Edison Cylinder Machines

Edison Machines

Thomas A. Edison, the Wizard of Menlo Park, will never be forgotten by cylinder collectors since his name is nearly synonymous with the cylinder industry. Other companies sold cylinders--Chicago's Lambert Company, Columbia, Cleveland's U. S. Phonograph Company (maker of U-S Everlasting cylinders)--but Edison dominated the market and sold these tube-like records long after the public showed a preference for discs. Columbia stopped making cylinders in 1909 (the company afterwards distributed Indestructible cylinders, made by a smaller company) whereas the Edison Company sold four-minute Blue Amberola cylinders until July 1929. Cylinders from these final months, especially jazz titles, are highly collectible. By this time an electric dubbing process was used.

Most cylinder machines in antiques shops are Edisons. I will discuss a few models I know well, either because I own one or, in the case of a couple of rare models, have close friends with such machines. Cylinders are played during "listening sessions" I have with other collectors, but I prefer the sound of a Victrola or Edison Diamond Disc machine. I enjoy artists who made cylinders--especially comic singers Billy Murray, Ada Jones, and Arthur Collins--but often find the sound wobbling and thin. Worse, I cannot make good quality cassettes, which is not a problem with 78s. Others are satisfied by the sound. Certainly cylinders of the 1890s sound better than Berliners, which were competing discs. Finding brown wax cylinders of the 1890s that have not been spoiled by mold is difficult.

One early machine is the Gem, which is small and lacks power. Call it the baby of Edison phonographs. Most models have a key-wound spring motor that is supposed to play a two-minute cylinder at a full winding, but I find that some Gem motors wind down before a cylinder is over (these need to be worked upon). A Gem sold in 1908 for about $12.50. More powerful models cost much more. The Model D and later ones have a crank, not a key. Several models came before the Gem, including machines that could also be equipped with listening tubes like a stethoscope (to use modern language, they came with "headphones" along with a speaker, or horn). Some were coin-operated, which are highly collectible.

Blue Amberol Records

The Fireside model was successful when introduced in 1909. It came with a 19 inch straight horn though a two-piece "cygnet" horn was available for more money. "Cygnet" is French for swan, and the horn is elegant. This model could play "standard" records--that is, two minute cylinders--and four minute ones. Some people are surprised when they learn that cylinders came in either a two or four minute format and that each format requires the right equipment. I feel two minutes is too short for a song but four minutes can get tedious. Most Victor discs of popular tunes (issued on black label, not the famous red label for classical) play for about 3 minutes, which I feel is just right.

Many machines have the name Amberola, which Edison produced from 1909 to 1929 in various models. These have internal horns instead of exposed ones. The Victor Company had great success with its built-in horn models--that is, Victrolas--and Edison tried to compete.

The splendid Amberola 1A was marketed from 1909 to 1912 and played two- and four- minute cylinders. The Amberola 1B played only 4 minute cylinders--you change reproducers, the L reproducer playing wax Amberols and the Diamond A playing Blue Amberols. Both the A and B styles were costly, selling from $200 (for mahogany or oak) to $250 (for walnut). The playing mechanism on these Amberola machines is very similar to that of the Opera. Examine the machine carefully for any air leaks--these can be sealed if you know where the leaks are.

There was no Amberola II. The Amberola III sold from 1912 to 1915. The Amberola IV is rare (only 100 were built) whereas the Amberola V is fairly common since it sold very well. The Amberola VI came in three forms. Soon came the VIII and X. No VII or IX appeared.

These numbers get confusing, and in 1915 Edison consolidated the Amberolas into three lines defined by the dollars needed to buy one: the 30 sold for $30, the 50 for $50, and the 75 for $75. The model 30 pops up more than the other two. Later machines include the Model 60 and the floor model 80, made in 1928.

A book about Edison cylinder machines is George Frow's Edison Cylinder Phonograph Companion. At some point I will discuss here the very early Perfected model (it used 2.5 volt batteries), the Triumph, the Home, the Standard, and the splendid Idelia. There would not be much point in discussing the model "M" since nobody reading this will find one of these in a garage sale or estate sale!

The Opera model was designed for playing wax Amberols (use the L reproducer) and Blue Amberols (use the Diamond A reproducer). For years I wanted one of these beauties, and a dream came true when Bill Roddy saw my homepage and offered for sale the Opera that has been in his family for decades--at a very reasonable price. Thanks, Bill! My Harry Raderman cylinders sound great on my newly acquired Opera, which is prominently displayed in my living room!

Kansas City Talking Machine Co

Listed in the Guinness Book of World Records is the oldest known recording. It is cut directly into the sleeve of a cylinder machine made around 1879 by Frank Lambert. Simple clock times are announced: one o'clock, two o'clock, and so on. Clearly the inventor planned to put this machine into a clock, creating the first talking clock!

If you see the name Lambert on a cylinder, it was made by Thomas Lambert, a different inventor. All pink Lambert cylinders are rare and valuable! Look also for Bacigalupi and Edison Concert cylinders.