid development of the old phonograph was the difficulty of duplicating record cylinders. This delay actually enabled the gramophone disc to overtake it with its simple method of stamping endless copies from the master, despite the superior recording-qualities of the cylinder. [22]
This reckoning of the disc’s ascendancy is complicated by the fact that, by 1901, Edison had developed a ‘molding’ process for wax cylinders that allowed for automatic duplication. It is Roland Gelatt’s belief that this innovation ‘had come too late’, and that the cylinder ‘attained its summit at the turn of the century’, after which decline set in. [23]  But his statement only complicates matters. On the one hand, it illustrates that cylinders were at the height of their popularity in the years in which they had the inferior method of duplication. On the other, in relation to the UK at least, his analysis is wrong. As late as 1903 the UK branch of the Columbia Phonograph Co. was claiming that its cylinders were outselling its discs by a ratio of three to one. [24]
     Cylinders were dominant in the press too. In 1903 a reader of the Talking Machine News complains about the ‘meagre space’ devoted to the gramophone. [25]  Unfortunately for him it was the journal’s belief that the ‘disc machine “is not in it”’, due to ‘the huge preponderance of cylinder machines over disc’. [26] 
Duplication is a contributory rather than determining factor in the triumph of disc over cylinder. Ironically, however, the new method of duplicating cylinders may have helped to further their decline. In every respect this new process was more expensive than disc manufacture; nevertheless cylinders eventually sold for less than discs. Superior profit margins helped encourage record companies to turn to disc manufacture.

3.    Sound Reproduction

This is usually held as a determining factor in format battles. And yet -  just as the triumph of the iPod over the CD proves that sound quality isn’t always of overriding importance - the victor of the battle between cylinder and disc was not the superior reproduction device.
The contemporary journalist Henry Seymour believed that, ‘the cylinder method is technically superior in every way’. [27]  And the recording historians Roland Gelatt, Oliver Read, and Walter Welch all agree with him.
What comes across from the recording journals is that each of the formats produced a different sound. Because of this, cylinder and disc adherents vehemently and intransigently maintain the superiority of their favoured device. There is little evidence of people ‘crossing over’ because they had been convinced that the opposing format offered the better sound. Sound reproduction is the most extensively debated, but perhaps least decisive, of all elements in the battle between cylinder and disc.

4.    Repertoire

In about 1905, as the disc begins to equal the cylinder in terms of sales, the battle in the letters pages of the journals is fought largely on the grounds of sound reproduction. By 1908, the debate has shifted. The recording journals are full of letters from phonograph owners, still maintaining the superiority of the cylinder, but their main outcry is now against their own machine – they deplore the repertoire that is available. Disc owners don’t need to join in this debate: they have already won. As the Talking Machine News declared in October 1908, ‘The disc record has come to the front this season with a vengeance’. [28]
    In the first instance it is the paucity of cylinder titles that is decried. One reader moans,
I notice with much dissatisfaction and not a little surprise, that the monthly output of cylinder records appears to be slowly but surely decreasing, whereas the corresponding disc output continues to increase. [29]
Quality of output mattered too. A factor that had also been neglected by the cylinder companies. The reader Stephen Agnew makes this point clear:
I am selling my machines and purchasing a ‘Regal’ disc instrument, for the sole reason that the titles on recent lists of cylinders, with a few notable exceptions are nothing short of banal. [...] The outlook for the cylinder enthusiast is not encouraging to say the least. [30]
L Wardle is equally outraged:
On looking over the lists in your June number, I found about 20 disc records that I should probably buy if I used a disc machine, and in the cylinder list, not one. Certainly, there are two or three good numbers, but old, old, old: done over again by every company. [31]
In terms of ‘quality’, the disc-manufacturing Gramophone Company had always taken the lead. They pioneered the recording of celebrity opera singers and classical artists (beginning with the recordings of Enrico Caruso in March 1902). And they tied the most renowned artistes – including Caruso, Sigrid Arnoldson and Adelina Patti – to exclusive recording contracts.   

