Edison records explained: how to tell the difference between a two and four minute record
Copyright 2006 Lynn Bilton
Note: If you came to this page searching for Edison records for sale, please check the listings in the records
If you're looking for a tube for your old record player, then you need one of the types of cylinder records that were made from the late 1880s until around 1929. These cylinder records were manufactured by Edison, Columbia, Pathe and several other companies, and will be interchangeable between brands of machine, providing that you are playing the appropriate type of record. Playing the wrong type of Edison record on your machine at best might yield a garbled sound, and at worst might damage the record. To determine the appropriate type of Edison record tube for your machine, read on.
The basic question you must answer is whether you have a two minute or four minute machine, that is, whether your machine is capable of playing a two minute or four minute record.
I'm going to oversimplify the diagnostic in a moment, but first a little history. Up until around late 1908 there was no such thing as a four minute machine; all cylinder phonographs played for only two minutes. Then, partly as a response to the longer playing time of the flat disc record, the number of grooves to the inch was increased from 100 to 200, and the playing time lengthened. This necessitated a change in the gearing of the feed mechanism, and a change in the cut of the stylus on the reproducer. Some transitional machines were produced that played both two and four minute records; these were sometimes marked Combination Model inside the lid. Therefore, machines manufactured prior to late 1908 will always play two minute Edison records.
Now here's the essence of things, the easiest way I can think of to distinguish two minute from four minute machines:
Edison two minute machines (outside horn)
*These phonographs are usually equipped with a swing arm (end gate) to the right of the mandrel. Typically fitted with a Model C reproducer.
Edison four minute machines (outside horn)
*These machines did not usually have an end gate. Typically fitted with a model N, H or Diamond A reproducer.
Edison combination machines (outside horn)
May or may not have an end gate, as some two minute Edisons were retrofitted to play four minute records. However, combination machines always have some extra gearing to change the pitch of the feed.
Look for a sun and planet gear on the two pulleys of the Home model, or an extra gear in the upper gear train attached to a knurled knob on the Standard model.
Could be fitted with any of the above reproducers, or Model K or O reproducers, which had a flip-flop arrangement for both 2 and 4 minute styli.
Edison four minute machines (internal horn)
*Almost all the Amberola models you are likely to encounter will be straight four minute machines, including the most common Amberolas 30, 50, and 75.
To look at this another way, you need the correct type of reproducer for your Edison record and your machine:
Common two minute reproducers:
Model B (early Gem)
Common four minute reproducers:
Common combination reproducers
COLUMBIA MACHINES (Graphophones):
Most Columbia models were two minute machines. A very small number of 2-4 minute Columbia machines were made around 1910; these machines usually have a lever to engage a thin gear in the upper gear train, and a universal stylus for both 2 and 4 minute records.
How do you distinguish a two minute cylinder record from a four minute cylinder record? It's easy, if you keep in mind that until 1908 there was no such thing as a four minute record. But to make things completely clear I need to expose you to a little record history, at least insofar as the choice of materials was concerned.
The earliest records were made of various wax formulae. Collectors refer to these record tubes as brown wax, although the color in some early batches could run to almost white. In 1903 Edison perfected a gold molding process that made his records louder and more lifelike than before. These records had a black color and a waxy feel, although technically they were composed of a non-metallic soap. Collectors refer to these as the black wax records. The major companies did not make records out of celluloid, although at least two smaller firms, Lambert and Indestructible, did offer celluloid records.
Such was the situation as of 1909 when Edison introduced a new, four minute black wax record dubbed the Amberol. These records were marked 4M on the rim. The Amberols proved to be quite brittle, and had a tendency to break down the walls between the grooves. They were replaced in 1912 by a new four minute record made of celluloid with a Plaster of Paris core, known as the Blue Amberol for its brilliant blue color.
Blue Amberol and gold molded black wax records
Which leads to the following helpful rules:
Rule A. Records not marked on the rim are 2 minute records. (Except for Rule C)
Rule B. Records marked 4M on the rim are 4 minute records.
Rule C. Celluloid records with a plaster of Paris core are four minute records. These records are usually blue, but could be purple.
When purchasing any type of cylinder record be sure to ascertain that it is in good condition. Except for some early issues a surprising number of cylinders have survived, and you will discover that it is wiser to pay a little more for a nice example than for an Edison record that is mostly static. Brown and black wax records are highly susceptible to mildew, which feeds upon the organic composition of the record. The mildew can be removed with a fungicide, but except for the lightest dusting will make the record unsalvageable. Examine celluloid records for nicks and scratches, as you would an LP.
There are a few types of cylinder records that are so scarce that you are not likely to run into them, but I mention them here for the sake of completeness.
A brown wax record five inches in diameter (not length) was sold from around 1901-1903. Edison called these Concert records, Columbia called them Grands, and they were an attempt to induce greater volume through greater surface speed. The Concert records were superceded by the Gold Molded Records.
In 1906 Columbia introduced a record six inches in length, dubbed the Twentieth Century record. These records were cut to a regular two minute pitch and played with a regular two minute stylus, but could only be accomodated on the extended mandrels of certain pricier Columbia machines.
The Pathe company in Europe remained in the cylinder business longer than anyone on the continent. Besides standard records and Concert cylinders they produced a record midway in size between the two for special Pathe machines. These "Inter" records, to the best of my knowledge, were never actively marketed in the United States.
Most of the music on Edison records was skewed to rural tastes, but if you look hard enough you'll find something you like: bands, opera, folk, pioneer recording artists. While rare titles may run into the hundreds of dollars, you can find many interesting tubes for your record player for as little as $3, and no other antique can give so much pleasure for such a modest price.