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The Story of the Manufacture of Wax Cylinder Blanks - Part 3

On my return from Guernsey, I continued my moulding experiments with renewed vigour. Now I was able to make the “metallic soap” wax that was required for proper castings. Apart from its hardness, and the ease with which it could be burnished, the composition had a high coefficient of expansion: in the region of 2%. What this meant was it would shrink enough, upon cooling, to come out of the mould easily. This had always been a problem with the carnauba and paraffin wax formula I had been using until then. These had to be cooled in the freezer-my parents' freezer, with all the problems that that entailed.

There were other problems to be solved however. My home made mould had had a glass outer tube which meant that the castings came out with a beautiful mirror surface, but often not very true. Reaming the plain inside of the castings was a rather hit or miss business with a large kitchen knife.

Peter had made his cylinders by centrifugal casting, which had required quite a bit of plant, and he had tools which formed rings on the inside of the castings, and rough and precision reamers. Clearly I had a long way to go.
PM at Poole Museum giving the Phonograph Lecture in 19771977 was the centenary of Edison's phonograph, and it was 100 years ago that recorded sound was first able to be played back or “reproduced”. This is a point lost on many historians who should know better. For me, it was a chance to improve my method of producing wax blanks, and to give demonstrations and talks about Edison and the phonograph. Truly a propitious time!
PM explaining how the insoluble stearates are made Despite finding my A-level studies rather harder than I had expected, and the dreadful pressures brought to bear on our family by my mother's illness, and subsequent death that year, I managed to find time to make several good batches of mass, and to cast, and finish enough blanks to give a series of talks at school assemblies, and a formal lecture and exhibition at Poole Museum.
PM casting a blank at Poole Grammar School in 1977At this time, also I sent recorded cylinders to Glasgow museum, and to the City of London Phonograph and Gramophone society.  I was also interviewed for Radio Solent, and at almost the same time, was invited to the television studios in Southampton to give a live spot on the “South Today” programme, introduced by Barry Westwood.
PM demonstrating cylinder recording at Poole Grammar School in 1977My Zoology master at school took some photographs off the screen, and they are the only record of the event that I have. I recall the studio was very hot, and the smell of the molten wax was present for all to enjoy. Alistair Stewart interviewed me, and I don't really recall much about what I said. I did record a T.V. Announcement, for use on the programme, and strenuously refused to make it skip grooves and to repeat.
PM on TV ! (South Today) in 1977. This was my first experience of the imbecile attitude that some media presenters seem to have, and if  I ever refuse to appear on television or radio again, it will be for this sort of reason. I will not have my beautiful machines mocked so that half-wits sat all over the country watching their sets can snigger.
Probably the most memorable achievement of the year, was the lecture I gave to the City of London Phonograph and Gramophone Society (the C.L.P.G.S.) This entailed getting all of my kit up from Poole to Waterloo station where I was met (just) by Dave Roberts of that society.

The journey was traumatic, I was very anxious about the lecture, and Peter Curry, whom I had agreed to meet later on whilst in London, had a heart attack, and I went with him in the ambulance to the Middlesex hospital. I remember asking the ambulance driver why he was not using the siren, and he reassured me that in this case it would cause more distress than was warranted. Well, we got there, and Peter survived. He did miss my lecture however.

I recall only a large room in Debenhams of Oxford Street, and the feeling of telling a lot of knowledgeable people what they all knew already. The recorder played up, and overall I think the lecture was not my greatest success. I often wonder what those people who saw this young lad from Dorset thought. I have never seen a write-up, so I really don't know to this day.
University education followed, and there was little time for wax experiments. I did design, and have made a lovely mould with a spiral cut core. This enabled the castings to come out of the mould with a raised spiral of two threads per inch cut as a left hand thread. This inadvertently distinguishes all of the modern cylinders made in this way from originals which all seem to have had right hand threads. I had, by this time realised my goal of making wax cylinders that were as good as originals and would probably have stopped there had I not made the acquaintance of Duncan Miller of Halstead, in Kent.
World Famous Miller, Morris and Co Blanks boxes.Duncan had been following much the same path as me, and as he was a member of the C.L.P.G.S. who lived near the president - the great George Frow of Sevenoaks - it is not surprising that we met up. He sent me a record that he had made “rather hurriedly”, which I still have. It was far softer than the ones I was making at this stage, and had a strong smell of carnauba wax. It also came in a rather attractive pasteboard box with crimped lids. I'm bound to say that I found the box almost as impressive as the cylinder, and it seemed as if we should pool our achievements and see what turned out.

