The main purpose of this dossier is to examine how the development of the wax cylinder phonograph, specifically, shaped sound recording as we know it today. Looking at a historical perspective of the wax cylinder phonograph and its development and how it gave way to modern day sound recording, one is able to see why the imminent demise of the phonograph came about, as well as how it aided the music industry through an archaeological lens. The wax cylinder phonograph, first created in 1877 by Thomas Edison, is still a form of media that is used for general listening pleasure, as well as sound recording, today (Poole, 2015). This investigation into how the rise of sound recording and playing through a technological methodology will shed light on how the wax cylinder phonograph aided in the formation of sound recording and rationale for why it was phased out. The dossier will take on a media archeological theoretical context in order to examine the history, arguments for and against the use of the wax cylinder phonograph, and why some may claim that other forms of the phonograph were more beneficial to music recording as a whole.

In order to understand the media archeological perspective, one must first look at some of the theoretical ideas surrounding this emphasis. Friedrich Kittler often explains the meaning and ideology surrounding the importance of the phonograph and other recording or playback devices. He states that “ever since the epochal change we have been in possession of storage technologies that can record and produce the very flow of acoustic and optical data. Ears and eyes have become autonomous” (Kittler, 1999, p. 3).  This ideology, then, has fueled many of the viewpoints on modern day technology, including sound recording and playback. However, since the phasing out of the wax cylinder phonograph and the advancement of technology, it is important to investigate what it did to begin the sound recording phenomenon we all are familiar with today.

Theoretical Views

The idea that individuals wanted ways to record their sounds for playback during this era was, at times, seen as absurd and a feat only possible in the imagination. Why would people want to record themselves or other sounds in order to listen to them again? Was it to keep the memory of what was alive or to hold onto something that their ears and minds could not?  As Zielinski states, “Media are spaces of action for constructed attempts to connect what is separated” (Zielinski, 2006, p.6). For the ideology surrounding the formation of the phonograph, Edison tried to bring together two things that were separate: the ability to memorize and repeat memories and sounds without the use of the human body and mind. The cylinder phonograph is then the representation of what people in this era were seeking: the need for recording for both memory and pleasure. In this era, it is expanded upon for the need of a “new” industry to survive: sound recording. The phonograph was one of the first sound recording devices. This, then, showed the pursuit and desire to record and replay these sounds for either personal, educational or commercial purposes. However, this then may show an early beginning into how sound and other media in general have begun to take over. As Kittler mentions, “What remains of people is what media can store and communicate” (Kittler, 1999, pg. 11). This, in a sense, is what the phonograph was made to do. Its first major purpose for invention was for creating letters and recording messages; however, as soon as music was recorded on it in its first test,

this then became a major use for it, as it evolved into other sound producing machines. It was made not only for necessity at the time, but it also turned into a device used for pleasure as it expanded. 


Figure 1.1: Brown wax that was used for the cylinder in a phonograph.

History: The Beginning and the End of the Cylinder

Back in 1877, two of the century's most important inventions - the telegraph and the telephone - had a baby.  Born of the idea that the same technology used for each of those machines independently could be combined to reproduce sound, the phonograph was the precursor to modern sound recording technology. Initially, Thomas Edison used paper in his diaphragm-and-needle design, but later switched to a tin foil wrapped metal cylinder that received indentations as sound was projected into a microphone.  Another diaphragm-and-needle device facilitated playback. Edison’s first attempt to record on the machine was a success, and “Mary had a little lamb” was immortalized.

Original Edison Tin Foil Phonograph. Photo courtesy of U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Edison National Historic Site.

According to the “History of the Cylinder Phonograph” on the Library of Congress website:

Ever practical and visionary, Edison offered the following possible future uses for the phonograph in North American Review in June 1878:

  1. Letter writing and all kinds of dictation without the aid of a stenographer.
  2. Phonographic books, which will speak to blind people without effort on their part.
  3. The teaching of elocution.
  4. Reproduction of music.
  5. The "Family Record"--a registry of sayings, reminiscences, etc., by members of a family in their own voices, and of the last words of dying persons.
  6. Music-boxes and toys.
  7. Clocks that should announce in articulate speech the time for going home, going to meals, etc.
  8. The preservation of languages by exact reproduction of the manner of pronouncing.
  9. Educational purposes; such as preserving the explanations made by a teacher, so that the pupil can refer to them at any moment, and spelling or other lessons placed upon the phonograph for convenience in committing to memory.
  10. Connection with the telephone, so as to make that instrument an auxiliary in the transmission of permanent and invaluable records, instead of being the recipient of momentary and fleeting communication.

Visionary, indeed. All of Edison’s predictions have come to fruition in some form.

