Edison's Late Electrical Recordings

When the Edison Diamond Disc made its official debut in the fall of 1913, it was heralded as the pinnacle of recorded sound fidelity. The vertical recording method coupled with Edison’s use of a diamond tip captured a higher frequency range of sound, yielding more overtones and a more realistic aural reproduction of both instrumental and vocal music. By 1924, however, progress in microphones and amplification spearheaded by the Bell Laboratories and Western Electric had made practical electrical recording possible, and in the spring of 1925 both Victor and Columbia began to issue recordings made with the use of microphones. In the fall of that year, new phonographs designed to play the electrical recordings were introduced, and the results were nothing short of dramatic. The frequency range (formerly roughly 350hz to 3000hz) was extended by two-and-a-half octaves and now encompassed 100hz to 5000hz. In addition, the elimination of the need to crowd around a single horn enabled the recording of far larger groups of musicians, and a boom in orchestral recordings soon followed.

At this point, Thomas Edison was nearing 80 years old and was nearly deaf. He was oblivious to both the increased volume and fidelity of electrical recordings as well as the changing tastes in music that had been sweeping the country over the past decade. In a January 14, 1926 reply to Walter Miller (head of sound recording) responding to Miller’s request to investigate electrical recording, Edison replied: “I do not want to touch this scheme at present. I could have taken this up without paying anybody. They [Victor] cannot record without distortion.” Instead, Edison decided to pursue his ill-fated Long Playing Record.

It would not be for another year and a half that Edison relented in the face of sagging record sales and consented to electrical recording for the Diamond Discs. During July and August 1927, various experimental recordings were made, and by September the first electrically recorded Diamond Discs were ready for sale. Pride of place for the first issued electrical recording goes to DD 52089 and for the next two years (through DD 52651) Edison made use of the microphone. The difference was not nearly as dramatic as was heard on Victor’s effort, as Edison lacked the resources for a complete redesign of the phonograph. The Edisonic, which featured a new reproducer and slightly longer horn, was put on sale in the fall of 1927. While it offered somewhat increased volume and more up-to-date cabinet styling, the improvement in sound quality was incremental at best. Edison copywriters billed this as “Close-Up” music, but when heard next to one of Victor’s large Orthophonic Victrolas or one of Columbia’s Viva-Tonal phonographs, they fell short.

A few semi-classical and classical electrical recordings were made, as well as the roughly 560 “popular” selections. DD discs 80885-80907 and 82351-82360 are electrically recorded and most are violin and string selections by either Carl Flesch or Albert Spalding (soloists) or trios, quartets, and quintets by E. Robert Schmitz and the Philharmonic String Quartette of New York, the Roth String Quartet, or the New York Trio. A few operatic selections by baritone Mario Basiola are also found in the 82000 series.

Edison’s foray into electrical recording can basically be summed up as “too little, too late.” While the electrical Edison Diamond Discs are highly prized by collectors today, the same cannot be said of record buyers in the late 1920s.

-Michael Sherman, Monarch Records Enterprises (Michael is the author of the reference work The Collector's Guide to Edison Disc Recordings.)

Links to digitized copies of Edison Electrical Recordings will be available online in the near future.