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Columbia Cylinder Records (U.S., Standard Diameter): Chronology

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Columbia and its manufacturing arm, American Graphophone, has an interesting history of cylinder record development.   Shown and described here are known variations of the firm's standard-diameter cylinder record products in the U.S.  As always, if I've missed something, additions are most welcome.


The American Graphophone Company and the Columbia Phonograph Company didn't become virtually one entity until 1895.  Prior to that time, however, Columbia was selling cylinders.  The first of these were manufactured by the American Graphophone Company, based upon the patents of Chichester Bell and Charles Sumner Tainter.  Collectors refer to these cylinders as "Bell-Tainter cylinders."  These rare records are 6 inches long and 1 5/16 inches in diameter.  (Okay, this isn't a "standard-diameter" cylinder, but it needed to be included!)  A paper core was coated with ozocerite wax.  (Period documentation often spells this as "ozokerite," suggesting the pronunciation of the term.)  These cylinders were almost always sold as blanks to be used for office dictation, but a couple of musical selections have been reported on surviving examples.  Manufactured from 1886, their last documented use seems to have been in a group of coin-operated Graphophones at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair.




The Columbia Phonograph Company (one of the North American Phonograph Company subsidiaries) handled these Bell-Tainter cylinders, as well as the Edison-style 4-inch long x 2 1/8" diameter cylinders.  It quickly became apparent to Columbia's management that entertainment cylinders (or "records") brought in far more profits than the Bell-Tainter cylinders, so Columbia not only sold Edison-made records, but in 1890 began recording its own product.  Unlike the Edison-style cylinders of the period which sported a "channel rim" (where a circular paper title label was sometimes applied), Columbia's product featured a smooth rim which would become an industry standard.  Here is a ca. 1893 Columbia record which boasts a paper title label on the record's surface:



Once American Graphophone and Columbia legally joined forces in 1895, the firms were faced with the prospect of providing six-inch records for all the Bell-Tainter Graphophones then in service, as well as 4-inch records for Edison Phonographs and the latest model Graphophones (such as the F and Baby Grand).  For a short period, Columbia (as we will henceforth refer to the combined companies) provided both formats.  Here is an illustration from Columbia's December 1896 catalog:



Note that the "strong interior support" of the "Cylinder E" was virtually the same Bell-Tainter paper core (slightly thickened to support the substantial wax surface).  These "E" cylinders could be used only on Bell-Tainter machines and their derivatives; they are rarely found today.  Here is a survivor:



The September 1895 introduction of the $40.00 Type N Graphophone and the $25.00 Type A Graphophone in mid-1896 created a vibrant market for cylinder records.  It is during the late 1896-1897 period that cylinder records were produced in sufficient numbers that we collectors may occasionally encounter them.  These records carry no identification, although they were originally provided with small paper title slips (which were often lost or switched between different records).  Here is an example of a typical Columbia cylinder record of the 1896-1898 period:



The mid-1897 introduction of the Type C Graphophone - which could play Edison-style 4-inch records as well as six-inch cylinders on the same mandrel - brought about the new "Cylinder C."  Here's an illustration from the September 1897 catalog:



Viewed from our perspective, the "C" cylinder looks normal enough, and indeed dictation cylinders in this same general format survived for another half-century.  But in 1897, this cylinder was remarkable; providing the advantages of the Edison design with the potential of a six-inch long cylinder format.  (For an in-depth essay on this, see "Opportunity Lost: American Graphophone and its Six-Inch Cylinders" in Howard Hazelcorn's Guide to Columbia Cylinder Graphophones.)  Surprisingly, the "C" cylinders seem to be nearly as hard to find as the "E" cylinders that preceded them.  Here's an example:



By 1898, Columbia record production was quite large, far outstripping Edison, and it continued to grow throughout the 1890s.  A common misconception among beginning collectors is that cylinder records can be roughly dated by color; with lighter hues being earlier.  This can be easily debunked by studying Columbia's "Grand" cylinders (five-inch diameter) which did not become widely available until 1899.  It is not unusual to find "Grand" records in very light, creamy colors.  Here is a group of Columbia standard-size cylinders found in the wild with a ca. 1899 "Eagle" Graphophone.  These all date from 1899-1900:


By late 1900/1901, Columbia's wax had generally darkened to a chocolate brown, although variations in batches would continue to appear.


In 1902, moulded cylinder records appeared, enabling companies to duplicate selections in much larger numbers and in shorter time than previous methods had allowed.  Columbia's first moulded records used apparently the same brown wax formula as the last of the earlier records.  The most noticeable difference was the title information moulded into the rim:



Edison's moulded cylinder records were black, and were heavily advertised as "hardened," and the new wax being touted as superior to the old brown wax.  True or not, Columbia switched to black wax, although collectors debate to this day whether the new Columbia wax was different, or simply featured a coloring agent:



It wasn't until September 1904 that Columbia's titles were engraved on the ends, filled with white ink:



The following year, Columbia introduced its "Twentieth Century" Records - - in a belated attempt to exploit the advantages of a six-inch cylinder.  It might have worked in 1897, but by 1905, the disc record had gained irretrievable momentum in a fast-moving industry.  The "Twentieth Century" Records - and the machines that played them - would survive only until 1909. 



During the 1905-1907 period, Edison overtook Columbia as the premier U.S. cylinder manufacturer.  Edison's introduction of the four-minute cylinder record in late 1908 further hurt Columbia's cylinder business.  Aware of the coming calamity, Columbia arranged to become the sole distributor of the output of the Indestructible Record Company (Albany, NY).  Columbia's move trumped Edison's announcement in one significant respect: Columbia's cylinder product would now be pressed in celluloid - a substance Edison had not been able to employ without paying royalties (which Thomas A. Edison was unwilling to do).  Columbia's celluloid cylinder records were introduced in October 1908 in two-minute variety only (below left).  The four-minute Columbias (below right) followed in November.  Both types were manufactured until 1912, at which point Columbia dropped the cylinder business entirely.


Note that these Columbia Indestructibles all carry the July 29, 1902 date of Messer's U.S. patent.  The 4-minute variety is always marked "4M" which continues to be an aid to users over 110 years later.


For a guide to basic cylinder types for Edison, Columbia, Indestructible, and others, see this article on the APS website:



George P.

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Great topic and oh so interesting to me. I have none of the 1890s cylinders and hope springs eternal. I do love Columbia cylinders for a couple reasons. Thanks for the topic.

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I'm glad you fellows enjoyed it.  I just didn't feel like watching football this afternoon!


Thanks for your kind words, Dan - - especially considering that I still owe you an empty album for 10" discs!


George P.

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This is a wonderful topic, perhaps it should be memorialized as a "sticky" for posterity? If we're doing that sort if thing?


Thank you George for the refresher.




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