Early Development and Background to the Edison Diamond Disc, 1912-13
From the late 1880s through the middle of the first decade of the 20th century, the cylinder format reigned supreme in the world of recorded music. While Edison’s original patent of April 1878 specified “the phonogram may be in the form of a disc, a sheet, and endless belt, a cylinder, a rollor, or a belt or strip…” Edison chose the cylinder as it maintained a constant speed of the recorded surface under the stylus. From roughly 1896 through 1905, Edison sold all the cylinders he could make, and The Edison Phonograph Monthly was filled with apologies to both their jobbers and dealers for not being able to keep up with demand for records despite running massive amounts of overtime at their factory. Times change though, and the intervening years between 1905 and 1910 were not kind to Edison.
While the noisy seven-inch discs and record-eating front mount “talking machines” seemed primitive and crude in the early 1900s, by 1910 double-faced 10” and 12” discs, inexpensive internal-horn Victrolas and Grafonolas, and star-studded record catalogs had made a profound impact on the market. Double-faced discs typically held between six and eight minutes of music, and 40 or 50 could be stored in the space that would accommodate only 12 or 16 cylinders – a storage ratio of roughly 6 to 1 in favor of the disc. Recording and manufacturing techniques had improved markedly, and listening to a disc was no longer an annoying ordeal, but had actually become quite enjoyable. By the end of the decade it was clear that in order to remain competitive in the field of recorded music, Edison needed to develop a disc.
While Edison was not prohibited from using a flat disc per se, there were two key patents under the control of competitors Columbia and Victor. The first concerned lateral recording in wax in which the walls of the groove moved the stylus side to side, thereby creating the sound. The second covered the use of the spiral groove to propel the tonearm through the record. Given these constraints, Edison was compelled to come up with a radically new approach to recording and reproducing music on discs, which is precisely what he did.
During 1910 and 1911, a system was developed that utilized a vertical recording method, whereby the bottom of the groove went up and down in a “hill and dale” pattern, similar to the method employed on the cylinder. This avoided the lateral recording patent. Secondly, a mechanism was employed that used the motor and system of gears to propel the tonearm through the record, avoiding the inevitable wear on the sides of the groove walls that plagued the lateral method. Finally, a permanent diamond stylus was employed eliminating the need to change the needle after each record.
If all this sounds complicated, it was, and it was not until mid-1912 that a few machines and records were available to begin circulating to dealers. It would take another year before the Edison Disc and Phonograph would be officially announced to the public, but in October 1913, Edison finally unveiled a full range of disc phonographs and a good selection of records ready for sale.
-Michael Sherman, Monarch Records Enterprises (Michael is the author of the reference work The Collector's Guide to Edison Disc Recordings.)