Firing on all cylinders 

17 December 2015

Bonnie Leezie Lindsay / Harry Lauder via UCSB Cylinder Audio Archive

Bonnie Leezie Lindsay / Harry Lauder via UCSB Cylinder Audio Archive

Predating even Transdiffusion’s earliest archive material (1930s Radio Times) and audio recordings (we’ve got a couple of bits from 1950s Anglia TV in the collection) and predating computers, tapes and even 78rpm records comes wax cylinders.

This early technology was superseded by 1929, a victim of an over-tight patent, delicate machinery and the costs of both the equipment and the software, as compared with the newer gramophone and its shellac discs.

A large number of cylinders still exist and many have now been digitised and catalogued and, thanks to the United States having a slightly more sensible copyright regime than here in the EU, made available online for free by the University of California, Santa Barbara, Library.

From the first recordings made on tinfoil in 1877 to the last produced on celluloid in 1929, cylinders spanned a half-century of technological development in sound recording. As documents of American cultural history and musical style, cylinders serve as an audible witness to the sounds and songs through which typical audiences first encountered the recorded human voice. And for those living at the turn of the 20th century, the most likely source of recorded sound on cylinders would have been Thomas Alva Edison’s crowning achievement, the phonograph. Edison wasn’t the only one in the sound recording business in the first decades of the 20th century; several companies with a great number of recording artists, in addition to the purveyors of the burgeoning disc format, all competed in the nascent musical marketplace. Still, more than any other figure of his time, Edison and the phonograph became synonymous with the cylinder medium. Because of the overwhelming preponderance of cylinder recordings bearing his name in UCSB’s collection, the following history is, we admit, Edison-centric. Nonetheless, Edison’s story is heavily dependent on the stories of numerous musical figures and sound recording technological developments emblematic of the period, and it is our hope that we have fairly represented them here.

UCSB Cylinder Audio Archive [UC Santa Barbara Library]

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1 response to this article

Nigel Stapley 17 December 2015 at 8:20 pm

I’ve passed the link on to my colleagues at 45worlds (, who’ll be very interested in this!

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