On an Overgrown Pathé

[On an Overgrown Pathe]

Firing on All Cylinders

A Brief Guide to Edison Cylinder Phonographs

[Italian version here]

Author: David Hoehl - TNT USA
Published: January, 2018

Part II: The Nitty Gritty

Part I of this two-part series was an overview of the Edison cylinder player in general. Now it's time to look at some specifics.

If you're familiar with Leica cameras, you probably have seen that "Leica Family Tree" poster with a host of derivative models branching off in various lines from a single "Ur Leica" prototype. Something similar could be (and, for all I know, may have been) done for Edison cylinder phonographs--they ran in families. Here's a quick rundown of the principal models you're likely to encounter.

The open horn models


[Triumph Model B]

The Triumph, a direct development of the Edison Spring Motor Phonograph that had been on the market since 1895, was the top of Edison's regular line of phonographs for home consumption from its introduction in 1901 until the discontinuation of open horn phonographs in late 1913. It featured Edison's largest case, by default in oak although some models could be had on special order in mahogany, for most of the model run fitted with Edison's most powerful cylinder phonograph motor, the three-spring "Triton." As a practical matter, you are extremely unlikely to encountner a Triumph in other than oak today. The feed screw ran as an extension of the mandrel axle. Over the years, Edison offered the Triumph in seven variants, or models; Model A and Model B had end gates; Model C, introduced in the United States in February 1908, through the final Model G dispensed with this feature. Model D, with a US introduction of October 1908, was the first to offer factory-installed gearing for both two- and four-minute cylinders, a feature that would persist until release of the October 1912 Model G, which was geared for four-minute cylinders only; coincident with the release of the Model D, Edison made conversion kits available to add four-minute gearing to earlier models. The late models F and G reduced the number of springs from three to two.

I think it's safe to say that, aside from some of the even higher-end exotic machines released in limited numbers at the end of the open horn era, the big, heavy, powerful Triumph is the Edison phonograph to which most cylinder collectors aspire. Fitted with 2/4-minute gearing, a flipover Model O combination reproducer, and one of the deluxe wooden cygnet horns, it is a workhorse capable of giving the best reproduction to be had from a mainstream cylinder player. That said, the would-be buyer should be aware of one inherent flaw: the models without end gates incorporated a pot metal bearing at the left end of the mandrel, and over time, as is the nature of pot metal, it can swell or deteriorate, causing speed inconsistency or even freezing up the machine. A good service technician can correct this problem fairly easily, perhaps replacing the old bearing with a new one of brass. The earlier models equipped with end gates do not have this issue.


[Home Model D]

The Edison Home phonograph outwardly appears to be a scaled-down Triumph, although its introduction in 1895 coincided with the Spring Motor and predated the introduction of the Triumph name. As with the Triumph, the feed screw is an extension of the mandrel axle. Also like the Triumph, the Home went through a series of models, albeit ending in F rather than G; the end gate disappeared with Model C, and factory 2/4-minute gearing made its debut with Model D (see photo, left) in early and late 1908, respectively. In late 1912, the Model F did away with two-minute gearing. In all cases, the standard cabinet was oak, although again for some models mahogany was available by special order. "Under the hood," the Home was quite different from the Triumph, as it was always a single-spring machine, and its motor design went through numerous modifications early on before settling into a form that remained stable from Model B onward.

Thanks to Mike Wohl of the Talking Machine Forum for the photograph.


[Standard Model B]

My own first cylinder machine was of this type: a Standard Model B, fitted with a large, nickel-plated "morning glory" horn and geared strictly for two-minute cylinders until, through the magic of eBay, I added a gear shift kit years later. The Standard was in general the strongest seller in the Edison line from its introduction in 1898. As with the Triumph, it would appear in models A through G; as with the Home, it was equipped with a single-spring motor. As with both, Model A and Model B had an end gate that disappeared with Model C, and Model D added selectable 2/4-minute gearing, with adapter kits made available for earlier models. Unlike either, the Standard featured a feed screw mounted not coaxially but behind and parallel to the mandrel, powered by a gear train from the mandrel's axle. The Standard series had not one but two four-minute-only models, Model E and Model G; curiously, model F, released simultaneously with Model E in 1909, retained the 2/4-minute gearing. As was customary, the normal finish was oak, with mahogany being a rarely if ever selected special-order option for some models.

