Stealing a Flapper’s Heart Away

edison-diamond-discby Brad Nelson10/6/16
I recently inherited an Edison A-100 console phonograph. Apparently called the Moderne (fancier and more expensive models were produced as well), it was produced between 1915 and 1918. It plays the extra-thick 10 inch Diamond Disc records (no second-rate ruby needles for Edison). These suckers were thick. You could kill someone if used in an Odd Job fashion.

The Diamond Discs and player were Edison’s grudging acknowledgment of the superiority of discs as opposed to his cylinders. (“Moulded records”? Gives new meaning to “moldy oldies.”) The cylinders were fragile and harder to store, although they had the advantage of being able to record your own music at home. This feature was rarely used outside of the stenographic pool in business as “passive entertainment” was not a new thing in the 1915s as it is now (which we have, of course, taken to a perverse art form).

The competing, and dominant, format was the 12 inch (and thinner) 78 rpm record played on the Victor (and later the RCA Victrola). The advantage of the Diamond Disc is (supposedly…and probably) their superior sound, longer playing time (up to 5 minutes), they are less fragile than the 78s, and the Diamond Disc (with special lacquer coating — ironic because in the marketplace it was the Diamond Disc that got the shellacking) is highly resistant to groove wear (which may have to do also with the fact that rather than moving the needle side-to-side as with the Victor, it was a “peak and valley” technology and moved the needle up and down).

Edison invented the phonograph in 1877. The Edison wax cylinder model was one popular incarnation. But time had passed him (and his cylinders) by, just as his DC was eventually eclipsed by Tesla’s AC technology. But he got the ball rolling. Would there be The Beatles without Edison?

The Diamond Discs are played via a diamond needle on the “reproducer.” You didn’t need to replace the needle (and couldn’t) should you need a new one (and with proper and careful use, you might never need to). You replaced the whole reproducer. And given that these run on an exterior crank (and internal spring), this is a perfect piece of equipment for the coming Zombie Apocalypse when the entire electric grid will be taken down by terrorists or simply because you can’t find a man willing to run the power plants. This is mechanical operation all the way. From a complete wind-down, it’s  about 36 cranks to nearly full tension which will play about two songs, depending upon song length. Winding the crank is a therefor a regular event, and this is neither a reference to Hillary nor Trump.

Here’s an informative YouTube history of the Diamond Disc phonograph.

Much like Steve Jobs, Edison was a quality freak. And, perhaps like Sony’s Betamax, in this case the less expensiveedison-a-100 (and arguably 95% as good) Victor 78 format won out in the marketplace just as the PC did over the Mac. But due to the sheer quality of these Edison players, they still work well and sound good — at least this one does.

Along with the A-100 came a collection of about 30 discs which I’m playing through right now, first cleaning them with isopropyl alcohol and then finishing with a Discwasher — the future meets the past. A couple of the discs have such high background noise that they are unlistenable. All have some noise, of course (part of the whhsst, whhsst, whhsst charm). And apparently one of the reasons Edison’s format did not ultimately triumph is because he imposed (much like Steve Jobs) his aesthetic taste on what music he allowed to be reproduced. (No jazz, for instance, at least early on).

That suits me. The music on my collection of discs is a hodge-podge of delightful old numbers. And it has its share of klunkers as well. But this small collection has its share of toe-tapping hits as well, especially this one that we played over and over as kids (this player originally residing in my father’s den): Say it with a Ukulele.

“A wicked ukulele.” I tell ya, this must have been the start of our degenerate culture. And has anyone seen a flapper lately? If you do, give the operator my phone number.

Brad is editor and chief disorganizer of StubbornThings.
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Brad Nelson

About Brad Nelson

I like books, nature, politics, old movies, Ronald Reagan (you get sort of a three-fer with that one), and the founding ideals of this country. We are the Shining City on the Hill — or ought to be. However, our land has been poisoned by Utopian aspirations and feel-good bromides. Both have replaced wisdom and facts.
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35 Responses to Stealing a Flapper’s Heart Away

  1. Timothy Lane says:

    I recall that back in the 1960s my parents had some old singles, but I don’t think they were anywhere near that old (particularly since they were both born in 1924). I have no idea what my grandparents might once have played in that respect. Many moves later, none of them are still around (though I do have at least 1 LP the family had then — a collection of pieces by the Canadian comics Wayne and Shuster).

  2. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    It’s 1920s Thursday (sort of the StubbornThings equivalent of casual Friday). Not that we don’t always have one foot in the early 20th century.

