History of Recorded Audio

1877 - Edison made the first recording of a human voice ("Mary had a little lamb") on the first tinfoil cylinder phonograph Dec. 6 (the word "Halloo" may have been recorded in July on an early paper model derived from his 1876 telegraph repeater) and filed for an American patent Dec. 24. John Kruesi built this first practical machine Dec. 1-6 from a sketch given to him by Edison. When Kruesi heard Edison's first words Dec. 6, he exclaimed "Gott in Himmel!" (but these words for "God in Heaven" were not recorded and thus have been forgotten). Others before Edison had tried to record sound, but Edison and his tinfoil phonograph were the first to succeed.

1878 - Edison was granted patent 200,521 on Feb. 19 for a phonograph using cylinders wrapped with tinfoil with 2-3 min. capacity. None of these early fragile tin foils have survived, but after Edison experimenters used different recording materials, such as the lead cylinder of Frank Lambert that is known today as the oldest surviving playable cylinder ("One o'clock, Two o'clock"), and the brass discs of Augustus Stroh in England ("mama" and "papa").

1881 - Charles Tainter at the Volta Lab made the first lateral-cut records, but without any practical machine to play them back.

1885 - A second type of phonograph was invented by Chichester Bell and Charles Tainter; they were granted patent 341,214 on a machine that they called the "Graphophone" using wax-coated cylinders incised with vertical-cut grooves; see photos from Smithsonian and the essay Tainter and the Graphophone.

1887 - A third type of phonograph was invented by Emile Berliner; he was granted patent 372,786 for a "Gramophone" using a non-wax disc photo-engraved with a lateral-cut groove; see pictures of the three rival phonographs.

1887 - Edison filed an application Nov. 26 for patent 386,974 on an improved phonograph using a battery-powered electrical motor and wax cylinders, but neither he nor the graphophone inventors were able to mass-produce copies.

1888 - Emile Berliner demonstrated an improved early gramophone May 16 at the Franklin Institute using a flat 7-inch disk with lateral-cut grooves on one side only, hand-cranked at 30 rpm with 2-min. capacity; Berliner was the first to mass-produce hard rubber vulcanite copies from a zinc master disk.

1889 - The Columbia Phonograph Co. was organized January 15 by Edward D. Easton with rights to market a treadle-powered graphophone; however, Easton would have more success selling music rather than business machines, especially cylinders of the popular United State Marine Band under John Philip Sousa. Easton produced the first record catalog in 1890, a one-page list of Edison and Columbia cylinders.

Cylinder vs. Disc

1890 - The first "juke box" was the coin-operated cylinder phonograph with 4 listening tubes that earned over $1000 in its first 6 months of operation starting the previous November 23 in San Francisco's Palais Royal Saloon, setting off a boom in popularity for commercial nickel phonographs that kept the industry alive during the Depression Nineties.

1893 - Emile Berliner finally began to succeed with his new U. S. Gramophone Company; in 1894 he made and sold 1000 machines (some electric-powered, most hand-powered, but no spring motor yet) and 25,000 records (7-inch hard rubber discs). The Berliner Gramophone Co. was incorprated Oct. 8, 1895, and Berliner discovered in 1896 that shellac from the Duranoid Co. was better than hard rubber for records; Frank Seaman created the National Gramophone Co. Oct. 19, 1896.

"Nipper" the RCA Logo Dog

1896 - Eldridge Johnson improved the gramophone with a motor designed by Levi Montross and his own patent 601,198 filed Aug. 19, 1897, for a simple and inexpensive machine that became the most popular disc phonograph by 1900; he then merged his Consolidated Talking Machine Co. with Berliner's company to create the Victor Talking Machine Co. in 1901 with the "little nipper" dog as trademark.

1897 - shellac discs replaced vulcanite, but the typical heavy steel stylus tracking at 9 oz. caused heavy wear; with the introduction of low-cost talking machines such as the Columbia Eagle graphophone and the Edison Gem cylinder and the Berliner improved gramophone, strong growth in sales began of commercial cylinders and discs, mostly classical and Tin Pan Alley songs.

1898 - Valdemar Poulsen patented in Denmark on Dec. 1 the first magnetic recorder, called the "telegraphone," using steel wire; he exhibited his device at the Paris Exposition in 1900 and formed the American Telegraphone Co. in Nov. 1903 after Congress validated his American patent 661,619

1900 - Thomas Lambert developed a successful method of mass-duplicating "indestructible" cylinders of celluloid; his patent 645,920 described making a copper negative matrix by electrolysis from a wax master, and using heat and pressure to "mould" durable celluloid copies from the matrix. Although Lambert's patent was upheld by the courts, Edison would use expensive lawsuits to drive Lambert's company and the Indestructible Phonograph Record Company out of business by 1907.

