Wax Cylinder: Occult Sonic Technology of a Bygone Age, Good as New

(Photo: Thomas Adank, courtesy Touch)

Move over, cassette-tape and 8-track reanimators. There's a far older—and arguably more beautiful—retro-tech sonic fetish object in town: the wax cylinder.

The original tech dates from the late 1870s, when serial tinkerer Thomas Edison was at the prime of his powers, having installed himself in his famed Menlo Park, New Jersey, laboratory.

The device has been revived by Carl Michael von Hausswolff and Michael Esposito, who have released a brand new cylinder, titled The Ghosts of Effingham, as noted on the website of the publisher Touch this past weekend. Effingham has been released by Ash International, a hub of experimental sound whose splendid motto is "R&D not A&R." Oh, and just to one-up Edison, the Effingham cylinder glows in the dark.

The Hausswolff/Esposito cylinder—along with the occult origins of recording technology, such as Edison's own spiritualist adventuring—is the subject of an extended piece by Ken Hollings in the January 2011 issue of the Wire magazine. (The image at the top of this post, by Thomas Adank, is from that article, and is borrowed from the Touch website, on which it appeared.)

When Apple's Steve Jobs and ILM's George Lucas employ the word "magic" as a touchstone for what their companies do, it can come across as cloying. But what they're aspiring to isn't a Disney-esque fantasy, even if Jobs sits on Disney's board of directors. They almost certainly have in mind Arthur C. Clarke's oft-cited axiom about how sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Magic, of course, is polite-speak for the occult.

Which brings us to the sounds on this Effingham wax cylinder. The recording it contains purports to be of EVP, or the Electronic Voice Phenomenon, in which speech-like signals are discerned from within electronic noise. The EVP was captured on the longtime Esposito family farm in Effingham, Illinois. The audio resembles harshly recorded voices that emerge tantalizingly from a deep static. Not eerie enough, you say? As Hollings writes, Edison stopped producing phonographs in 1927 (cylinder production ceased in 1929), the same year Esposito's family purchased the farm.

The Effingham object, which goes for £85 (about $133), comes accompanied by two MP3s: one of the original sound file, and one of a reproduction of the cylinder being played on a 1909 machine (the Edison Fireside Model A, "with a Diamond B reproducer and a Cygnet horn"). More information here.

And for budding wax enthusiasts, Hackaday has stories from early this year on a band's newly produced cylinder (and related BBC coverage), and another from late last year on how to make your own homebrew wax cylinder recorder.


  1. The prototype of the recorder/reproducer was done by a machinist from a sketch by Edison. On the piece of paper was a dollar amount which provided a bonus over the hourly rate for completion in a given time. The machinist asked, “What is it?” Both he and Edison were surprised when it worked. Edison was always suspicious of anything that worked right off.
    For the makers out there I might add that I always observed the 3 unit rule when I made something. The first two could be pure accidents but by the third any inherent flaw usually showed itself.
    Edison took the cylinder recorder to the patent office in New York and they had to police how many people were in the room for fear the floor joists would collapse. Edison got a message from the White House and demonstrated it there until late in the evening.

    1. Wow, watching that really hit me emotionally, somehow. Hard to describe. I’m guessing the cylinder he broke wasn’t actually one-of-a-kind, though – hopefully, anyway.

      In middle school (grade 7 I think) I had a “technology” class where we did some basic woodworking and electronics. At the time everyone thought the teacher was kind of a creep, but in retrospect, he’s kind of a cool older guy. He had an Edison cylinder player and some cylinders, and brought it in to demonstrate in class once. Don’t think I’ll ever forget that, it was really cool. Not sure about the longevity of his cylinders – I’d be afraid to even touch them. I am a casual collector of vinyl records, and am paranoid about handling those – and vinyl records are indestructible in comparison to wax cylinders!

  2. Don’t mistake Edison as the sole inverter of any of his produce he a team of engineers working on most of his stuff.

  3. I think that both the Library of Congress and the British National Library have laser scanners to play these things by modelling the grooves. If you actually drop a needle on one of the super-fragile, early cylinders that could be the last time anyone hears it as the wax peels off behind the needle.

  4. Ah, my university has a great Cylinder Preservation Project. The site might be US-only, but you can stream and download any of the digitized cylinders for free: http://cylinders.library.ucsb.edu/

    Lots of fun, and a good research tool. Music of all types, comic routines, speeches and sermons, and interestingly, language instruction lessons! It’s pretty cool some of these survive, as cylinders were pretty fragile and disposable.

  5. I was just thinking it would be nice to have some kind of non-electronic music listening device that I can listen to during takeoff and landing…

  6. An old cowboy told me that when Edison first introduced these, they did not sell well. Why listen to a tinny sound when there were live bands in every bar and on every second corner? So he found a sound that was not easy to hear- Hawiian music. And it became a huge craze. You can hear the influence in later American folk music (like Darby & Tarlington and all sorts of others). The old guy explained this to me as he was demonstrating his Edison cylinder. Spooky sounding thing, but exciting to see it get going.

  7. Thanks Marc – nice to see wax cylinders receiving commercial releases.

    Aleks Kolkowski has been performing with wax for some years now: he’s also producing a wax cylinder archive of electronic and free improv musicians, but if that ever goes beyond just a private collection I suspect it will be as a digital release …

  8. Just a quick comment — wax cylinders specifically were developed ca. 1886 by Chichester Bell (Alexander Graham Bell’s nephew) and Charles Sumner Tainter. The 1870s exhibitions that Edison and his jobbers held were with a machine that used tinfoil, a good medium for a number of things but not for permanance as the foil wore out after only five plays and/or when the foil was removed from the mandrel. UD

  9. My wife gave me a collection of the cylinders for my birthday several years ago. I have six of them in a metal sales display stand.Later I discovered that Edison patented his “gold moulded” records on what would become my birthday.

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