If most Edison collectors aspire to a Triumph, they very frequently start with a Standard, more often than not probably the Model B, just as I did. So common and popular is this model, in fact, that an entire website has been created devoted to it: https://www.antiquephono.org/spotters-guide-edison-standard-phonograph/



The Gem was the bottom model in Edison's line, an inexpensive machine designed for those on a restricted budget. Its essentials were all contained in a compact metal case, although the company fairly soon added an oak base and cover. Oddly enough, the first variant of the Model A, without the oak additions, had no end gate for the mandrel, but Edison added one together with the wooden cover. The company removed it again in the Model C, added 2/4-minute gearing in the Model D of 1909, and removed the two-minute gearing in the final Model E of 1912. The Model A types wound with a key, Models B through E with a crank. All had a small single-spring motor whose lack of a spring barrel meant they could not be wound while playing. Special horns were made specifically for these little machines, first a small conical one without bell, painted black with a gold stripe, then a larger (but still small-scale) black horn with 10 panels.

I'll not add much more about this model. It is not the most practical machine for good cylinder reproduction, and, oddly enough, although the cheapest in the Edison line originally, good examples of the Gem tend to be a bit pricey today, particularly the late ones painted maroon. A Standard likely will cost less and is significantly more phonograph, with a better motor and capacity to handle larger horns.


The Fireside was a relatively late addition to the Edison line, introduced in 1909. The company intended it to serve at the price point originally filled by the Standard, whose cost had crept up with inflation. While somewhat smaller than the Standard, the Fireside shared a nearly identical single-spring motor. Cases were invariably oak and neither model of the Fireside had an end gate. The Model A was equipped with 2/4-minute gearing and a small paneled horn modeled on that for the Gem; the Model B with four-minute gearing only and a cygnet horn. The company's intentions notwithstanding, the Fireside failed to supplant the Standard until relatively late, although it remained on sale after deletion of most other open horn cylinder machines; Firesides therefore generally speaking do not turn up as frequently as Standards, and accordingly they tend to be somewhat more expensive.

The enclosed-horn Amberolas

Times and tastes change. Today, I imagine most of us see an old phonograph with a big metal or wooden horn suspended in front and think it charming. Back when such horns were the sole common method for filling a room with sound, however, they were much more likely to run afoul of something chillingly familiar to any latter-day male audiophile who shares quarters with a female partner: WAF ("wife acceptance factor"). The turn-of-the-twentieth-century housewife, confronted with a roughly yard- (or, for our metric friends, meter-) long metal horn--no matter how dolled up with colorful paint or brass bell and fittings or nickel plating or flower decorations--was apt to see not a handsome statement piece but an obtrusive, dustcatching monstrosity conflicting with her beautifully decorated Victorian-style living room, constantly in the way when trying to sit on the sofa. The so-called "cygnet" horns, which rose vertically rather than jutting out horizontally (and were of the form commonly adopted for the early radio sets 15 or 20 years later), were some improvement, particularly when made of wood, but not a real solution; they still gathered dust, and they still called far too much attention to themselves.

Eldridge R. Johnson to the rescue! In 1906, he and his Victor Talking Machine Company issued an audio product as influential in its day as the iPod has been in ours: the Victrola, a (naturally, disk-playing) reproducing instrument housed in a handsome, high-grade floor-standing piece of furniture and--here's the important part--enclosing that eyesore horn in the cabinet, the opening safely covered by swinging doors when not in use or when the owner needed to respond to his wife's inevitable cries of "that thing is too loud." Better yet, it also provided concealed storage for the records--no more messy piles of the things left out on table tops--and for the playing mechanism--no more industrial-look gears and gearshifts and feedscrews and whatnot on pominent display in the parlor. Johnson coined the name "Victrola" by combining "Victor," his company's name, with "viola," the musical instrument, but promptly everybody who could figure out how to dodge his patents (not an easy task; even those swinging doors over the horn opening were patented) had a competing "-ola": in particular, Columbia's open horn "Disk Graphophone," a descendant of the cylinder (simply) "Graphophone," mutated into the "Grafonola" (with louvers rather than the patented swinging doors to cover that horn opening), and, of most concern for our present purposes, Edison issued an enclosed-horn cylinder player for his four-minute Amberol cylinders called--what else?--the "Amberola." (Years later, as his company was breathing its dying gasps, Edison's answer to Victor's new line of "Orthophonic" Victrolas would be the "Edisonic," but that's a story for another day.)