  3. Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

    I am reading David McCullough’s “Truman”, and have just reached the point where Truman’s store is failing and Mike Pendergast has asked him to run for county judge. It is 1921. Your piece gives a feel for the period.

    Truman played piano well and loved good music. Like Edison, he did not like jazz.

  4. pst4usa says:

    I am sorry to admit it, but as a kid, we moved into an old house and the precious owners had left boxes of those old thick records,(pre-vinyl). They were very fragile and worked great for BB Gun skeet targets. We shot many hundreds of them until we ran out of records. I have no idea how many we destroyed, but looking back I wish we had not; but we were told to get rid of them and so we did. Sorry Brad, I would have loved to hand them over.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      Well, if they told you to get rid of them, it’s hardly your fault.

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        I was looking through some stuff in my mother’s attic yesterday. I was kneeling on the floor and leaned on a box in order to reach for something else. I swear, it was just my elbow and the tiniest bit of pressure. I heard a “crunch.” One of the Victor 78 rpm records was underneath some papers sitting on top of the box I had leaned on. And the box underneath this and to the side is full of 78 rpm records, probably a couple hundred or more.

        I can’t play them my Pioneer PL-500 direct drive turntable because, being a relatively modern one (30 years old or so), it doesn’t have a 78 rpm setting. It will do 45 and 33-1/3, and that’s it. I could record the records on my computer and them speed them up electronically. But that’s not the same as just being able to put on one of those records and play it. If anyone has a reasonable quality 78 rpm player they want to sell, let me know. I promise not to crush it

        • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

          I am taken back to my childhood when an uncle owned a record store. We would get boxes of 45’s which we played on those little record players which played only singles.

          We also had a fair number of old 78’s.

        • Timothy Lane says:

          It’s possible some of those old records might have been 78s. We had a Telefunken record player, but somewhere along the way it broke down. My current record player (which I don’t generally use, but it’s there along with a lot of records) only plays 45 and 33 records.

      • pst4usa says:

        I don’t feel too guilty Timothy, just wish I knew then, what I know now. They might have been worth money or good memories for someone. They may have been 78’s I really do not remember.

        • Timothy Lane says:

          It’s always that way with collectibles. I read a lot of comic books when I was young, as do most people my age then, and all of them are long gone. Were any worth a lot today? I have no idea. But how much effort would have been involved in keeping all of them just in case? Particularly when moving from a house to an apartment, space is limited and precious.

        • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

          Likely 78’s. But who knows? You can pay penance by whistling a Benny Goodman tune on the way to work tomorrow.,

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      Yikes. Oh well. But I did find a nice lot of 10 on eBay for forty bucks so I’m going to expand my collection. Using Trump posters for BB Gun practice would be more appropriate. Hillary signs should not be touched because you don’t know what you might catch from them.

      • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

        Hillary signs should not be touched because you don’t know what you might catch from them

        Lighter fluid and a match are appropriate in this case.

  5. Gibblet says:

    I was actually able to play the song, which was surprising considering the out-of-datedness and overloadyness of my iPad. I used earbuds for the full affect – what a delight!

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      Did the foot tap or did not the foot tap? If I was a modern rock musician, I’d do a cover of that. Perhaps using an electric ukulele, of course.

      • Gibblet says:

        Foot tap, indeed. And a little head bob too.

        • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

          I’ve got a version of the Missouri Waltz on Diamond Disc that is absolutely charming. I’m not sure if a good waltz is foot-tapping, per se, or more of an in-tiime all-body swayer. I’ll have to record that and share it here. I’m pretty damn sure the copyright has expired…as have all the musicians long since. Sad but sweet at the same time.

  6. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    FYI, I discovered it’s okay to play the Diamond Discs on a regular turntable. So I recorded “Say it with a Ukulele” using my Pioneer PL-500 turntable and recorded digitally to my computer. I pitch corrected and noise filtered. It’s a little better. Here it is.

  7. Anniel says:

    Brad, I am green with envy. I would love to find an old player and equipment. Congratulations for finding such a rare treasure, and having the skills to resurrect it.

    Loved the toe tapping and bobbing head. I have one son who plays the ukelele, so I’ll pass this along. He’ll love it.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      There’s a madness that develops in a mind that acclimates itself to never-ending novelty and “progress.” Appreciating a miracle of invention and engineering from the early 1900’s is just doing my sanity work. And I’m glad to share it.

