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The Story of the Manufacture of Wax Cylinder Blanks - Part 1

Recording onto a blank cylinder. I have already explained part of my interest and eventual commercial involvement with wax cylinders in the biographical sketch given elsewhere in this web site, but I want to give a fuller account of my involvement under this heading.
By the time I had begun my secondary education, at Poole Grammar School, I was aware of cylinder records, having seen a “Puck” phonograph at Shaftesbury Museum in Dorset . My father had also given me an account of a machine that he had played with during the war-a Gem whose motor was so noisy that it was used to simulate an aeroplane engine whilst he and several other boys sat behind it in a make-believe “Spitfire”. To my infinite chagrin however, phonographs and cylinder records never seemed to turn up in junk shops, despite my keeping a pretty keen eye on the many such shops that there were in the Bournemouth area in those days.
Quite why I was so interested in old records in general, and wax phonograph records in particular is a mystery to everyone-myself included. My beliefs about collecting, the people who collect, and what they collect are topics for another essay. That I had an insatiable need for these early records was evident for all to see, and that's everything which matters for now.

In the early 'seventies, I was getting 2/6d pocket money-and this was far more than its 12.5p equivalent of now-but still not very much. In those days you could get a large portion of chips for 5d so I guess that my half a crown was really worth about £6 then. Phonograph cylinders could be had, it was rumoured, at “Fagin's Phonograph Emporium” at 169 Blackstock Road in London (N7 I seem to recall) for £2 each, and were clearly out of my league. Even if I could manage to get to that part of London unaided, one record would have been 16 weeks pocket money!! (and approaching £100 by the previous calculation)
Notes on the Morris PhonographClearly I had to do something about sating my desire, and I think at this point the fact that I had such a strong interest, which seemed so impossible to achieve, made for the passion in later life for these and related artefacts. Clearly the future was firmly rooted in the past. By 1971 I was doing “Design and Technology” (woodwork and metalwork) once a week at school, and we were encouraged to follow our own plans, if we had them. For me this meant just one thing-I had to make a phonograph!
Notes on the Morris PhonographThe fact that I had never really had a chance to study the sort of machine I intended to make did not worry me, as I recall, and I set about drawing up plans, freely inventing components that I had not seen first hand, and improvising dimensions of such things as the lead screw and mandrel. I did not even own a single cylinder record at the start.
Notes on the Morris Phonograph The “Morris Phonograph” as it was to be called, turned out to be a two year project during which I learnt a huge amount about engineering, persevering, and how to find out things for myself. Had we had the internet in those days, I may well have found out more, but I suspect I would have learnt less.
Exhibiting the Morris Phonograph in Southampton Guildhall in 1975. That the “Morris Phonograph” did everything except play and record “need not to have worried me” wrote Mr. V.K. Chew of the Science Museum, after I had taken the machine up to London one summer holiday. He kindly pointed out that I had tried to make single handedly what Edison had only accomplished with a team of engineers and a well equipped machine shop. It was true, but I was very disappointed. I tried another tack.

Visiting local museums I had the good fortune to examine my first phonograph at close quarters. The Russell Cotes museum in Bournemouth had an Edison Standard which was missing its reproducer, and as I had recently got in touch with Keith Badman, from Exeter, who makes such things, it was arranged for me to spend an hour with this machine, to make sketches and to take measurements. I marvelled at the quality of the workmanship! No wonder my machine could not have been a success. The Edison was so beautiful by comparison! One record was with it-a split “indestructible” whose title if memory serves me well was “Tippy Canoe”.

At Poole Museum I had even more luck. They had just been given an Edison Home phonograph and about 100 records in two black carrying cases. These had been found in a garage, mouldering away not more that half a mile from where I lived. I was very envious, at the time, I well remember. When I stopped them from using methylated spirits as a cleaning agent, by demonstrating that it acted as a solvent for the wax, I was put in charge of the project, and thus learned a lot about the various makes of cylinder, and the artists and material on them. It was the next best thing to having a phonograph of my own.
Little Beauty Mazurka Then came my 16th birthday, in 1975. I received an Edison Standard Phonograph and six waxen records. Some were mouldy, and two were cracked, but I was in heaven, and played the comparatively clean one (“Little Beauty-Mazurka” a bell solo by Edward F. Rubsam) nearly every day for weeks. The other five, now I come to think of it were: “I Do Like to be Beside the Seaside” by Harry Fay, “I am Praying for You” by Anthony and Harrison, “On Jersey Shore” by the Premier Military Band “Yip-I Addy-I-Ay” by Collins and Harlan, and “Stop Your Tickling Jock” by Jay Laurier.
Some Blue Amberols Probably no other records gave me such pleasure in the early days of my collecting. At about the same time, I acquired about 30 Edison Blue Amberol records, and with no machine to play these, they became simply curios whose magic would have to wait until a suitable adapter could be had for my Standard. In the event, it was over 5 years before I could play these wonderful recordings, and I think the delayed gratification again helped to compound the ever burgeoning passion for things vintage.
Edison Blank and boxI also got an Edison recording blank. It turned up in a small lot that the late Michael Wyler, of West Moors, gave me in payment for work on his machines. It was a very special thing. Brown, of course, with a different smell and a mysteriously different feel to it when you rubbed it against your finger nail. It had, too, faint traces of a previous recording, and strange gouges, and tear marks. I improvised a recorder from a model C reproducer minus its weight, and using a gramophone needle as a stylus, but all to no avail.
All Text and Images © Copyright Paul Morris 2008
All Rights Reserved - No unauthorised use permitted.