Despite the popularity of the phonograph, however, it was also cumbersome and difficult to use. The recording material only lasted a few sessions and then needed to be replaced.  Edison abandoned his baby, but others were willing to give the orphan a home. Alexander Graham Bell, arguably the de facto mother of the phonograph, and a couple of collaborators replaced the tin foil with wax and the stabilized needle with a floating stylus. They called the machine the graphophone and approached Edison to see if he was willing to play on the team, but, if the historical accusations are true, Edison was not much of a team player.

Edison struck out on his own - again - and released the New Phonograph, the Improved Phonograph, and the Perfected Phonograph. After Jesse H. Lippincott bought the rights to the phonograph and unsuccessfully tried to market it as an office dictating machine, Edison took the technology in a couple of interesting directions:
Meanwhile, the Edison Factory produced talking dolls in 1890 for the Edison Phonograph Toy Manufacturing Co. The dolls contained tiny wax cylinders. Edison's relationship with the company ended in March of 1891, and the dolls are very rare today. The Edison Phonograph Works also produced musical cylinders for coin-slot phonographs which some of the subsidiary companies had started to use. These proto-"jukeboxes" were a development which pointed to the future of phonographs as entertainment machines (LOC, n.d.).

The picture on the right shows the original phonograph removed from the doll's body. When installed in the doll the tiny horn points up to holes in the chest. The phonograph measures only 7" tall, with a wax cylinder measuring 3" in diameter and 5/8" wide.

Edison eventually won the rights back to his invention and began to pursue the home entertainment market with the release of the Spring Motor Phonograph (1896), the Edison Home Phonograph, and the Standard Phonograph (1898). He then turned his attention to the commercial use of the wax cylinder, which had a couple of major problems: it could only record for about two minutes, and it could not be mass produced, at least not inexpensively.

The second problem was solved in 1901 when a method called Gold Moulded, so named for the material and process used in manufacturing, allowed for multiple cylinders to be produced and, therefore, the price to go down.

In 1905, another attempt to distribute a business phonograph also failed due to the cost and fragility of the product.  The dictaphone, it appeared, was a more useful product in the business world. In a move characterized by the idiom “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em,” Edison began to make a more dictaphone-like product for commercial distribution, and in 1916, the Ediphone was released, enjoying popularity through the 1920s.

Cylinders persisted through 1913 as competitors fell and Edison was last man standing. He continued to improve the quality and length of the cylinders; however, the idea did not catch on in the mainstream. Edison finally acquiesced and abandoned the cylinder - with the exception of the Blue Amberol cylinders produced until 1929 for the remaining loyal customers -  with the release of the Edison Disc Phonograph in 1913.

Sound Recording and Listening from the Acoustic to the Digital Era

Although various features of music recording from the acoustic era are still prevalent and used today, there are a myriad of different devices that have since stemmed from the ideology of the cylinder phonograph, such as the record player, vinyl records, and the compact disc.

78 RPM Records

Before one could have a record player, a means to play music on it was necessary. Vinyl records were brought about in their earliest stages in 1889 following the phonograph, with their most current version being around since the 1950s. They are seen as the earliest thing we have to the modern day record. The earliest records also varied greatly in rpms, ranging from 60 to 130 (Randel, 2003). These discs were often double-sided, with about two to three minutes of music per side. Often times, they were made out of shellac or wax, differing greatly from the vinyl records we are accustomed to today. They would come in a variety of sizes, such as 10- or 12-inch records (Randel, 2003). These records were recorded in a similar way that Edison recorded his first sounds; singers, speakers, etc. would speak into the horn of the gramophone (discussed later) and the vibrations would be etched into the spinning disc; this was seen as acoustic recording (Voloshin, 2002). 


Figure 1.2: An early gramophone record.

From these, other vinyl records and sizes would stem later in the 1900s, especially in the 1950s. The phonograph helped to develop this method of recording and listening in various ways. Without the insightfulness of Edison and recording etches from the vibrations in sound into tin foil, the ability for advancement could have never occurred. Wax was often used in the cylinders of the early cylinder phonographs, which helped to shape the use of shellac and wax when the adaptation of the turntable was added to the gramophone (Ifukube, Kawashima, & Asakura, 1989). The original wax, the cylinder, was later flattened out in order to make the record and in order to record more music and for a longer period of time. However, recording for these records was the same as those of the phonograph; one would speak into the horn and the needle would


Figure 1.4: A later version of a vinyl record; vinyl took over as the main component of records in the mid-1920s.

etch the vibrations into the material, thus creating a sound when played back. Although the record and wax cylinder of this era are very similar, they are also different for their developmental rationale listed above. 