Edison's approach to an enclosed machine was somewhat different from Victor's, in that instead of building a roughly horn-shaped chamber into the cabinet, he simply curled the metal horn of an open-horn type machine, or at least a shortened version of it, around the other way to pass under the mechanism and have its bell below rather than above the motor and playing gear, concealed by a decorative grille. The cabinet, then, was just a shell to contain the machinery, not an integral part of it, a key distinction in avoiding Victor's patents. The first Amberola was a large, heavy, expensive upright floor model incorporating the mechanism of the Opera open horn phonograph, a high-end model situated above the Triumph in the Edison open horn line; neither the Opera nor the derivative Amberola is frequently encountered today, and both usually command pretty elevated prices, just as they did when new. Edison next added another, lighter upright floor model called the Amberola III (the first is retroactively known as the Amberola I; there was no Amberola II). The III looked like a table model on long stilts, with a shelf down by the floor to hold several storage boxes provided as separate accessories. These machines, too, are relatively uncommon and expensive today. There followed a series of table models, each, like the Amberola III (and, for that matter, like all the Victor open horn machines and Victrolas), denoted by a Roman numeral, each combining elements of existing machines from the open horn line described above (the Amberola X, for example, was based on a Fireside mechanism), and each at least somewhat rare today, albeit not as much so as the I and III, compared to the three final models that became mainstays of the line. Let's now turn our attention to those more readily available players.

Amberola 30 This little tabletop model was the workhorse of the Amberola line, easily outselling both its larger counterparts combined. It was a small, single-spring machine in oak. The reproducer featured a diamond stylus which, together with its heavy tracking force, made it unsuitable for any except celluloid cylinders, and the gearing was limited to the four-minute type. A cloth-backed wooden grille covered the horn, with no provision for adjusting volume. As the sales leaders, these machines turn up relatively frequently today and are easily the least expensive Edison enclosed horn cylinder players.


Amberola 50

The Amberola 50 was a larger tabletop machine for four-minute celluloid cylinders, mechanically differering from the Amberola 30 only in having a two-spring motor. Acoustically, it was a bit better on account of a somewhat larger horn, also concealed behind a cloth-backed wooden grille and also incorporating no mechanism for volume control. Sales of this model never approached those of the Amberola 30; accordingly, given its relative scarcity, bigger horn, and stronger motor, the Amberola 50 sells for more today, with oak cabinets carrying a premium over the more common mahogany ones.

Amberola 75

The Amberola 75 was in essence an Amberola 50 in an austere, compact floor model cabinet. When seen at an Edison dealer's shop, it must have seemed pretty plain compared to the often flamboyant cabinets of the Edison disc phonographs, which appeared on the market beginning about a year before its introduction. Like the Amberola 50, it was available in oak or mahogany, and, as with the Amberola 50, oak cabinets sell at a premium today, having been less popular when the machines were new. A single door below the horn opening concealed three pull-out trays, taken together providing storage for up to 84 cylinders.

A digression: electrical alternatives

Electrical playback of cylinders is actually possible. One dedicated modern cylinder player has been marketed, the Archeophone; it features, among other things, interchangeable mandrels for just about every type of cylinder ever issued and an ingenious bearing system to correct for out-of-round records. Unfortunately, while it has found wide application in institutional settings, its cost of nearly $30,000 rules it out for most individual collectors.

Also produced over the years have been various "reproducer substitutes," which mount a more or less modern electric cartridge in a shell matching the dimensions of an Edison reproducer; remove the reproducer from an antique player's carrier arm, affix the substitute in its place, connect it to a modern amplifier's phono preamp, crank up that old clockwork motor, and--behold!--you can play cylinders through your modern stereo system. Current examples, costing far less than the Archeophone, are the Edison Electric Cylinder Reproducer sold here http://www.soundhifi.com/78rpm.html and the ACT/2 unit sold here http://nipperhead.com/old/act/#orders.

"You Get What You Pay For" Dept.: such devices will reproduce cylinders electrically, but the mechanism turning them will still be a century or so old; I've never tried one of the electrical reproducer substitutes personally, but any spring-wound phonograph motor is a dense thicket of whirling shafts and wheels and weights and gears. Even if the antique has been thoroughly overhauled and maintained, I wouldn't expect a modern cartridge mated with one to yield the kind of speed-stable, low noise performance that we take for granted with modern turntables, and that doesn't take into account the astonishing levels of flutter a 160 RPM cylinder can generate if even slightly out of round, as many of them are.

What cylinders to play on what antiques

Leaving aside latter day electronic solutions or improvisations, the way most collectors play cylinders is acoustically through horns, as they were designed to play, on the old machines designed to play them, no electricity involved. Curiously, the results, if the machine is well maintained and the record is in good condition and well recorded, can be quite vivid. Safely mating cylinders to antique machines, however, calls for a bit of basic knowledge. Celluloid cylinders are durable, but their wax predecessors are extremely fragile, and playing them with the wrong equipment can quickly destroy them.

