Want to make a new record that can be played back repeatedly and respectably on an old wind-up Victrola with a steel needle? The issue recently came up on ARSCLIST, and the consensus was that it couldn’t be done. Apparently there isn’t a single plant in the world today that’s capable of pressing discs in shellac or any other material durable enough to withstand such treatment, as opposed to the softer touch of a modern pickup or fiber stylus. Vinyl pressings or instantaneous-cut lacquers would get chewed up catastrophically on the first play, while pre-grooved zinc recording discs from the 1920s would give only a feeble echo at best. There are plenty of old records available to be played with steel needles on wind-up gramophones—that is, if preserving their content for future generations isn’t your top priority—but it seems nobody is in a position to make any new ones.
And yet I think there’s a way this could still be done—one that would take a lot of ingenuity and persistence to perfect, but that would also yield enough steampunk cred that I’m optimistic some adventurous soul out there might be persuaded to give it a try. What I have in mind is the original acid-etching process which inventor Emile Berliner devised to create gramophone discs during the 1890s. A metal disc was coated with a fatty wax into which a stylus traced a wavy line during recording. Then the disc was exposed to acid, which ate into the wavy line while leaving the part of the disc still covered in fatty wax untouched. The result was a groove etched into the metal disc which could guide a stylus during playback. Here’s one example of an original acid-etched zinc gramophone disc I photographed in the collections of the National Museum of American History, dated May 7, 1894 (NMAH 271726B):
To the best of my knowledge, nobody has tried to make a record this way in the past hundred years. But for the first decade of commercial gramophone disc production—basically the 1890s—this was the method used to make master recordings, from which stampers could then be generated for pressing copies in celluloid, hard rubber, or shellac. Indeed, finding a good method of duplicating acid-etched disc recordings was the main technical challenge Berliner seems to have faced between roughly 1890 and 1897. Duplication in durable material is also the obstacle that appears insurmountable today.
But the original acid-etched discs were also playable—for several plays, at least—and I see no reason why someone couldn’t replicate the original process of making them as long as sufficiently precise instructions were available.
Fortunately, such instructions are now available. In December 2010, David Giovannoni and I paid a visit to the Manuscript Reading Room at the Library of Congress and looked through the Emile Berliner materials in the Manuscript Division. Among them, we found a German-language pamphlet dated July 1890 that describes the process of making acid-etched gramophone disc records in meticulous detail.
Stephan Puille and I described, cited, and quoted this pamphlet in “E. Berliners Grammophon: The Beginning of the German Talking Machine Industry (Part 4),” The Sound Box 29:3 (June 2011): 3-7, and I’m now pleased to make the whole text available as a PDF file containing both a facsimile of the original pamphlet and my own English translation. Select “two page view” to see both versions side by side.
This pamphlet is of historical interest for a number of reasons, including these:
- The section on “Meanings of the Colors” on page 16 reveals that the paper labels on the backs of the first commercial European gramophone discs of the early 1890s were color-coded based on region or language. English-language discs had rose-colored labels, for instance, while German-language discs had light blue labels (see Henri Chamoux’s examples online for confirmation of the stated patterns).
- A list of recommended recording speeds on page 12 indicates that these were supposed to vary depending on diameter, with smaller discs revolving much faster than larger discs—something that may shed light on the controversy surrounding the recording speed of the smaller-diameter gramophone-doll discs.
But it’s the technical information about how to create gramophone discs that I’d particularly like to draw to the attention of my readers. Is anyone out there up to the challenge of replicating the nineteenth-century methods described in this pamphlet? It seems to me that physically preparing and processing the discs themselves is the key to the puzzle, and that existing disc-recording equipment could be adapted to tracing a line in fatty wax on zinc rather than cutting one in the usual materials. If you give it a try, please let me know how it goes—but be careful, since some of the materials are potentially hazardous. If you carry out any experiments based on these instructions, you do so at your own risk; I don’t vouch for their safety. Here’s a chromic acid safety data sheet for a start: scary stuff! And the pamphlet says the fatty wax solution is highly flammable.
As long as you’re confident you know what you’re doing, though, I’m sure considerable bragging rights would come with being the first person in over a century to succeed in making a record using Emile Berliner’s original mastering process—so good luck! Please share any brainstorming or experimental results in the comments section below.
Postscript, November 19, 2014: A YouTube channel belonging to Lee Leng Kok of Singapore shows some newly-made unbreakable (and bendable) 78s being played on gramophones with steel needles, with an offer to make copies of submitted recordings. So it seems there’s an alternative way of accomplishing this feat that doesn’t involve acid-etching, although the material and duplication process isn’t described, unless in the Chinese-language captions. The one video showing a close-up of the needle also shows a fair build-up of swarf by the end of the playback. Cool work, but I’d still like to see the acid-etching process revived.
Postscript, February 25, 2018: Thanks to Peter Adamson for drawing my attention to an error in my translation of the “Technische Notizen,” which I’ve now corrected: the text should read “6 cm square” rather than “6 square cm” on page 9a.