The origin of records

Take a close look at what you listen to -- it might spring from some unsuspected beginnings

April 1999
This article is part of the Noteworthy News archives.


The origin of brown wax records: Cows

Stearin, the rendered fat of cud chewing animals, was the primary ingredient of early records.

Here is an 1896 recipe:
Stearic acid, 48%
Sodium stearate, 20.2%
Aluminum sterate, 11.3%
Ceresin, 20.5%

Other waxes poured in the brew included at times carnauba, whale wax, beeswax, and ozocerite.

One reason Edison switched in 1889 from a metal to a jeweled stylus was because the stearic acid in the records rusted the metal point.

The wax was roasted in 900 pound pots where it was heated up to 480 degrees farenheit. The hotter the wax, the browner the record.

Record making could be dangerous. An 1889 explosion while stirring the vat left Edison swathed in bandages for weeks.

Edison’s wax was the best in the industry. Columbia bought Edison’s wax masters until he cut off the supply in the late 1890s, and Eldridge Johnson liked Edison’s wax so much he melted down old Edison cylinders in his early disc recording experiments.

Early records were recorded one by one, but by 1892 records were pantographed, as many as 30 copies per master. By 1898 Edison and Columbia were making their masters on 5" wax or metal drums.

ivory soap

The origin of black wax records: Soap

Edison's spy Joseph McCoy reported in the late 1890s how the Norcross record company at a critical moment threw bars of Ivory Soap into the mixture during the manufacture of some counterfeit records.

It wasn’t Ivory, but stearin records were chemically a soap insoluble in water: caustic alkali was added to the mix.

The problem with brown wax records was that they weren’t very loud—they were best perceived through listening tubes.

By 1902 Edison was experimenting with the addition of metallic salts to the formula : ten percent lead could be used. The lead made the records harder and more slippery, this combined with the new gold molding process yielded dramatically enhanced volume.

Here is the formula of Edison’s chemist, Jonas Aylsworth, for the 4 minute black wax cylinders:

Resin gum

Cylinder cupper
This tool cupped the rims of the Blue Amberols

The origin of Blue Amberols: Gunpowder and billiard balls

Cotton soaked in nitric acid—cellulose nitrate—was discovered in 1846. It was soon learned that the mixture was highly explosive, and the first application was a smokeless gunpowder known as guncotton.

In the 1880s a billiard company offered a $10,000 prize to anyone who could devise a substitute for ivory in billiard balls. John W. Hyatt won the jackpot when he made nitrocellulose workable by adding the right amount of camphor. He dubbed his product celluloid.

The billiard company soon received complaints of exploding billiard balls, but other uses were found for an improved celluloid. Dentists, who hated the rubber trust, fashioned false teeth of it. Unfortunately, celluloid tended to dissolve in saliva and to leave the taste of camphor in the mouth.

Edison had resisted celluloid records because he claimed they produced too much surface noise. Lambert and other makers of celluloid records added aniline dyes to the celluloid on the theory that they diminished the hiss (this is one reason that Edison’s records are colored blue).

Then too, Edison had no patents for celluloid records. In 1912 Edison had to purchase a license for the use of celluloid from the successors of the bankrupt Lambert company.

Celluloid was sold in rough tubes—it had to be smoothed and trued to eliminate the surface noise. Edison did it more exactly than anyone in the trade.

The camphor in the Blue Amberols has evaporated over the years, causing the records to shrink and plaster to crack.

Blue Amberols aren’t explosive but they are potently inflammable, like old movie film.

lac bug

The origin of 78s: Insects and volcanoes

Plastic isn’t a new invention—it just means something that can be molded under heat or pressure. The manufacturers of early 78s needed a natural plastic and they found it in bug droppings. Shellac is the secretions of the insect tachardia lacca, found on the Indian subcontinent.

Dissatisfied early on with rubber records, Berliner had remembered a composition used in telephone mouthpieces that he manufactured in the 1880s. In 1897 he adopted a shellac composition made by the Durinoid Company of Newark, New Jersey.

Here is one formula for 78s:
China clay
Color pigments
Barium or baryte
Cotton flock

Up to 30% shellac was used. The records were colored black with carbon to hide any imperfections.

Volcanic pumice was put in the grooves to keep the needle sharp as it played, so as not to wear to a chisel point.

All records were molded from a matrix, which is nothing more than a negative of the record

Ben Franklin

The origin of Diamond Discs: Benjamin Franklin

A young man in Belgium, Leo Baekeland, read Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography and was inspired to migrate to the United States and to become a scientist.

He invented Velox, the first successful commercial photographic paper, and sold the rights to George Eastman for $1 million.

Beginning in 1902 Baekeland tried to produce an artificial shellac through the condensation of phenol, a derivative of benzine, and formaldehyde. In 1907 bakelite was patented.

Edison wanted a harder material than celluloid for his new disc record. Bakelite could be molded under high heat and pressure, and was an excellent binding agent for fillers like wood flour.

Edison didn’t have the patent rights to bakelite, so in 1910 he bought rights to a similar phenolic resin named condensite, a purchase which led to years of litigation.

record manufacture

Hard at work, these ladies were manufacturing records for Victor in 1903. (Courtesy Allen Koenigsberg)

Koenigsberg, Allen. Patent History of the Phonograph. APM Press, 502 E. 17th, Brooklyn, NY. 11226
Macfarlane. The Phonograph Book.
Sparke, Penny. The Plastics Age.
Vanderbilt, Byron. Thomas Edison, Chemist.

Copyright 2015 Lynn Bilton

Lynn Bilton
Box 435
Randolph,OH 44265
330 325-7866


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