5.    Advertising

In his history of EMI Peter Martland remarks:
Although celebrities and celebrity records were a central feature of the [Gramophone] Company’s marketing strategy, they were not central to its profits. As Theodore Birnbaum remarked in 1907: ‘This class of business is difficult to handle, and it is questionable whether it can be regarded on any other basis than high-class advertising’. As an example, less than one per cent of the Company’s unit sales in 1913 were Celebrity records. [32]
This one per cent went a long way. The Gramophone Company ignored the fact that ‘the bulk of record sales’, including there own, ‘were confined to [...] popular music’; [33]  and instead relentlessly plugged their more refined recordings and artists, as well as the royal warrants that the company had gained. Adverts stress that the ‘Gramophone Trade is High-Class Trade’, and that they offer ‘The Best – not the cheapest’. [34]  In doing so, the leading disc-producing company earned its format vital prestige.
The Gramophone Company was an advertising pioneer. The ‘His Master’s Voice’ symbol was promoted until it became the first internationally recognised trademark. They were also one of the first companies to take out a whole front-page advert in the Daily Mail. In 1906 the company admitted that it spent about £20,000 a year on advertising. [35]  It was a sensible policy, especially as magazines and newspapers gave little editorial space to the talking machine trade. [36]  It was through advertising that the business was established, and effective and extensive advertising helped to give the Gramophone Company the lead.

6.    Cost

There was a further effect of marketing the disc as a high-class good. As Roland Gelatt noted, ‘The cylinder had been relegated to the less privileged classes, and it was priced accordingly’. [37]  Berliner originally gained entry to the record market by offering his machines and his discs at a cheaper price than the phonograph manufacturers. It was possible to do so because of his then advantageous duplication process. Positions were soon reversed – as the century progressed cylinders were made to sell for as little, and eventually much less than, the discs. However, as noted above, they were more expensive to produce.
    The cylinder’s problems were compounded by a disastrous price war among manufacturers, triggered by the Russell Hunting Co. in 1908. The Talking Machine News described the results: ‘Lower and yet lower the prices have gone till we suppose the lowest depth, showing no more than a living profit, in good times, mark you, has been reached’. [38]  The British cylinder trade never recovered. Read and Welch believe Russell Hunting had ‘brought it crashing down by a single tactical mistake’. [39]

And so, ultimately and inevitably, the triumph of the disc over the cylinder was a capitalist ploy. It was not, however, one that was based on usurping the ability and the freedom of the individual to record. Instead, it rested on advertising and selling the gramophone as a luxury good, and in offering the public what the Gramophone Company considered to be the world’s best music and artists.
    Two mysteries remain. First, why is it that the general public have never embraced home recording in the same way that they have home photography? Second, why has the record business failed to learn anything from its earliest format war? The disc gained its ascendancy because of its cultural prestige, ensured via repertoire, price and – admittedly – the fact that you could not make home recordings. When they are not being given away free with magazines, CDs are being sold for next to nothing in supermarkets. For those who can bother to purchase them that is. For most it is easier to just rip and burn. How long will it be before we are being informed of the end of the compact disc trade?


