Antique Edison phonographs for sale -- a beginner's guide Part 1 - History

I've never met you, but I'm going to make an assumption about you which is most likely accurate. I'm going to assume that you don't know much about Edison phonographs. Maybe you're thinking about a purchase, maybe you want some help in identifying a particular model, or maybe you inherited an old machine and want to get it going again.

Edison phonograph nomenclature
Nomenclature of the Edison phonograph. The Home model is depicted.
Phonograph was Mr. Edison's word. He invented the word, and it applies to a sound reproducing device manufactured by one of the successive companies under Edison's control. There's no such thing as an Edison Victrola; Victrola was a trademark of the Victor Talking Machine Company. Columbia Graphophone was a competing company to Edison; they made a similar product, but I'm not going to talk about them here, except in the general sense of shared acoustic principles.

What I am going to talk about is what you are likely to find, and that is the mass-produced outside horn cylinder phonographs from the peak years of production, around 1898 to around 1913. There are many rare and valuable models of Edison phonographs, and many sites that will educate you about them, but you're not likely to find these machines, so I won't burden you with the details. Let's say I'm putting you on a need to know basis.You don't need to know how distinguish a Bergmann tinfoil machine from a Stroh, when most collectors will go a lifetime without ever acquiring a tinfoil machine. You need to know how to distinguish an Edison Standard from a Home model, or how to speed up a pokey machine. If you need to know more then check out some of the books I recommend later in this article.

Edison invented the phonograph in 1877, but it really didn't make its way into American homes for at least twenty years. The earliest machines played a strip of tinfoil, and were regarded as little more than a curiosity while Edison busied himself with other tasks such as the electrification of New York City. In the mid 1880s two scientists, Chicester Bell and Sumner Tainter, approached Edison with a better record. Edison turned them down flat, much to his later regret as the Bell-Tainter patents became the cornerstone of his competitor the Graphophone Company. The race was on to perfect the phonograph.

Most machines of the 1880s and most of the 1890s were electrically powered, usually by cumbersome wet cells. This is because house current wasn't widely available, and a reliable spring motor hadn't been developed. Although some of these machines appeared in the home they were very expensive, and a more typical sight was a coin-operated machine in a penny arcade. The coin-ops proved to be good money-makers, much to the chagrin of Edison, who took a long time to warm to the idea of his invention being used for entertainment; he had thought that business provided a more noble purpose. Edison phonographs of this era played cylinder records made of various wax formulas; the records were quite faint and were best heard via listening tubes which resembled stethoscopes.

In the late 1890s a few independent entrepreneurs such as Edward Amet had been manufacturing spring motor photographs, often fitting a motor of their design to an Edison upperworks. In the late 1890s Edison engineers adapted (some would say stole) these designs, and a series of spring-powered phonographs was introduced. The first was descriptively if unimaginativly called the Spring Motor Phonograph (1896) -- it evolved into a machine called the Triumph. The next was known as the Home (late 1896), and then came the Standard (1898). The Standard sold for around $20 which, while a lot of money in 1898 dollars, still made it affordable to the average household. The Gem, an economy machine which sold for $7.50, was birthed in 1899.

These machines were rugged and reliable, and Edison, treated in the press like a demigod, had a loyal base of customers primarily in small towns and farming communities, which back then constituted the bulk of America. Millions of Edison phonographs were sold, and might have continued to sell forever, except for one flaw. The records didn't sound as good or as loud as the flat discs made by Victor and Columbia. The flat disc makers were a little tardier swinging into mass production than Edison, but by around 1902 or 1903 they had caught up. Although early discs were scratchy and of poor quality, as the discs were improved they became quite lifelike, and also were capable of a longer playing time, around three and a half minutes. Cylinders of this era played for two minutes.

And so began the great search for volume. Various improvements in the composition of the wax record and the reproducer (soundbox) were attempted. An interim solution (around 1901) was to increase the size of the record so as to be able to increase the surface speed of the record; it was well recognized that an increased surface speed yielded more volume. These records were known as Concert records, and a special machine was required to play them, the Edison Concert Phonograph. The Concert records were themselves superceded around 1903 by the new gold molded records, which at last gave superior volume and clarity.

