Recording and Playing Machines

Wax Cylinder & Discs


The history of recorded sound follows the path of technical innovation. Voice, music and other sounds were recorded on cylinders and discs by a groove cut into the surface by a cutting stylus that was modulated by the sounds. The first phonograph worked with tinfoil but wax cylinders were soon preferred. The turn of the 20th century saw the next significant step forward for sound carriers: the flat disc.

Wax, whether cylinders or discs, allowed the public to make their own recordings. They were widely used in offices to assist the work of typists as well as for ethnographic and environmental field recording. In the mid-thirties, the introduction of a new standard, the instantaneous discs, also called pyral or acetate discs, allowed recording and instant replay. It was mostly used by radio producers to record programs and famous voices, though amateurs also made use of this new medium.

Wax cylinders, originally mass produced for the entertainment industry, struggled to compete with the early shellac discs, until eventually industrial production ceased at the end of the 1920s.

Edison Class M phonograph

The Edison Class M phonograph is the oldest machine in the British Library Sound Archive's collection. The Class M was produced from 1889. This model is believed to date from 1893. The Class M was first made by the North American Phonograph Company and later by the United States Photograph Company. It is closely related to Edison’s Perfected Phonograph, his first wax cylinder machine. Power comes from a 2.5 V DC motor, driven by a separate wet-cell battery. The machine was conceived at a time when the main use for the phonograph was considered to be office dictation and transcription. Accordingly its reproducer also acts as a recorder. In this view the speaking tube is fitted. Normally it would be hand held, but the tube here has been artificially stiffened for display.

Edison Model C

This Edision Standard Phonograph, Model C, Serial number S151352, has 31 May 1898 as the latest date on its patent plate. From 1888 Edison produced a series of improved phonographs using wax cylinders. Wax cylinder recording machines were used for the professional and amateur recording of Irish traditional music, both in Ireland and the diaspora. The production of home phonograph machines from 1892 onwards allowed musicians to record their own music. The Edison Standard model pictured here was first made in 1897. It was an affordable machine, initially costing $20, and was marketed for home use. The brown wax cylinder recordings seen here are of uilleann piper Patsy Touhey from the Busby-Carney collection, which is now held at the Irish Traditional Music Archive. The recordings were made by Touhey himself.

Edison Home Phonograph

The Edison Home phonograph was one of the most durable Edison machines. It was launched in 1896 and continued in production, with improvements, until 1913. This Type 3 version dates from around 1900. The basic layout is the same as the Class M and the Spring Motor. The feedscrew is shown on the left, parallel to the mandrel and taking drive to it, whilst at the same time driving the reproducer and horn, which move from left to right as they track the groove and play the music. On the right of the picture is the gate with a bearing that supports the mandrel while playing, but can be easily flipped out of the way to change cylinders.

Gem Phonograph

This Edison Gem Phonograph, Serial Number G197032, has 17 November 1903 as the latest date on its patent plate. The Edison Gem phonograph was introduced in 1899. It was a ‘bargain phonograph’, initially priced at $7.50. The earliest Gem phonographs were black, had no case and were wound with a key. They were used with two minute cylinders. Later models included a case for the machine and a crank. The manufacture of Gem phonographs had ceased by 1914. The Gem in this photograph has a cylinder on the machine’s mandrel. Edison had over 190 patents regarding phonographs and sound recordings. The phonograph is described as follows in Daniel Marty’s ‘The Illustrated history of phonographs’: `”The Edison Gem was the bottom-of-the-list phonograph, which was sold for 7.5 dollars. Although at the price it sold well, sound reproduction was far from satisfactory, the motor being very noisy.”


The beautiful Lorelei is probably the most decorative of the various Puck models. F. Ruppel & Co produced the Puck phonographs from the late 1890s to around 1906. These talking machines were at the lowest end of the phonographic price range, selling cheaply and sometimes given away free with the purchase of 24 cylinders. The most commonly found variety is the cast-iron lyre-shaped Puck. Lorelei was one of the last Puck talking machines not shaped in the typical Puck style. The base was copper-plated and “antiqued” while the horn was bright green.

Pathé Coquet

The Pathé Company started selling a new cylinder phonograph called Coquet in 1903. It was the first original model it released, after replicating the American Edisons and Graphophones in its early years. The Pathé Coquet was promoted as a mass market and low-cost phonograph which anyone could afford. It cost 35 francs which equated to a third of a factory worker’s salary or half of a maid’s wages and was therefore beyond the means of most of the working class. The original Pathé Coquet could play Edison standard cylinders but later models had a special feature, namely a supplementary mandrel. This slid above the original one and the machine was able to play Inter cylinders, a format patented by Pathé. This machine was sold by a mail order company named Girard & Boitte. The company logo is affixed on the front of the machine. It comes with another invention of the Pathé company, the “système Vérité” allowing the diaphragm weight on the cylinder to be lightened. It was purportedly used by Hubert Pernot, head of the Speech Archives from 1924 to 1932.

Recording Prototype

The Pathé Company had an unusual way of recording its masters before commercialising its recordings on 78rpm discs. The company recorded them on giant cylinders named Paradis before transcribing them on a wax disc from which they made a matrix thanks to a galvanoplasty process. This item is most probably a prototype of the industrial recording machines used by Pathé. Though its height and weight were considerable, being more than 3 meters in size and a hundred kilograms in weight, it was a portable machine which could be assembled and disassembled: all the elements were numbered and could be put back together with the others. Old photographs show the same type of machine in Constantine, Algeria, recording traditional Arabic music. The machine works entirely without electrical power. Its motor is a counterweight device: a weight strapped on a metal string falls at a regular speed for three meters, which moves the rotation system of the mandrel. The speaker, singer or music player would usually stand in front of the horn. After the recording session, the cylinder, here a Pathé Celeste which was a little bit smaller than the Paradis, would be sent to the Pathé factories to be pressed as a disc into a special edition for the Speech Archives.


Created in France in 1998 by Henri Chamoux, the Archéophone is the only modern device able to play all formats of wax or celluloid cylinders produced between 1888 and 1929, and even later. These sound recordings are fragile and wear very quickly if they are read on vintage phonographs. Weighing almost 25 kg, the Archéophone is a specialist's tool and is not available to the general public.


The ronéophone is the product of collaboration between two companies: the English Roneo Company, well-known for its desk office furniture, and the French Pathé company, famous for its phonographs and recordings. In 1912, this machine was designed in order to compete with the Edison office recording machines, the Ediphones. It allows direct recording on a thick wax disc and immediate playback. It is equipped with a recorder and a reproducer identically attached to a trolley; both can be placed onto the wax disc alternatively. The machine comes with a hearing tube. This item has been customised in order to suit better the Speech Archives’ uses of it. Its electrical motor has been replaced by a spring motor in order to be functional in places without electrical power and another horn can be installed in order to publicly playback the recording. This ronéophone was used in the Ardennes in 1912, when the Speech Archive collected their first oral archives.

Brettmon Recording Machine

In 1938, Jacques Brettmon, who served as a surgeon during World War II, made a prototype of a portable wax disc recording machine. Its motor was electrical and worked with a battery supply in order to be taken on long journeys. The Phonothèque nationale (French National Sound Archive) acquired one of these rare hand-made machines before World War II, in order to lend it to travellers and anthropologists. This item recorded the ethno-musicological field work of Roger Dévigne, head of the National Sound Archive, in Provence in 1942.

Brettmon Recording Machine, Prototype of a portable instantaneous disc recording machine made by a surgeon, (BnF) Public Domain Jacques Brettmon, Bibliothèque nationale de France , 1933 Public Domain