1902 - Edison introduced "Gold Molded" cylinders for $.50 each with an improved hard wax surface and able to be mass-produced by a molding process; in Europe "Red Seal" 10-inch discs with 4-minute capacity were sold for $1.00, each featuring famous European artists, such as tenor Enrico Caruso and baritone Mattia Battistini. The first Red label records were made in Russia by Fedor Chaliapan, singer for the Imperial Opera, who recorded 10 records for Fred Gaisberg and the Gramophone Co. April 11 in Milan; Victor began to import these celebrity labels in 1903 and became the leading seller of classical music records. The 10-inch disc would quickly become more popular that the previous 7-inch standard disc that could only play for 2-3 minutes.

1903 - Eldridge Johnson began to sell the Victor IV phonograph, the first model equipped with his tapered tone arm, patent 814,786 filed Feb. 12.

1904 - The Odeon label was created in Germany by the International Talking Machine Co. to sell double-sided discs that Zonophone had pioneered in South America in 1902, based on patent 749,092 by Ademor Petit, yet it was still impossible to put an entire symphony on a single disc that could play both sides for no more than 10 minutes. HMV in England recorded in 1903 the first complete opera, Verdi's "Ernani" on 40 single-sided discs. Odeon pioneered something called the "album" in 1909 when it released the "Nutcracker Suite" by Tchaikovsky on 4 double-sided discs in a specially-designed package.

1906 - Columbia announced in July the Velvet-Tone thin and flexible laminated shellac record with paper core, following the proposal of Marconi who had visited the Bridgeport plant of the American Graphophone Company. This record had less surface noise than regular shellac records.

1906 - Victor introduced the first all-enclosed cabinet phonograph that by 1907 was being widely advertised as the "Victrola" upright with enclosed tapered horn; Victor would spend $50,000,000 on print advertsing and $17,000,000 on catalogs and brochures by 1929, creating the generic name victrola that is applied to all phonograph players designed as furniture.

1906 - William Randolph Hearst in October began to use cylinder recordings of his speeches in the election campaign for governor of New York. The wax graphophone masters were made by Columbia in New York City, electroplated and molded, played at public meetings and distributed to libraries for public check out.

1907 - The Dictaphone Corporation was organized when the Columbia Graphophone Co. sold its business machine division.

1908 - John Lomax, on his first trip west, recorded a black saloon keeper in San Antonio singing "Home on the Range" on an Edison cylinder and the lyrics were written down and published in the book "Cowboy Songs and Frontier Ballads" by Lomax in 1910 and the song became a national favorite; Lomax and his son Alan would record 10,000 songs for the Library of Congress Archive of the American Folk Song.

1910 - John McCormack signed his recording contract with the Victor Co. that would result in hundreds of recordings made over the next 20 years.

1911 - Edwin S. Pridham and Peter L. Jensen in Napa, California, invented a moving-coil loudspeaker they called the "Magnavox" that was used by Woodrow Wilson in San Diego in 1919.

1912 - Edison introduced celluloid blue Amberol cylinders that played for 4 minutes. When played with a diamond stylus, the new cylinder had low surface noise that resulted in higher acoustic quality than flat discs.

1913 - Edison finally conceded victory to the flat disc when he began to sell the Diamond-Disc players and recordings. The Diamond discs had a surface of Condensite plastic laminated to a solid core and a thickness of 1/4 inch. Condensite was a resin plastic like Bakelite, the first artificial plastic patented in 1909 by Leo Baekeland. The players used the same Diamond Point Reproducer used in the Blue Amberols but tracked at heavier force; see pictures of the Diamond Disc phonographs.

1914 vacuum tube by AT&T came from radio

1914 - ASCAP founded to enforce 1909 Copyright Act.

1915 - U.S. Navy seized Telefunken radio station at Sayville, Long Island, that was using Telegraphone wire recorders to send high speed transmissions to Germany.

1915 - Edison suggested in 1915 that the U.S. create a Naval Research Laboratory picture of Edison sculpted from life.

1916 - Theodore Case founded his Case Research Laboratory in Auburn, New York, to develop a sound-on-film recording system for motion pictures to compete with Edison's sound-on-cylinder system; Case and Earl Sponable developed the Thalofide photo-electric cell used by the Navy in WWI to transmit secret messages by infrared light.