Nonetheless 1903 was the peak year for cylinder production, and the disc machines afterwards began to outsell the Edison cylinders. Edison responded somewhat in 1908 by extending the playing time of his records to four minutes, going to 200 grooves/inch from 100 grooves/inch. These black wax records were known as Amberols; they were extremely brittle and suffered from poor compliance, that is, the stylus tended to break down the walls between the grooves. An adapter kit was sold to retrofit the old two minute machines to play the new records, and new models were offered with two and four minute gearing. Collectors refer to such machines as Combination models. Edison had adamantly opposed the use of celluloid, partly for patent reasons, but in 1912 he relented and introduced a four minute celluloid record in a brilliant blue color. These Blue Amberols were of excellent quality, but by this time the cylinder trade was becoming increasingly moribund. The last of the outside horn machines were cleared out around 1915, although an internal horn Edison phonograph known as the Amberola was manufactured as late as 1919.

All antique Edison phonographs played vertically cut records and were driven by a mechanical feed screw that advanced the carriage at a constant speed. These features were maintained during the life of the Edison phonograph partly for patent reasons, but there were some cogent reasons for them, at least early on. The stylus in a vertically cut record bobs up and down, as opposed to wiggling in the side of the groove. Because of this, and because Edison employed a jeweled stylus, Edison records are not as susceptible to wear as flat disc records; in fact, Edison advertised that his gold molded records could be played 200 times with no appreciable wear. Unfortunately the vertical cut cylinders tended to be less lifelike than the discs, with sounds such as sibillants disappearing into a phonographic never-never land. The mechanical feed compensated for some problems early on in the recording studio, but it also allowed another interesting feature: home recordings.

You rarely run into home recordings, but here is how it worked. A brown wax record was placed on the mandrel. A cut was taken off the record with a shaver. The reproducer was removed and a special recording head was inserted into the carriage. A special recording horn was placed on the recording head. You shouted into the recording horn, and voila, you were as big a star as Billy Murray and Ada Jones. The shaving attachments were dropped from most models after the Model A machinery, but you could still purchase a separate Edison Shaving Machine.

How do you distinguish a two minute machine from a combination machine? What you should keep in mind is that some method was needed to change the pitch of the feed. The Home model and the Triumph made use of a sun and planet gear on the mandrel shaft. The Standard and the Fireside had an extra gear in the upperworks gear train, engaged by a knurled rod. If you don't see these features on your example then odds are 999 out of 1000 that you've got a straight two minute machine, although some very, very late models played straight four minute. Your machine also requires a reproducer appropriate to its playing time; the model of the reproducer is usually stamped on its fish tail. The Model C reproducer was equipped with a two minute stylus. Model H and N reproducers came with a four minute stylus. Model K and O reproducers had a flip-flop arrangement, with both two and four minute styli.

Edison Standard combination gearing
2-4 minute combination gearing on the Edison Standard Phonograph. Gear cover removed.
Edison Home combination gearing
2-4 minute combination gearing on the Edison Home Phonograph.
Finally, what you need to know about horns. The conception that most of these machines came accompanied with horns decorated in hand-painted flowers is a myth perpetuated by the motion picture industry. Only one antique Edison phonograph, the Model D Standard, was ever equipped out of the factory with such a horn. Early machines came with listening tubes. Around 1901 the 14" brass and black horn became standard on many models, with larger horns optional at extra cost.

Anything longer than a 14" horn needs to be supported by a crane. Floor cranes were used early on; later Edisons could be ordered with a self-supporting crane balanced by a foot that clipped under the front of the case. A flexible piece of rubber tubing always goes between the tip of a craned horn and the tip of the reproducer, so as to not shear the reproducer.

In general, the historical progression was from conical horns to belled horns to petalled horns. Since many aftermarket companies manufactured horns and horn cranes it is often impossible, and inappropriate, to say what horn was originally sold with your machine. A small number of models did require special horns, at least in so far as present day collectors place a value upon them. I'll cue you into some of these exceptions in the next portion of this article.


Copyright 2015 Lynn Bilton

Lynn Bilton
Box 435
Randolph,OH 44265
330 325-7866


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