1 Emile Berliner, Gramophone: Specification forming part of Letters Patent, No. 372,786, 8 November 1887. Reproduced on the Library of Congress, Emile Berliner and the Birth of the Recording Industry website:
2  See, Peter Ford, ‘History of Sound Recording: The Age of Empiricism (1877-1924), in Recorded Sound, Vol. 1, Nos 1-8, No. 7, 221-29 (p. 225); and V. K. Chew, Talking Machines (London Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1981), p. 17.
3  Thomas Alva Edison, ‘The Perfected Phonograph’, North American Review, 146 (June 1888), 641-650 (p. 648).
4  Emile Berliner, ‘The Gramophone Etching the Human Voice’, Journal of the Franklin Institute (1888), 1-24 (p. 20). Reproduced on the Library of Congress, Emile Berliner and the Birth of the Recording Industry website:
5  See Berliner’s original gramophone patent, Gramophone: Specification forming part of Letters Patent, No. 372,786, 8 November 1887, p. 3: ‘This [master] record I then copy in solid resisting material, preferably metal, either by the purely mechanical process of engraving, or by chemical deposition, or by photo-engraving. [...] The copy thus obtained, which may be multiplied to any desired extent, is a groove wave-line upon a strip or sheet of copper or other metal’.
6  Berliner, ‘The Gramophone Etching the Human Voice’,  1-24 (p. 21).
7  Jacques Attali, Noise: The Political Economy of Music (Minneapolis/London: University of Minnesota Press, 1985), p. 5 and p. 8.
8  ‘About Discs’, Talking Machine News, No. 2 (June 1903), p. 21.
9  Louis Barfe, Where Have all the Good Times Gone: The Rise and Fall of the Record Industry (London: Atlantic Books, 2004), p. 26.
10  Adam Woods, ‘Vinyl Groove is in the Heart’, Music Week, 8 May 2004, p. 15.
11  Quoted in Phil Sutcliffe, ‘You Talkin’ To Me’, Mojo, No. 146 (January 2006), 76-98 (p. 82)
12  Stephen Struthers, ‘Technology in the Art of Recording’, Lost in Music: Culture, Style and the Musical Event, ed. by Aaron Levine White (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987), pp. 241-58 (p. 241).
13  Advertisement quoted in Gelatt, p. 90. Original reference not given.
14  ‘The Renoplex Attachment Home Recorder’, Talking Machine News and Journal of Amusements, Vol. XI. No. 317 (September 1919), p. 312.
15  One of Edison’s original listed uses of the phonograph, see Thomas Alva Edison, ‘The Perfected Phonograph’, North American Review, 146 (June 1888), 641-650 (p. 646).
16  Talking Machine News, Vol. III. No. 27 (July 1905), p. 95.
17  Gelatt, p. 165
18  Chrysos, ‘Talking Machines – A Retrospect’, Sound Wave, Vol. VII. No. 9 (July 1913), 404-05 (p. 404).
19  Dave Laing, ‘A Voice Without a Face: Popular Music and the Phonograph in the 1890s’, in Popular Music, 10/1 (1991), 1-9 (p. 5).
20  Edicolbel, ‘Discs v. Cylinder’, Talking Machine News, Vol. III. No. 27 (July 1905), p. 95.
21  Trade Topics, Talking Machine News, Vol. VI. No. 83 (2 November 1908), p. 370.
22  Gaisberg, p. 19.
23  Gelatt, pp. 81-82.
24  ‘Interview with E. D. Easton “A Captain of Industry”’, Talking Machine News, No. V (September 1903), 83-84 (p. 84).
25  Chas. Midgley, ‘Letters’, Talking Machine News, No. IV (August 1903), p. 67.
26  ‘Our Monthly Chat’, Talking Machine News, Vol. II. No. 7 (November 1904), unnumbered front page.
27  Henry Seymour, ‘Through the Post’, Sound Wave, Vol. 3. No. 1 (November 1908), p. 550.
28  ‘Trade Topics’, Talking Machine News and Side Lines, Vol. VI. No. 81 (1 October 1908), p. 297.
29  Gilbert H. Parker, ‘Through the Post’, Sound Wave, Vol. 2. No. 5 (March 1908), pp. 194-96.
30  Stephen H. Agnew, ‘Through the Post’, Sound Wave, Vol. 2. No. 9 (July 1908), p. 364.
31  L. Wardle, Through the Post’, Sound Wave, Vol. 2. No. 9 (July 1908), p. 364.  Emphasis in original.
32  Peter Martland, Since Records Began: EMI The First 100 Years (London: BT Batsford, 1997), p. 63. The Theodore Birnbaum quote is from, ‘Report to the Board, The Gramophone Company Ltd, Board Papers, 1907, EMI Music Archive’.
33  Gelatt, p. 122.
34  Gramophone Co. Advert, Talking Machine News, Vol. II, No. 12 (April 1905), 510-11.
35  ‘A Visit to the Gramophone Headquarters’, Phono Trader and Recorder, Vol. III. No. 5 (October 1906) 262-74 (p. 274).
36  See Read and Welch, pp. 164-65.
37  Gelatt, p. 160.
38  ‘Trade Topics’, Talking Machine News and Side Lines, Vol. VI. No. 83 (2 November 1908), p. 370.
39  Read and Welch, p. 150.