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


20 Responses to “Wax Cylinder: Occult Sonic Technology of a Bygone Age, Good as New”

  1. Anonymous says:

    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.

  2. Anonymous says:

    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.

  3. Marc Weidenbaum says:

    @Anon That’s a great anecdote. Thanks.

    One thing I wanted to add is a link to the website of the author of the Wire story:



  4. AlmostLucy says:

    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. Anonymous says:

    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. Roy Trumbull says:

    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.

  7. DaveP says:

    and when you get tired of it, you can use it to install the new toilet in your bathroom remodel.

  8. eleventhvolume says:

    Jed Davis released a wax cylinder version of his single Yuppie Exodus from Dumbo before the Touch release. It’s featured here: http://www.hardformat.org/4935/jed-davis/

  9. eleventhvolume says:

    PS Jed’s version is an edition of 50, seems there’s still copies available – and it’s hugely cheaper at $30 rather than £85!

  10. Tim R-J says:

    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 …

  11. snarf says:

    Be careful though, these thing can be awfully/hilariously fragile : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HBtaNMG_AiE

    • penguinchris says:

      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!

    • mdh says:

      nice, especially his expletive mash-up.

  12. Anonymous says:

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

  13. Anonymous says:

    There is a guy who uses the same technology as Edison, but, he does etchings onto beer cans. It is called direct to beer recordings.


  14. Nadreck says:

    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.

  15. Anonymous says:

    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

  16. Phart says:

    They Might be Giants recorded a song to wax cylinder on the Daily Show in 1999:


  17. David Carroll says:

    If Edison was alive today…

    He would sue their asses off.

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