Friday, May 06, 2011

Format Wars: Vertical Vs. Lateral Cut

Much of the history of media is the history of format wars. Some are hugely public and involve consumers like 8-Track Vs. cassette or VHS vs. Betamax. Some are completely hidden from the consumer such as the various formats that were considered for AM stereo: C-QUAM, CAM-D, PMX, V-PCM, and others. In broadcasting because we share a public trust we have to commit to the same system ultimately. In physical media they can fight like dogs for years seeking a clear-cut victor. today I'd like to revisit a format battle from 1905.

The first retail  recorded media was the Edison cylinder.It debuted in 1888 and dominated completely until about 1915 when 78 rpm discs began to gain market share. Today they still make records. They're made with PVC instead of shellac, but they're easily recognized and the technology is largely the same. But early in their history, there was a variant that died out. It was an incompatible format just as contrary as Apple and Windows.

Modern record grooves are horizontally cut. Emile Berliner invented horizontal grooves. The grooves literally wiggle back and forth laterally. If you've ever seen an electron microscope image of a record groove you have seen this. Up close, say 1000x it looks like a mountain valley.[images here] Pathé had vertical cut grooves. they were not alone in the vertical cut, Edison Diamond discs also used vertical cut grooves. The "hill and dale" process as it was called cut a deeper or shallower groove responded to the vibrations from acoustic energy. It was invented by Edison and can of course also be found on cylinders. More here.

The lateral cut 78s were played with a steel needle. These were cheap to make, cheap to buy and universal in all discs descended from the Berliner design with lateral-cut grooves. Edison Diamond Discs required a diamond stylus. The discs are a quarter inch thick, and the early discs are made with a celluloid base coated in condensite. The later discs have a core of pressed particle board coated in condensite. As an added minus Edison has really bland taste in music which he applied to his eponymous catalog. More here.

Pathé Records were even more proprietary their vertically cut records required a sapphire ball stylus. The needle didn't come to a point, it was literally round on the bottom edge. Because of this, they weren't even compatible with the Edison records. Before 1915, their records were also center start, (as opposed to outer edge) another dissimilarity that was unfriendly to the market. [More here] Then there was the size problem. Pathé made discs anywhere in diameter from 8.5 inches in diameter up to 20 inches in diameter! On most other machines, the spindle wasn't 20 inches from the base of the tone arm. Not only couldn't consumers use the standard needles, they couldn't always use their existing phonographs.  Other phonograph makers began making adapters for their tone arms so their customers could play both types of discs. This is like the modern DVD/Blue-Ray players. A smart manufacturer does not have to take sides.

But Pathé did have to take sides. Pathé gave up on vertical cut records in 1925, and released a new line or records Pathe Actuelle. Those could be played with the more-common steel needles. Edison held on stubborn as you'd expect. He didn't make any lateral cut discs until 1927, finally conceding defeat.