What Are Wax Records?


What Are Wax Records?

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Music has become embedded in our culture no matter where you are in the world. There are a variety of different music genres to choose from now but where did listening to music begin? 

In contemporary society, musicians can share their music with anyone in the world by just a touch of the button on the phone via the internet but have you ever wondered where it all started? 

Well, before the music technology we now have today, we have to look back to where recorded music started, and that is, the wax record. If you are not sure what that is, don’t worry. In this article, we will explore everything surrounding the wax record and how it came to be. 

What Exactly Is A Wax Record?

The wax record simply put is a hollow cylinder made from wax that, when put into a phonograph or graphophone machine it allows you to record sound and reproduce that same sound. The wax cylinder is approximately two inches in diameter and 4 inches in length. 

As the machines evolved, so did the wax that could be used, and eventually, the diameters and length of the wax cylinder could vary. The sound reproduced by the wax record was not just music and simple voice recordings but also a myriad of other uses. The machines, such as the phonograph and gramophone, were necessary for the wax recording to occur and for it to be replayed. 

Wax records were called that because they were actually made of wax. The wax allowed the sound waves to be imprinted on the cylinder so they could then be played back on the same or another machine. The wax could then be shaved off and the cylinder could be used for a different recording. 

Later editions of the wax record were actually made of celluloid which is a type of plastic. These couldn’t be shaved off and reused but they didn’t wear out after a few dozen uses either so they were great for commercial applications and for selling songs to individuals. 

How Did A Wax Record Work?

The wax record worked in an easy and simple fashion. A needle on the machine etched the modulation of the human voice or whatever sound was being recorded into the wax. The etching is done on the outside surface of the wax.

To record sounds, you would speak or make sound into the mouthpiece of the phonograph. The voice or other sounds would create sound vibrations that would then be etched onto the cylinder by the recording needle creating grooves in the wax. Wax records used in the phonograph could record sound for up to two minutes per wax cylinder, which is remarkable considering the era when it was created.

To find out if the wax recording system actually worked, Thomas Edison did a test run. If you were to guess what Thomas Edison’s first words were when he first created the machine that was able to record and recreate sound using the wax record you would probably get it wrong. The words he did the test run using was “Mary had a little lamb.” I am almost sure the average person would not have thought that.

What Were Wax Records Made Of?

The first cylinders of the wax record were made of paraffin and beeswax. Then in 1890, it was then manufactured with brown wax. This design was developed and patented by the renowned American inventor and engineer, Charles Tainter. Contrary to what you might believe, the brown was not always brown. To make the brown wax, Charles Tainter used carnauba wax, which was harder than the other waxes and allowed for many more playbacks than previous versions of the cylinder. 

This was because the wax was made in a way that even when the needle was etching into the wax, it was soft enough not to allow for crackles or any disruptions of the audio. On the other hand, it was now hard enough to maintain the groves that were etched, contributing to the sound being able to be played repeatedly.

Wax Record Evolution

Wax records lasted for commercial consumption between the years 1888 to 1912. People were quite pleased with all that the records offered. When flat vinyl records started being made the cylinder recordings quickly went out of style.  

Here is a timeline of how the wax record evolved during its creation process:

  • Thomas Edison, initially invented an Edison foil recorder, a machine that could record and reproduce sound. However, it was not clear and didn’t last very long. The tinfoil did not work very well to record or playback sound.
  • Charles Sumner Tainter then developed the first wax cylinder for use with Edison’s Recorder in 1886. Edison’s first recorder used tin foil coated cylinders so the wax cylinders was a huge breakthrough.
  • Charles Sumner Tainter and Chichester Bell then developed a better needle for the wax cylinder by 1886, and this wax record was called the graphophone.
  • Thomas Edison then developed his own version of the wax recording in 1878, called the phonograph, which took off and started commercial consumption of wax records. This was a phenomenon because while it is hard to imagine, that move changed the game for recording sounds, especially in music.

In the end, what was produced is a beautiful masterpiece that helped shape future creations to come. Without the wax record there never would have been the celluloid record which in turn brought about the vinyl records that have lasted through today! 

What Were Wax Records Used For?

Wax records were not only used for basic voice recording, they quickly grew into being used for recording and replaying music. Edison never envisioned that the wax record would be used for recording and playing music but yet it happened. 

The popularity of recording and replaying music rose, even more so, when soldiers went off to war. They would record music using wax records and then took them with them when they went off to war.  Soldiers were able to listen to their favorite music that would help to relieve stress and remind them of their home. 

This time period acted as a catalyst in recording music and being able to carry it anywhere with you. The basic principle that led us to today’s accessibility to music no matter where we are at or what we are doing. 

The wax record was also used for:

  •  letter writing and dictation,
  • phonographic books for blind people,
  • a family record so family members could record their own voices
  • music boxes and toys
  • clocks that announce the time
  • connection with the telephone so communications could be recorded

The Progression of Wax Records and Music

The progression of the way musicians and avid listeners of music could connect through the music is certainly  noteworthy. The evolution of music in the last hundred years had been nothing short of a miracle. Listening to music has become something that many people do many times a day without even thinking about it! 

We live in the best era and have the most access to music of any time in history.  

The progression of this access began with the wax record, also known as wax cylinders, then moved to vinyl records, shortly after the cassette tapes, then compact disks. Even while CDs were still popular technology was continuing to advance at an amazing pace. 

Soon  the iPod and other tiny music devices (MP3 players) were produced and you could walk around with music playing from your shirt pocket. Of course technology didn’t stop there and now we all have access to streaming platforms that are insanely cheap or even free to listen to the music of our choice.  

Recording sound and listening to music has come a long way. The wax record being among the first is definitely iconic. We certainly owe it our respect because, believe it or not, it was groundbreaking for its time. Even though right now, the wax record may seem a little archaic and old without it we never would have advanced to where we are today. 

To see how wax records actually recorded music check out this video below of a modern band using the old technology to record a song! 

Conclusion

Wax records are quite an exciting place to start when tracing back to the beginning of audio recording and replaying.  Wax records, otherwise known as wax cylinders, played an integral role in what we know as music today. So, it is always fun to learn about revolutionary items such as this one.

The more these machines evolved, the better the wax record became. Each creation used a better and better etching system on the wax cylinders. It soon became trendy and was bought by consumers for many reasons such as music recording, letter writing and dictation, audiobooks for the blind, and so on. 

The journey of the wax record was quite remarkable, and it has left a lasting impression on the history of music.

Matt Robbs

There is nothing quite so enjoyable as bringing back memories from your childhood. We used to spend hours playing pinball in my friends basement and that really got me involved in everything retro!

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