Wednesday, May 17, 2006
Wax cylinder recordings available on MP3
In 1877, Thomas Edison was working on a machine that would transcribe telegraphic messages through indentations on paper tape, allowing it to be 'played back' without manual re-keying. This development led Edison to speculate that a voice message could also be recorded in a similar fashion. He experimented with a diaphragm which had an embossing point and was held against rapidly-moving paraffin paper. The speaking vibrations made indentations in the paper.
Edison later changed the paper to a metal cylinder wrapped in tin foil. The machine had two diaphragm-and-needle units, one for recording, and one for playback. When someone spoke into the mouthpiece, the sound vibrations would be indented onto the cylinder by the recording needle.
In 1877, Edison commissioned a mechanic, John Kreusi, to build a prototype. When completed, Edison tested the machine by speaking the nursery rhyme into the mouthpiece, "Mary had a little lamb." And, much to his surprise, the machine played his words back to him.
The Edison Speaking Phonograph Company was established on January 24, 1878, to exhibit the new machine. It was a huge attraction, with thousands flocking to see this incredible invention wherever it was shown. Edison received $10,000 for the manufacturing and sales rights and 20% of the profits. However, the novelty of the invention quickly faded, and Edison diverted his efforts to developing the incadescent light bulb.
However other people continued to develop the concept. In 1880, Alexander Graham Bell won the Volta Prize of $10,000 from the French government for his invention of the telephone. Bell used his winnings to set up a laboratory to further electrical and acoustical research, making improvements on Edison's invention, chiefly by using wax in the place of tin foil and a floating stylus instead of a rigid needle which would incise, rather than indent, the cylinder. A patent was awarded in 1886. The machine was exhibited to the public as the graphophone. Bell and Tainter had representatives approach Edison to discuss a possible collaboration on the machine, but Edison refused and resumed his efforts to improve the phonograph himself.
The Edison Phonograph Company was formed on October 8, 1887, to market Edison's machine. He introduced the Improved Phonograph by May of 1888, shortly followed by the Perfected Phonograph. The first wax cylinders Edison used were white and made of ceresin, beeswax, and stearic wax.
By the early 1900s the Phonograph had become a popular device. The wax cylinders were available for 50 cents each, featuring a variety of recordings including marches, sentimental ballads, 'coon' songs, hymns, comic monologues and audio reenactments of events. They were slowly replaced by other technlogies, ultimately by 78rpm shellac discs, however millions of wax cylinders were produced until well into the 1920s.
This 'lost' era in musical history is now being made available by the (deep breath) Donald C Davidson Library's Cylinder Digitization and Preservation Project.
So far over 6,000 wax cylinders have been digitised, catalogued and uploaded to the site. This is primarily a historical archive, which means that not all of the material is 'politically correct'. If you are of a sensitive nature you'll do well to steer clear of the 'dialect recordings' which feature cruel racial stereotyping typical of the era.
However, amongst the distasteful and downright boring stuff, there are hundreds of priceless items waiting to be freely and legally downloaded, including spoken-word recordings by Theodore Roosevelt and Lieutenant EH Shackleton, and songs from the first black recording artist, George W. Johnson.