Part one: A short history lesson
Copyright 2006 Lynn Bilton
If you're of a certain age maybe you remember going to the movie theater instead of watching DVDs on some sort of pixel tube. Maybe you remember walking in during the middle of the movie and staying through the next performance, until somebody said "this is where we came in."
And maybe, today, you discovered an old phonograph marked "Amberola" in the attic, or are thinking of purchasing one, and would like to learn something more about it, and through the wonder of a search engine have landed on this page. Well, this is where you came in, in the middle of the story.
If you'd like to see the beginning of the feature you can view our outside horn phonograph tutorial, but I'm going to distill a little of it here to bring you up to speed. Don't worry, our speed indicator is set to slow. The goal here is just to get you going, to tell you the least you need to know. To quote an authoritative source (me), this is the only guide on the internet to antique phonographs that flouts the claim that it is not comprehensive and authoritative.
Motor wound and going up to speed....
Edison began mass-producing cylinder phonographs in the late 1890s. These machines employed a wax record that played for a duration of two minutes.
By around 1905, however, the cylinder trade was in decline as flat disc 78rpm machines began to outsell their cylinder competitors. In 1906 Victor threw the horn inside the cabinet in a machine dubbed the Victrola. Although acoustically inferior to outside horn machines, internal horn Victrolas quickly and inexorably replaced outside horn machines as fashion won out over function.
Almost at perfect pitch....
By 1909 the cylinder business was becoming increasingly moribund, with Edison the only remaining major player in the United States. Ever loyal, however, to his faithful, rural cylinder clientele, Edison introduced a record called the Amberol which extended the playing time from two to four minutes.
Up to speed.
In 1909 Edison made the decision to bring out an internal horn cylinder phonograph, even though he would have to defend against a number of Victor patents. This machine was called the Amberola, 'Amberol' after the new four minute records, 'ola' as this had become a de facto designation for an internal horn product.
There were two separate series of Amberola machines.
The first, a Roman numeral series (Amberolas I through X), was introduced beginning 1911. These machines were beautifully and substantially made, at least at the outset, although later on Edison was forced to use tried and true components and cheaper cabinetry.
The second series, the Amberolas 30,50, and 75, date to after the great factory fire of 1914. The quality of these machines was constrained by price, and although not highly collectable they remain an excellent and relatively inexpensive device to play four minute records. The model numbers referred to their original prices in dollars.
It's pretty easy to determine which Amberola model you own. There's usually a metal tag on the bedplate, or on the inside of the lid.
Almost any Amberola you are likely to find will be a straight four minute machine, and before we go any farther, I should caution you that the only records you should be playing on these machines (with the exception of the early Amberola I) are the Blue Amberols or the four minute Indestructibles. Keep your cotton-pickin' plain old soft black wax four minute Amberols away from the mandrel. This is because not only are these machines geared exclusively for the four minute records, but also because they are equipped with a diamond stylus. You can distinguish the Blue Amberols by their brilliant blue celluloid exterior and their plaster of Paris core.
Here are some short notes and scarcity ratings relating to the various Amberola models. Dates are from George Frow's "Edison Cylinder Phonograph Companion," a recommended reference. The scarcity ratings, purely subjective, are based on over 30 years of observation and have been made up by me -- not a recommended reference. Keep in mind that some machines like the Amberola VI may be scarce, but not valuable. To learn why I don't provide values read the Antique Phonograph FAQ. In keeping with my boast of not being comprehensive I have only a partial set of photographs to offer you.
Where appropriate I have noted the special reproducers (soundboxes) required for each machine.
Edison Diamond B reproducer
Diamond C reproducer
THE ROMAN NUMERAL SERIES
Amberola IA Introduced 1910. Beautiful, ornate upright cases with paper mache woodgrained internal horn. 2-4 minute belt drive machine. Model L or M reproducer.
Amberola IB. Introduced 1911. Similar to the IA, but shares mechanism of the Edison Opera Phonograph. Model L or Diamond A reproducer.
Amberola III. Introduced 1912. Upright with open shelf base. Shares mechanism of the Edison Opera Phonograph.
Amberola IV. Introduced 1913. Mission oak case. Mechanism adapted from Edison Home and Standard.
Amberola V. Introduced 1913. Mid-sized table top machine with bevelled corners. Unique motor with flywheel on mandrel shaft. Diamond B reproducer.
Amberola VI. Introduced 1913. Earliest version VI(A) was a mid-sized tabletop with the upperworks resembling the Amberola V. Succeeding versions were smaller belt drive machines employing the Fireside motor. The golden oak cases of later versions resemble those of the 30 Amberola.
|Amberola VIII. Introduced 1913. Belt drive, Fireside motor with Diamond B reproducer. The small golden oak cases resemble those of the 30 Amberola.|
Amberola X. Introduced 1913. Most versions employed a Gem motor with a Fireside type upperworks. Diamond B reproducer. In many remaining examples the motor is not powerful enough to drive the record through a single playing. The golden oak cases resemble those of the 30 Amberola.
THE 30-50-75 SERIES
Amberola 30. Introduced 1915. Single spring direct drive motor. Diamond C reproducer. Oak only.
Amberola 50. Introduced 1915. Double spring direct drive motor. Diamond C reproducer. Oak and mahogany. The case and horn were slightly larger than the 30 Amberola.
Amberola 75. Introduced 1915. Upright with three drawers for record storage. Oak and mahogany. The motor was shared with the 50 Amberola.
Very, very scarce
Amberola I A and B
A little scarcer, but still common
Amberola VI (all versions)
NEXT: Part two: Amberola repair
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