Fans of modern music are familiar with the convenient, ever-present CD, so much so that some people hardly remember anything else. However, before compact discs, eight-track cartridges, or even phonograph records came along, people around the turn of the century listened to the "compact cylinder" for their musical pleasure.

The Museum's Edison Phonograph (circa 1905) used a wax cylinder two inches in diameter and four inches long (about the size of a small can of tomato juice) to reproduce recorded sound. The cylinder sat on its side like a piece of metal in a lathe, and was rotated by a clockwork mechanism. A phonograph needle tracked on a continuous groove spiraling down the length of the cylinder. (Later phonograph records worked in a similar fashion, only on a flat surface.) The needle vibrated a metal diaphragm, producing sound. This sound was amplified by a large, metal cone jutting to one side, just like the one the little, white dog in the RCA Victor ads was listening to.

To record on a cylinder, a person spoke into the cone, which picked up the sound, amplified it, and sent it to the diaphragm. Its vibrations cut a spiral groove in the surface of the cylinder. This was how Thomas A. Edison, inventor of the phonograph, made his famous recording of "Mary Had a Little Lamb."

Various commercially produced albums of recorded music were sold for home enjoyment. It was this commercial music application that helped the phonograph record supplant the phonograph cylinder, simply because flat records could be mass-produced by stamping, but the cylinders needed to be cut individually.

Come and see this piece of history and others in "Granny's Attic," the Belhaven Memorial Museum.


Belhaven Treasure #3

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Diane K. Mason, HTML Editor 1998