Edison Diamond Disks

hearon/ September 27, 2013/ Research/ 0 comments

Posted by Jim Hearon

The Edison Diamond Disks and Dirk Vogel’s Hawaiian Music Collection

Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.
–Thomas A. Edison

Gregg Geary is the Music Librarian and Head of Sinclair Library and helped facilitate the purchase of the Dirk Vogel audio collection, and the acquisition of the James Cathro audio collection.  He has written an article about Edison’s Phonograph from which updates and excerpts will be listed here. Jim Hearon works at the Library, is a member of the Audio Engineering Society, and has been digitizing and streaming the audio from the collections.

The Vogel and Cathro audio collections are being digitized at Sinclair Library, and streamed and made available to patrons (http://digicoll.manoa.hawaii.edu/music/). Dirk Vogel’s audio collection includes a small but historically important group of early recorded Hawaiian Music on Edison Diamond Disks, browseable from the link above under Record Company/Edison Record label.

The early Edison disks were a unique audio recording and playback technology which were developed after Edison’s cylinder recordings. Edison utilized an acoustically recorded vertical cut technology, similar to the cylinders, on his phonograph disks which was distinctly different from the Emile Berliner’s competing gramophone disks which employed a lateral or side to side cut. Through a number of poor business decisions, and also due to the fact that Berliner’s lateral audio invention had a better sound, Edison was eventually forced out of business. Thus the Edison “Diamond Disks” represent an interesting boutique collection of unique acoustically recorded performances, roughly from the years 1912 to 1929.


The University of Hawaii’s collection of the Diamond Disks features some of the earliest Hawaiian Music recorded on disk. Earlier cylinder recordings of Hawaiian speech and song exist, and in some cases cylinder recordings were being made simultaneously along with the new flat disk technology; but Edison had such a strong creative hand in the choice of artists and material that these particular artists represent a rather select group of individuals who were selected to record on the Edison label (Tim’s Phonographs and Old Records, 2006).

According to Dr. Geary (1996), the popular conception today is that with the invention of the phonograph the musical sound recording industry was born. In fact, music played a very small part of the phonograph’s early years. Most early recordings were of the spoken voice and thus we find the apparatus referred to as Edison’s “talking machine.” In recalling Edison’s first recorded words, his recitation of Mary Had a Little Lamb, Marilyn Gillen notes:

That Edison chose to recite rather than sing the classic children’s ditty underscores an impression that kept the invention something of a footnote in the broader music-business story for nearly a decade; at first, the recording device was seen by Edison as being suited for the business or industrial marketplace as a dictaphone or data-storage product…Many years…passed before Edison and others set their sights on conquering the entertainment arena (Gillen, 1994).

Geary has also written that meeting the demand for sound recordings was no easy matter for most of the 1890’s. Cylinder recordings were not easily duplicated. In fact, in most cases each cylinder placed on the market before 1900 was a master made in the recording studios. Recording sessions were tedious affairs lasting many hours and producing only a handful of records. Artists had to perform while about three to five phonographs were set in motion to capture the performance on wax cylinders. Once completed the whole operation was repeated over and over again until the day’s quota of recordings were made (Geary, 1996),

Some of the earliest acoustic recording into a horn or conical tube, tended to accentuate whatever instrument or voice was the loudest in the midrange of frequencies.  For early recordings of music played on acoustic Hawaiian instruments such as the ukulele, guitar, and steel guitar, many of the problems associated with recording a full range of instruments were alleviated.  The Hawaiian-style instruments tended to be have a softer sound and their frequencies were predominately in the midrange which meant that two or three performers standing next to the recording apparatus could be heard equally on the recording.  There were none of the problems associated with recording a full band, orchestra, or even classical or jazz music ensembles where careful positioning of the players as well as doubling of instruments in the low frequency ranges was important for capturing the vibrations equally produced by all the instruments.  The slide technique of the Hawaiian steel guitar, employing the “steel”, or metal bar touching the strings of the instrument across the frets to create pitch variation, had a particular attack transient as well as metallic timbre which lent itself well to reproducing a clearly distinguishable melody via the acoustic recording process.  The basic combination of ukulele, guitar, and steel guitar, often with or without voices became the early recording standard as the “Hawaiian” ensemble.

Below is a brief audio example, as .mp3,  from an Edison recording of Palakiko Blues from 1924 by Frank Ferera, steel guitar, and Anthony Francini, guitar. For the full version of several early Hawaiian Music Edison recordings, please visit the Library’s digital collections page for music, listed above.



Thomas Alva Edison. three-quarter length portrait, seated, facing front [edited]. c1922. Retrieved September 12, 2013 from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Thomas_Edison2.jpg

Gracyk, Tim. “Edison Diamond Discs: 1912-1929.” Tim’s Phonographs and Old Records, 2006. Retrieved September 12, 2013 from http://www.gracyk.com/diamonddisc.shtml

Graphophone1901.jpg [edited]. 1901. Retrieved September 12, 2013 from http://www.pinterest.com/miremolnar/tech-music-players/

Gregg S. Geary. (1996). The Phonograph: The Machine That Changed the Course of Popular Music. Unpublished manuscript, University of Hawaii-Manoa.

Marily A. Gillen. (November 1, 1994). From the cylinder to the CD. Billboard, 106, p.102.


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