Without going into excessive detail, suffice it to say that Edison's design for reproducers involved a so-called "floating weight" that served two purposes. First, it established the tracking force for the stylus. Second, it served as a sort of mechanical amplifier: the heavier the weight, the louder the reproduction. The story of Edison reproducers, then, is one of ever heavier floating weights as the company developed harder materials for the records. Like any good story, this one has subplots: an eventual shift from sapphire to diamond for the styli and a shift from small to larger diaphragms, requiring larger reproducer bodies, and hence redeisgned carrier arms, to accommodate them. Earlier carrier arms placed the reproducer pointing up at about 45 degrees from the plane of the machine's bedplate; later ones set the reproducer horizontally, parallel the bedplate and running over the top of the cylinder in play, with a larger eye (that is, mounting socket). Here's a basic rundown of what equipment is suitable for which common types of cylinders.


In general. If fitted with appropriate reproducer and gearing, any open-horn machine can play any type of cylinder. The Amberolas 30, 50, and 75, on the other hand, can play only four-minute celluloid cylinders. Never play a wax cylinder of any type on these Amberolas, and never play a two-minute cylinder with a reproducer designed solely for four-minute cylinders. A few of the earlier Amberola models, outside the scope of this series of articles, could be fitted with a two-minute reproducer; for more information, consult the Internet or the reference book The Edison Cylinder Phonographs 1877-1929 by George L. Frow and Albert F. Sefl.

Two-minute--black wax, celluloid. Among these are Edison's "gold moulded" cylinders, Indestructable's celluloid two-minute cylinders, and black wax cylinders by Columbia and various smaller makers. Any of the open horn machines fitted with the common Edison Model C reproducer, standard equipment on many of them, is fine for any cylinder of these types. The floating weight has a tail that sticks out beyond the outer edge of the reproducer housing; look for "Model C" stamped on it. More uncommon (and pricey) options would include the Model K and model S 2/4-minute combination reproducers (small carrier eye) and turnover Model Q or (sometimes) O 2/4-minute combination reproducer (large carrier eye). The floating weight of the Model O at first was round, the same diameter as the reproducer housing; the weight having been found too heavy in practice for wax records, it was modified to a trowel shape in later production. Those who bought the earlier version with the round weight could return it to the factory for trimming; on such reproducers, "Model O" was overstamped to read "Model Q." Either shape of weight would be fine for celluloid cylinders.

Two-minute--brown wax. These earlier cylinders were made of a softer material than their black wax successors, and accordingly the appropriate reproducers for them have lighter weights. The Edison models of choice would be the Model A or Model B, both early and likely to be expensive. As a practical matter, at the outset you probably won't find many brown wax cylinders in playable condition outside specialist sales channels; accordingly, especially if you are just beginning, you can safely postpone equipment for brown wax cylinders until you've built a good collection of later types.

Four-minute black wax. Primarily Edison "amberol" cylinders. The edison Model H reproducer was designed to play these records and is often found equipping open horn machines with four-minute gearing and the small carrier eye. The equivalent for large carrier eyes is the Model N. The combination models K, S, and O/Q mentioned above would also be fine, as would the Model R, a reproducer featuring the large diaphragm of the later, horizontally mounted models in a body designed to fit the earlier, smaller slanted carrier eyes. I'll stress again: do not play wax cylinders, including these four-minute types, on an Amberola 30, 50, or 75.

Four-minute celluloid. Primarily Edison blue amberol cylinders, but also Columbia/Indestructable and those of other, smaller makers. You can safely play these with any equipment listed for wax four-minute cylinders. For louder reproduction, you can play them with the Diamond B on those open horn machines fitted with the horizontal, larger eye type carrier; do not play any wax record with this heavily weighted reproducer, which, as you mgiht guess from its model name, substituted a diamond stylus for the sapphires of its precedessors. Celluloid four-minute cylinders are the sole type you can safely play on the Amberolas 30, 50, and 75, which were designed specifically for them and came equipped with the likewise heavily weighted Diamond Model C reproducer.

Worth a Thousand Words

The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and the proof of a recording system is in the listening. Care to hear a fine Edison cylinder player strut its stuff? Here's a two-minute wax cylinder played back on my Edison Triumph, Model B, fitted with trimmed-weight Model O reproducer and Musicmaster oak cygnet horn. You can see a photograph of this machine above. The selection is an old German hymn, Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern, by Philipp (not opera composer Otto!) Nicolai, in a heartfelt performance by operatic baritone Robert Leonhardt around 110 years ago. Its catalogue number 15302 puts it in Edison's German series; experienced collectors know that Edison relegated a surprising number of important artists to this and other "ethnic" series rather than featuring them in the main "classical" or "operatic" catalogue blocks. As was the custom for Edison's two-minute cylinders, mostly abandoned with the introduction of their four-minute successors, a spoken announcement--probably by the singer himself--precedes the singing.

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Copyright 2018 David Hoehl - drh@tnt-audio.com - www.tnt-audio.com