Columbia Corporate History: Indestructible Cylinders

Columbia Master Book, Volume I, Tim Brooks, ed.

Columbia landed a one-two punch in the fall of 1908. In addition to the spectacular launch of “double-discs” it discontinued its wax cylinder line (which had been trailing badly behind Edison) and replaced it with a catalog of unbreakable celluloid cylinders produced by the Indestructible Record Company of Albany, New York. “Wax cylinders are as out of date as wax candles” crowed one Columbia advertisement.42 Indestructible had been eating into the wax cylinder business of both Edison and Columbia, and Edison retaliated during the summer of 1908 with an order forbidding its distributors to handle any other cylinder line. Edison’s frontal attack on Indestructible’s distribution would probably have destroyed the young company. However with Columbia’s vast network of dealers behind it, Indestructible was once again a potent threat.

“Columbia-Indestructibles” were well recorded, far more durable than the Edison product, and sold for only 35¢, the same price as Edison’s fragile wax cylinder. Edison countered with a new line, a four-minute wax cylinder (the “Amberol”) for 50¢. It was, however, still made of a breakable wax compound. (Columbia countered that with four-minute Indestructibles in 1909.) The fine-grooved Edison Amberol was not particularly well recorded, but the power of the Edison name was such that he kept his hegemony in the largely rural cylinder market. Unable to break the Edison hammerlock on the cylinder business, even with a superior product, Columbia threw in the towel in 1912, discontinuing cylinder production entirely.

Columbia moved quickly to exploit its momentum in the disc field, signing new dealers at the rate of forty per day. By March 1909 it was claiming 17,000 Graphophone dealers in the United States—presumably that meant a shelf in the back of practically every general store in the country.43 A new line of popularly priced internal-horn Grafonolas was introduced in the 1909-1910, forcing Victor to lower prices on its popular Victrola line (the Victrola had originally been introduced as a premium priced machine in 1906).

Columbia and Victor agreed on one thing at least, and that was the need to clear the field of competing disc manufacturers who were siphoning off business from both of them. Despite the strength of their joint patent position, this took time, but after a long series of lawsuits by the two companies, they accomplished their goal. Casualties included the American Record Company (American), International Record Company (Excelsior, Kalamazoo, Silver Star, Vim, etc.), Leeds & Catlin (Leeds, Imperial, D&R) and Hawthorne & Sheble (Busy Bee, Star). All had been driven out of business by 1909.44 Columbia apparently absorbed parts of the last-named company, and Horace Sheble became American Graphophone’s factory manager in late 1909, succeeding Thomas Macdonald.45

The period from 1908 until 1920 was the first “Golden Age” for Columbia discs. All serious competition had been driven from the field through the patent infringement suits, creating a virtual disc monopoly for Victor and Columbia. At the same time sales were growing exponentially, and cylinders were no longer a competitive threat. The following chart shows total U.S. production of discs and cylinders, according to the U. S. Census of Manufactures.

Table 2:

Total U.S. Production of Cylinders and Discs

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Unit Production (millions)

1904* 21 4 25
1909 18.6 8.6 27.2
1914 3.9 23.3 27.2
1919 5.9 101.1 107
1921 1.8 103.4 105.2

*estimates based on dollar value.

 No wonder Columbia Double-Discs from the mid-teens and later are found with such frequency today.

Curiously, Columbia conducted tests of vertically cut discs beginning in 1909, or possibly earlier, although there was no move to market them. Edison finally introduced its own thick, vertically-cut [LINK TO GLOSSARY] “Diamond Discs” in 1913. Many survive today because they are virtually indestructible, but they do not appear to have posed much of a threat to Columbia or Victor sales because they could be played only on Edison equipment. 


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The Columbia Master Book Discography, 4 Volumes, Complied by Brian Rust and Tim Brooks. Reprinted by permission.