The phonograph was developed as a result of Thomas Edison's work on two other inventions, the telegraph and the telephone. In 1877, Edison was working on a machine that would transcribe telegraphic messages through indentations on paper tape, which could later be sent over the telegraph repeatedly. This development led Edison to speculate that a telephone message could also be recorded in a similar fashion. He experimented with a diaphragm which had an embossing point and was held against rapidly-moving paraffin paper. The speaking vibrations made indentations in the paper. Edison later changed the paper to a metal cylinder with tin foil wrapped around it. The machine had two diaphragm-and-needle units, one for recording, and one for playback. When one would speak into a mouthpiece, the sound vibrations would be indented onto the cylinder by the recording needle in a vertical (or hill and dale) groove pattern.
The Edison Phonograph Company was formed on October 8, 1887, to market Edison's machine. He introduced the Improved Phonograph by May of 1888, shortly followed by the Perfected Phonograph. The first wax cylinders Edison used were white and made of ceresin, beeswax, and stearic wax.
Standard-sized cylinders, which tended to be 4.25" long and 2.1875" in diameter, were 50 cents each and typically played at 120 r.p.m. A variety of selections were featured on the cylinders, including marches, sentimental ballads, coon songs, hymns, comic monologues and descriptive specialities, which offered sound reenactments of events.
The early cylinders had two significant problems. The first was the short length of the cylinders, only 2 minutes. This necessarily narrowed the field of what could be recorded. The second problem was that no mass method of duplicating cylinders existed. Most often, performers had to repeat their performances when recording in order to amass a quantity of cylinders. This was not only time-consuming, but costly.
The Edison Concert Phonograph, which had a louder sound and a larger cylinder measuring 4.25" long and 5" in diameter, was introduced in 1899, retailing for $125 and the large cylinders for $4. The Concert Phonograph did not sell well, and prices for it and its cylinders were dramatically reduced. Their production ceased in 1912.
A process for mass-producing duplicate wax cylinders was put into effect in 1901. The cylinders were molded, rather than engraved by a stylus, and a harder wax was used. The process was referred to as Gold Moulded, because of a gold vapor given off by gold electrodes used in the process. Sub-masters were created from the gold master, and the cylinders were made from these molds. From a single mold, 120 to 150 cylinders could be produced every day. The new wax used was black in color, and the cylinders were initially called New High Speed Hard Wax Moulded Records until the name was changed to Gold Moulded. By mid-1904, the savings in mass duplication was reflected in the price for cylinders which had been lowered to 35 cents each. Beveled ends were made on the cylinders to accommodate titles.