by Brad Nelson 10/6/16
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 expensive (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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