Pathé was founded by brothers Charles & Émile Pathé, who were owners of a successful bistro in Paris. About 1890 they saw an Edison phonograph demonstrated at a fair and, captivated by the device, arranged to lease one as an attraction at their bistro. The early phonograph soon brought so many curious people to the Pathé establishment that lines formed to listen to it. Some even asked about purchasing phonographs for themselves. The brothers decided that, rather than give more business to Edison, they would make their own phonographs. In 1894 they started selling their own phonographs—initially based on Edison Company design—together with blank phonograph cylinders for people to make records with. Some time later they also started marketing pre-recorded cylinder records, and by 1896 had offices and recording studios not only in Paris, but also in London, Milan, and Moscow.
In 1905 they entered the growing field of disc records, at first with single-sided discs with a recording in wax on top of a cement base. In October of 1906 they started producing discs in the more usual material of shellac. Even with this less eccentric material, Pathé discs were unlike any others. The grooves were cut vertically into the discs, rather than the more common lateral method. The grooves were wider than that used by any other company, requiring a special ball-shaped .005 inch radius stylus to track them. The discs rotated at 90 rpm, rather than 78 or 80. The recordings started on the inside near the center of the disc, spiraling out to the edge rather than vice-versa. Possibly all of this unusual technology was a preventive measure to ensure that no other record company could sue Pathé for violating their patents. Even the record sizes were unusual; other disc records came in 7 inch, 10 inch, and 12 inch sizes, while Pathés came in 21 cm, 25 cm, 27 cm, 29 cm, 35 cm, and 50 cm (roughly 8 inch, 10 inch, 11 inch, 12 inch, 14 inch, and 20 inch) sizes. Unsurprisingly, these Pathé system records could only be played on Pathé phonographs, which would usually not play other types of recordings.
With good marketing, Pathé machines and records became popular in France, but Pathé failed to make any significant headway into markets such as the United Kingdom and the United States, where other systems were already accepted in general use.
Pathé also continued making cylinder records up to about 1914. In addition to cylinders compatible with the 2¼ inch diameter Edison standard, from about 1902 to 1910 they also produced larger 3½ inch "Salon Cylinders".
Pathé was the first company to commonly make master recordings in a different media than the final commercial product. In Pathé recording studios, masters were made on huge rapidly spinning wax cylinders. These large master cylinders were said to capture higher audio fidelity than was available on any mass marketed recordings of the time. The various types of commercial Pathé cylinders and discs were then dubbed from these masters. This master & dubbing process was both a strength and weakness for Pathé. It enabled copies of the same master recording to be made available on multiple formats. The acoustical-mechanical dubbing process, however, resulted in uneven results on the final commercial record, many having a pronounced rumble or other audio artifacts from the process.
Various attachments for other brands of phonographs to enable them to play Pathé records were marketed in the 1910s, but sales in the lucrative USA market remained small.
Discs with the recording starting on the outside edge of the groove were first marketed by Pathé in 1915.
In 1920 Pathé introduced a line of what were called "needle-cut" records (i.e., compatible with other standard brands of 78 discs), at first mostly for the USA market. The "needle-cut" records were labelled Pathé Actuelle. They were introduced in the UK the following year. This venture was successful, and within a few years these "needle-cut" discs were selling more than the vertical Pathés even on the continent.
Attempts to market the Pathé vertical-cut discs abroad were abandoned in 1925, although they continued in use in France until 1932, Pathé thereafter producing "needle-cut" records only.
In January of 1927 Pathé began recording using the new electronic microphone technology, as opposed to the strictly acoustical-mechanical method of recording they used until then.
The Pathé and Pathé-Marconi labels still survive, as imprints of EMI, Inc.