Wax Cylinder Recordings

Sunday evening I prepared myself, to motor to the capital city of the United States of America, Washington DC, To ensure that the drive I was to make had many musical delights to enhance the experience, I began searching the World Wide Web looking for compositions that would provide mental stimulation. This sensual offering from the good people of the University of Santa Barbara Special Collections Library, is literally a virtual treasure trove of ancient recordings from the late 19th and early 20th Century.

Wax Cylinders, were the method of choice for recording and playing back music long before the invention of our beloved MP3 players. Sadly, many of these wonderful recordings have succumbed to the wear and tear of age neglect. Entropy has set in and nearly destroyed, or in some cases completely destroyed forever these recordings. These auditory marvels offer a time machine, if you will, into the lives, hopes, and aspirations of souls who have long ago left this planet we call earth. Thankfully, the restoration of thousands of recordings, is currently underway at many esteemed places of learning and research. The kind souls that have taken it upon themselves, this monumental task of restoring, cataloging, and making available to the public free of charge ( on the World Wide Web) is truly one of at the very least a medal of service and achievement, from our country’s leaders.

Please read this excerpt from the website concerning the history of recording:

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. Herein, a humble primer.

Yes indeed, Edison was the Wizard of the New World.

Dr. Horace Mothwing

Please take your time to enjoy.
University of Santa Barbara Special Collections Library.

Published in: on December 19, 2006 at 4:12 pm  Comments (1)  

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  1. I love wax cylinder recordings. I even make new phonogram blanks for making your own sound recordings. Some of the components of the cylinder wax is fatty acids, caustic aluminum and ceresine wax. A bacteria grows on the cylinders if you put them in a damp and dark environmentthis is caused by the compound being composed of fatty acids.

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