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.