The era moved with the media and the media helped to evolve the era, based on the cultural wants of the time. Although many of these 78 rpm records have since faded, many collectors still hope to hold onto them in order to show juxtaposition of today’s media with the evolution of the past.

The Record Player/Gramophone

The gramophone, or record player, is the next step down the line when identifying the historical and evolutionary aspects of the cylinder phonograph. Emilie Berliner introduced the first gramophone in 1887, shortly after the introduction of the wax cylinder phonograph (Hardy, 2001). The gramophone was essentially, the same as a phonograph, except it did not contain a true cylinder. Rather, it used a flat wax or shellac record (discussed above) to record sound for longer, usually ranging from two to five minutes in length, and was double-sided, allowing for more production and variety in music in just one record. 


Figure 1.4: An early gramophone.

The gramophone was also brought about after the arrival of the phonograph; it stemmed from its original decision and had a very similar design in terms of its horn, picking up on vibrations in sound, and etching and sound production. Rather, as stated prior, it utilized a thick, flat record instead of a wax cylinder in order to pick up on, create, and store more sound for playback and recording.

Compact Disc

Essentially, the compact disc is derived from the vinyl record, as it has many similarities, but is its digital counterpart. The compact disc had sound recorded similarly to the records of the 1800s and early 1900s; however, it is in a digital format that was first brought about in 1979 (Schwartz, 2010). The sound for a compact disc is recorded in an intricate manner. The etching within the disc is binary code of 1 or 0, based on the bumps and etching in the binary code. These digital series of codes are picked up based on how the sound was recorded, which will give off a digital signal (Schwartz, 2010). This digital signal, then, is picked up as the disc rotates at a specific speed in order to pick up the code; these 1s and 0s in the code act as bumps and small flatter areas that are the signal etched into the disc (Davidson, 2015). These codes are not visible to the naked eye, as they are covered by a thin layer of plastic and help to generate the electrical pulsations that help to convert the code into sound.

Although this binary code is digital and not physically etched into the disc, there are still various similarities to those wax cylinders of the phonograph. The same simplistic methodologies are employed that were used with the early wax cylinders in order to record and play back sounds. First, the compact discs are made in a similar way that the cylinders were made. Sound and its vibrations are put digitally into a computer, where code is outputted. Although it is not a horn and is not physically etched, the same idea of utilizing the vibrations to make grooves and edges in the disc to make sound is used. The disc itself is also in the same form as the record of the gramophone; only smaller and a digital unit. 


Figure 1.5: A collection of compacts discs or CDs.

From this, it is evident that the evolution of the phonograph, its wax cylinders, and its methods of recording have had great impact on even today’s technology, as individuals often still utilize similar processes to take down sound, although in a digital manner.

Much like the phonograph and gramophone, as well as its records, the compact disc of the digital era conformed and was invented with its culture and time period in mind. As the future progressed and technology was on the rise, so was the need for advancement in all forms of sound production, a common theme throughout the years not only in this field, but every field.


From the first efforts of Edison to capture and preserve sound to current efforts to encapsulate more and more data on the same device, people are obsessed with memorializing the era in which they live. Not only does technology and media conform and meet the standards set by our culture, but we also meet it, as we soon become enthralled by it, unable to separate it from our daily lives. The media, in a sense, takes us over more than we take it over.


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Iwai, T., Asakura, T., Ifukube, T., & Kawashima, T. (1986). Reproduction of sound from old wax phonograph cylinders using the laser-beam reflection method. Applied optics, 25(5), 597-604.

Kittler, F. A. (1999). Gramophone, film, typewriter. Trans. Geoffrey Winthrop- Young and Michael Wutz. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Millard, Andre. Continuum Encyclopedia of Popular Music of the World. 2003, Vol. 1, p508-509.

Nakamura, T., Ushizaka, T., Uozumi, J., & Asakura, T. (1997, December). Optical reproduction of sounds from old phonographic wax cylinders. In Fifth International Topical Meeting on Education and Training in Optics (pp. 304-313). International Society for Optics and Photonics.

Poole, A. (2015). Determining Playback Speeds of Early Ethnographic Wax Cylinder Recordings: Technical and Methodological Issues. Ethnomusicology Forum, 24(1), 73-101. doi:10.1080/17411912.2015.1010557

Recording. (2003). In D. Randel (Ed.), The Harvard Dictionary of music. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Retrieved from

Voloshin, M. (2002). The Preservation and Storage of Historical 78 rpm Recorded Discs. Music Reference Services Quarterly, 8(2), 39-43. doi:10.1300/J116v08n0204

Zielinkski, S. (2006). Deep time of the media: Toward an archaeology of seeing and hearing by technical means. Trans. Gloria Custance. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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