The early history of commercial wax-cylinder phonograph production is made up of a confused panorama of competing patents, multiple company take-overs. bankruptcies and a profusion of different machines. However, in the field of cylinder-based phonographs, there were two main players: a series of companies seeking to take advantage of a system first devised by Thomas Edison in 1877, and another series of companies with their roots in a slightly different invention patented in 1886 and initially known as the Graphophone.
Although they must have been sufficiently different to have been assigned two different patents, both systems worked on the same general principle, i.e. they made recordings onto a wax-coated cylinder by means of a diaphragm that in responding to airborne sounds moved a stylus which then cut indentations into the cylinder.
By the mid-1890s, the name of the company marketing the Graphophone was the Columbia Phonograph Company. Meanwhile Edison, having been distracted for some years by other projects (including the invention of a moving image camera and the incandescent light bulb), finally took charge of the commercialisation of his own invention and set up the National Phonograph Company, launching two new models in 1898, the Edison ‘Standard’ and the Edison ‘Home’.
In that same year, 1898 the Cambridge Expedition to the Torres Straits, led by Alfred Haddon, took two wax cylinder phonographs, an Edison Home and a Columbia Bijou, and used them to record music on Murray Island (today Mer). The phonographs were operated by Charles Myers who was a medical doctor by training but also an accomplished musician. A selection of his recordings are available in the British Library’s Ethnographic Wax Cylinder collection here under the heading ‘Australia’.
Although they would not have been in synch, Haddon and Myers are known to have given a simultaneous presentation of Myers’ sound recordings with Haddon’s film material and photographs to the Royal Geographical Society in London in May 1900.
The following year, Baldwin Spencer took a wax cylinder phonograph on his famous expedition with Frank Gillen across central Australia and made around 30 recordings, some of which are available here.
By 1906, the competition from disc-based phonographs had become so great that Columbia gave up producing cylinder-based machines and started to produce discs instead. Edison followed suit in 1913 but his company continued to make the cylinders until its final collapse in 1929 as a result of the Stock Market crash.
Ethnographic film-makers appear to have gone on using cylinder-based phonographs long after they had lost their commercial pre-eminence, possibly because as recording machines, they were more portable and easier to operate than machines that cut onto a disc.
At least as remembered by his daughter Franziska, Franz Boas was still recording onto wax cylinders when he went to shoot a series of short films of Kwakwaka’wakw dance in British Columbia in 1930, though these cylinders are probably now lost (see Ruby 1980 reference below)