      The irony is, the technology has gotten better while the music has gotten worse. The worst kind of garbage is now created and played on devices far more advanced than we could have dreamt of twenty years ago. And only in the rarified air of digital technology where bits are as cheap as grains of sand on the beach could some of this music exist, for no one in their right mind would waste an ounce of plastic on it, let alone the thick plastic of a Diamond Disc.

  8. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    My life is pretty much a Twilight Zone episode. You know the one, where someone goes into a junk shop, buys some old item that captures his attention but that unknown to him has been sprinkled with magic dust, and then is soon carried on his way back in time.

    I’m in the 1920’s at the moment and if I never hear another Foxtrot it will be too soon. Actually, a few of them I like, but talk about a form of music that seemed to have been cranked out with very little creativity other than keeping to a particular formula.

    That is to say, I’ve inherited about 150 10” 78 rpm records, magic dust and all. After much searching and deliberation, I decided the best way to sort through them was with a cheap but (as it turned out) quite functional ION Audio Classic LP turntable. I also bought (for $24.00) the special 78 cartridge/needle you need to play 78s.

    I’ve sorted out about 3/4 of these 10” diameter discs so far, first washing them in soap and water (the recommended method by the pros…just go with the grooves, not across them…with a soft cloth, of course…but regular old Palmolive is all you need…Frank…you’re soaking in it).

    About half of them have made the grade, either being of the type of music that I like or just not so degraded as to be unlistenable. I doubt that these records have been played in over 50 years, perhaps longer. They actually were pretty clean, in terms of dirt and dust, although many were quite worn, a few being severely chipped or broken as well.

    Just don’t tell Pat about this. I don’t want him coming over here and playing target practice with my new collection.

  9. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    By the way, here’s a macro photograph of the business end of an Edison Diamond Disc “reproducer” (the “reproducer” is basically the tone arm) on my Edison A-100 phonograph. I used all three extension tubes together.

    I believe (but can find no evidence of) that this is supposed to be a conical type of tip. (Other possibilities you may find here.) But I don’t know. I took the photograph to see if there were any chips and with the mind of sending it along to an expert to see if the needle needed replacing.

    I shot it from both sides and the diamond seems to be smooth and without a chip. Whether it is worn down or not, I don’t know. The best I can find online is that you should have a general pyramidal shape, which it does. But I can find absolutely no closeup examples of what a good diamond needle should look like. This may be one in good repair.

    But I thought the photograph itself was sort of interesting. You can see an itty bitty piece of lint or something clinging to it that might give you a general sense of scale.

    • Fenevad says:

      The advantage of the diamond in this context is that will literally *never* wear out because nothing will ever scratch it or wear it. That’s the reason for using. So, no, it is not worn down. Now chipping it from an impact is another thing. That is entirely possible to do.

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        Thank you very much for the info, Fenevad. It’s darn hard to find a photo of the business end of one of these Edison reproducers. But anything I have found tended to look like what I have. Thanks for confirming that the needle is in good shape. I had thought of sending it off to a repair shop for just general refurbishing. But I think I’ll stand by the old rule of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

        It is surprising that the needle hasn’t been chipped. It received good care but my father why not shy about letting us kids play his records. And accidents can happen. But I guess no bad ones did. We were always taught to take care of things and not be careless.

  10. Jason says:

    Just to make a quick point, the quality of Diamond Discs versus regular shellac 78s is NOT “95% as good” – as long as Diamond Discs aren’t exposed to water or dropped from a 10-story building, they will easily last centuries. 78s, in contrast, will likely only last another century or so before they disintegrate as the fillers in them varied wildly from one manufacturer to another, and they also wear much faster than Diamond Discs (78s can tolerate about 2,000 plays while Diamond Discs can be played almost to an unlimited degree if they are played with lightweight modern tonearms and styli.)

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      Thanks for the info, Jason. That’s all very interesting to me. Given that with the Diamond Discs the sound is encoded in the bottom of the groove, I wasn’t aware that any kind of quality sound could be gained from them on anything but an Edison player. Perhaps there’s a special needle that can be fitted to a modern turntable?

      And if Boxleitner ever runs out, these heavy things could be used as Discs of Tron.

      I have my A100 located prominently in my office and it almost always garners comments. I hear that vinyl records are making somewhat of a comeback. (Probably because people are getting tired of Apple’s horrible iTunes and Music Apps….truly horrible things that making listening to music a real pain.)

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