Not long after that, we met and “Miller, Morris and Co.” was formed to supply wax blanks, and other phonographica (if there is such a word) to enthusiasts the world over.

Duncan was a better scientist than me, and quickly assimilated all I passed onto him about wax making, most of which I had learnt from Peter Curry.  He improved the techniques of adding the materials together, and devised a method of checking on the progress of the reaction which was forming the wax-the “scorpion test”. It is very difficult for a number of reasons, to get just the right amount of ingredients to form the perfect mass, even with careful weighing.

A better technique is to make regular tests on the properties of the mixture so far, and when it was right, stop adding things. In the process of making the mass, the stearic acid (a waxy solid) is melted and when hot enough, the required amount of aluminium is added as a solution in lye. I used to add it in one go, then remelt the resulting “dough-ball” and carry on adding lye until it was all gone. Sometimes it worked, other times the mass would cool down and have white growths in it, making it useless for recording on. This was the dreaded “white spot” the scourge of many attempts at making good blanks.
Scorpion Testing.Duncan's technique was to add the solutions in small amounts, and incorporating each new precipitate of soap in the melt, by heating and stirring, so the mass never solidified. Towards the end of adding the solutions, small samples were drawn across a cold metal or glass plate. The resulting streak of material would rise up at one end, like a scorpion's tail, if it had acquired enough sodium stearate to give it sufficient coefficient of expansion. This point corresponded pretty closely to the time at which it was necessary to add no more lye, and was , of course, the “scorpion test” Every new batch of wax I make (now 25 kg at a time) is tested in this way, and a Scorpion Plate is an essential tool in wax making.
A blank making session at the Wimborne Laboratory c.1978.A large garden shed at the bottom of our garden at 78 Merley Ways was referred to as “the Wimborne Laboratory” and periodically Duncan would come down from Kent, with his moulds, and we would have a blank making session. The cylinders had a spiral interior, as previously mentioned, and this spiral simply “ran out” at the title end of the cylinder. Not long after, the core was changed so as to give a raised ring on this end. This gave greater strength, and made a neater looking casting.
Peter Curry and PM at the Wimborne Laboratory c. 1978.I suppose about two hundred blanks were made with spiral insides, probably not many more, and of ones with spirals that ran right through I would think only two or three dozen. They are rare today! Also at this time the blanks had the legend “Miller, Morris & Co. Recording Blank” cast into the end. The earliest ones had a Times type face, whilst later ones used a more rounded face. Whilst the results could look stunning, the process was unreliable, and very time consuming and so was eventually discontinued.

Peter Curry made several visits to the Wimborne Laboratory, and a little later, I made the acquaintance of Anders Schilling, from Sweden. He was a superb pianist of the “Fats Waller School” and had also been very keen on wax cylinder recording. He visited on one memorable occasion and all three of us made blanks together.
Waxes made in the eighties held in my archives.As soon as blank making became a regular process, Duncan was keen to move on. He had always wanted to mould records and even at this early stage he was doing experiments with the electrotyping of wax in order to form a record mould. His experiments with recording diaphragms too were progressing very nicely, and it was only a short time before we thought we could get a cylinder record on the market.

As partnerships go, I think it was quite successful, and I suppose as in all partnerships there was a certain amount of friction. Let us just say that we could be quite “Gilbert and Sullivan” at times, although who was Gilbert and who was Sullivan I would not like to say. I did the art work for the labels and adverts in those early days, and had a certain attitude to quality control which could be seen as obsessive. It often must have seemed that I was far keener to get large numbers of neatly labelled boxes containing cylinders of exactly the same length out to our public, than to research better materials for recording diaphragms, or new processes for wax manufacture.

I supplied much of the artistic repertoire, giving piano solos as “professor Blanding”, comic songs as “Harry H. Harper” and ballads as “Samuel Clarke” Somebody may be “lucky” enough to find a duet by “The Two Sylvesters” which was really Morris and Miller (with a pre recorded Morris accompaniment blasted into the horn on a tape recorder)

I also wanted a methodical workshop where blanks could be made by a standard process which did not need to evolve. In truth, did we but know it, we complemented each other more than we realised, and so we carried on. A couple of days at a time was usually enough, and over the years, Miller, Morris and Co. achieved quite a following.
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