Tainter lateral-cut electroplate record

(NMAH #287668) - The record pictured above is one of the earliest survivng examples of a flat disc sound recording. The Smithsonian has one earlier copper electroplated disc deposited Feb. 28, 1880 (NMAH #312,119), but it is unidentified. The earliest identified flat disc was an experimental electroplated lateral-cut disc made by Samuel Tainter who etched in center: "This phonogram was made Nov. 8, 1881. S. T." This record has lateral-cut grooves, or what Tainter called "zig-zag" grooves, produced by a special lathe that cut a wax master that was electroplated with copper. The disc is 10 inches in diameter with very wide grooves meant to be reproduced with the air-jet apparatus Chichester Bell had developed in 1881. The disc was made several months after the first electroplating experiments were carried out, and two weeks after a similar electroplate record was sealed in the Smithsonian box with an Edison tin-foil phonograph. Bell and Charles Tainter sealed this Edison machine, called a "graphophone" by Bell, inside a tin box for deposit at the Smithsonian Oct. 20, 1881. The tin-foil machine was used to make experimental recordings in wax but by the old indenting method that Edison had originally used in 1877. The box was opened Oct. 27, 1937 - see newspaper story 1937/10/28. The machine that would later be called the "graphophone" had not yet been built in 1881, but Tainter had written down the basic principles of an engraved wax record and he enclosed pages from his Home Notes that described these principles for deposit in the Smithsonian box. The first true graphophone machine would be built in 1885 and would be patented in 1886 (Patent No. 341,214 filed June 27, 1885 and granted May 4, 1886). In order to sell this machine as a dictaphone, the Graphophone Company investors required that it be constructed as a cylinder machine using the vertical-cut method of recording. Tainter's preference for a lateral-cut disc was ignored by the Company and no flat disc player would be built. Emile Berliner would not begin making flat discs until 1887. Victor's successful use of the 1895 Berliner patent 534,543 for a free-moving stylus propelled by the zig-zag grooves of a flat disc began a 30-year battle between cylinders and discs. Columbia acquired the rights after 1901 to make flat discs under patent 688,739 of Joseph Jones and after 1903 cross-licensed disc rights with Victor. When AT&T adopted the flat disc for its electrical recording system in 1925, the cylinder was doomed to extinction. The triumph of the disc proved that Tainter was right when he first described the disc principle in his 1881 Home Notes.

1999 by Steven E. Schoenherr. All rights reserved.
The photos on these pages are used with permission of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. They may not be reproduced or distributed without written permission of the NMAH.

digital photos taken June 21, 1999 by Schoenherr | Return to Recording Technology History Notes | this page revised July 23, 1999