1917 - Over There recording written by George M. Cohan, performed by Billy Murray. "Written in 1917 and introduced by the famous singer Nora Bayes, this World War I hit became the anthem for America's war effort." (from Library of Congress)

1918 - first wartime actuality sound recording of gas shell bombardment.

1918 - Poulsen's 1898 Denmark patent expired; Germany developed improvements to the wire telegraphone; see picture.

New Popular Music

Columbia Grafonola Ad - Sept 27, 1919

1917 - The first "Jazz" record "Livery Stable Blues" was recorded by the all-white Original Dixieland Jass Band from New Orleans, according to The Origins of Big Band Music. Jazz recordings stimulated the recording of the blues, first popularized by vaudeville performer Ma Rainey who became the first successful blues singer in 1902 and later recorded 100 songs 1923-1928 for Paramount as the "Mother of the Blues," by black composer W. C. Handy in 1911, and by Mamie Smith who recorded the first vocal blues song, "Crazy Blues" in 1920, on the Okeh label.

1919 - Gennett Record Company in Indiana began to make lateral-cut records and was sued by Victor. Smaller labels such as Okeh, Vocalian, Compo joined Gennett in defending its claim that lateral-cut was in the public domain. Gennett won case 1921 before Judge Learned Hand and won appeal 1922 before Judge Augustus Hand, cousin of Learned. Gennett became one of the largest record producers in the nation, releasing some of the earliest jazz records of Jelly Roll Morton and opened the gates for smaller independent companies to record their own records.

Early Radios

1894 - in December, Guglielmo Marconi made radio history when at the age of 20 he invented his spark transmitter with antenna at his home in Bologna, Italy. He took his "Black Box" to Britain in Feb. 1896 and although it was broken by custom officials, he filed for British Patent number 12039 on June 2, 1896, and began to build a world empire of Marconi companies.

1920 - David Sarnoff in January proposed in a 28-page memo the "Sales of Radio Music Box for Entertainment Purposes" and led RCA into cross-licensing patents with AT&T and Westinghouse and to leadership in the broadcasting and recording industries by the end of the decade.

1920 - KDKA in Pittsburg inaugurated commercial radio when it was the first radio station to receive its commercial call letters from the Department of Commerce Oct. 27; it began regular scheduled broadcasting Nov. 2 with the returns of the presidential election, and continued broadcasting every evening from 8:30-9:30 pm.

1921 - Public address amplifiers and speakers developed by AT&T since 1916 were used at the Armistice Day ceremonies at the Tomb of the Unknown

1921 - majority record sales began decline from $106 million high due to the growth of live radio, but new kinds of minority music become popular.

1921 - The Coon-Sanders Novelty Orchestra in Kansas City recorded "Some Little Bird" for Columbia, began regular radio broadcasts Nov. 1922 on the clear channel station WDAF, and recorded 65 songs for Victor 1924-32, becoming one of the nation's most popular big bands of the Jazz Age.

1923 - Bessie Smith's first record "Down-Hearted Blues" was an important landmark on The Blue Highway, selling 750,000 copies for the Columbia label in one year, and making Smith the "Empress of the Blues." Her recording of Handy's classic "St. Louis Blues" with Louis Armstrong on cornet for Columbia in 1925 was one of the finest records of the era, and led her to star in the 1929 RCA Photophone two-reel sound film St. Louis Blues with an all African American cast.

1923 - New York's WHN broadcast of the influential big band led by Fletcher Henderson.

1923 - Fiddlin' John Carson's "Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane" became the first hit country record.

From the first recordings made on tinfoil in 1877 to the last produced on celluloid in 1929, cylinders spanned a half-century of technological development in sound recording. As documents of American cultural history and musical style, cylinders serve as an audible witness to the sounds and songs through which typical audiences first encountered the recorded human voice.

For those living at the turn of the 20th century, the most likely source of recorded sound on cylinders would have been Thomas Alva Edison's crowning achievement, the phonograph. Edison wasn't the only one in the sound recording business in the first decades of the 20th century; several companies with a great number of recording artists, in addition to the purveyors of the burgeoning disc format, all competed in the musical marketplace. Still, more than any other figure of his time, Edison and the phonograph became synonymous with the cylinder medium. Edison cylinder players could also record and worn-out wax cylinders could be resurfaced and re-recorded. Microphones came into use about 1924 and the acoustics era ended. Singers with weaker voices (crooners) could record and radio began. Early voices in this new era were Whispering Jack Smith and Gene Austin.

The microphone was further improved in 1927.