By: Dave Rambow
Phonograph was Thomas A. Edison’s word. He invented the word, and it applies to a sound reproducing device manufactured by one of the successive companies under Edison’s control. There’s no such thing as an Edison Victrola; Victrola was a trademark of the Victor Talking Machine Company. The Columbia Graphophone was a competing company to Edison; they made a similar products.
Edison began mass-producing cylinder phonographs with external sound horns in the late 1890s. These machines employed a brown/tan wax cylinder that played for a span of two minutes.
By around 1905, however, the cylinder trade was in decline as flat disc 78rpm machines began to outsell their cylinder competitors. In 1906 his competitor Victor Talking Machine Company (later to become RCA) threw the horn inside the cabinet in a machine dubbed the Victrola. Although acoustically inferior to outside horn machines, internal horn, Victrolas quickly replaced outside horn machines as fashion won out over function.
By 1909 the cylinder business was becoming increasingly sluggish, with Edison the only remaining major player in the United States. Ever loyal to his faithful cylinder record clientele, Edison introduced a record called the “Blue Amberol” which extended the playing time from two to four minutes.
In 1909 Edison made the decision to bring out an internal horn cylinder phonograph, even though he would have to defend against a number of Victor patents. This machine was called the Amberola, ‘Amberol’ after the new four minute records, ‘ola’ as this had become a de facto designation for an internal horn product.
There were two separate series of Amberola machines:
The first, a Roman numeral series (Amberolas I through X), was introduced beginning 1911. These machines were beautifully and substantially made, at least at the outset, although later on Edison used less expensive components and cheaper cabinetry.
The second series, the Amberolas 30,50, and 75, date to after an Edison factory fire of 1914. The quality of these machines was constrained by price, and although not highly collectable they remain an excellent and relatively inexpensive device to play four minute records. The model numbers referred to their original retail sale prices in dollars.
Almost any Amberola you are likely to find will be a straight four minute machine. Caution! The only cylinder records you should be playing on these machines are the “Blue Amberols” or the four minute “Indestructible” label. These machines geared exclusively for the four minute records, but also because they are equipped with a diamond stylus. They will destroy the sound of old soft black wax four minute Amberols or two minute brown wax records. You can distinguish the true “Blue Amberols” by their brilliant blue celluloid exterior and plaster of Paris core.