Wax Cylinders A Format Preservation Fact Sheet Jon Haupt Name of format: Wax cylinders; or tinfoil, wax, or celluloid cylinders Brief history of format: Thomas Edison first recorded himself speaking “Mary had a little lamb” on a tinfoil cylinder in December 1877. While he played with these cylinders for two years, he didn’t consider them important because he was working on the light bulb, which he thought was much more interesting. In 1888, he produced an improved system, which he called a phonograph, using wax cylinders (which he would use until 1912, when he switched to using a celluloid plastic) (Sage). Around the same time Columbia produced a competing system which they called a “graphophone.” Emile Berliner’s introduction of the “gramophone” or flat-disc recording in 1894 spelled the beginning of the demise of cylinder recordings as a popular media, although cylinders continued to be a standard format until around 1920, and enjoyed moderate use until around 1940 (Post, Weber). Edison’s 1888 wax cylinders were about four inches long and 2 inches in diameter, made of a brittle brown wax. While brown cylinders played at a speed between 90 and 160 rpm, black cylinders made after 1902 play at a standard 160 rpm, which allows for around two minutes of recording (Sage). Cylinder recordings enjoyed a resurgence of sorts in the 1970’s, when they were collected and preserved by various sound archives. Like all recording media, cylinders have a distinct sound unmatched by other formats, and are preserved for their appealing sound qualities. The Thomas Edison Laboratories still make cylinder recordings, as evidenced by Wynton Marsalis’s recording of “Tom Cat Blues” on his album Mr. Jelly Lord. The Edison Laboratories, a National Park Service historic site, holds some 10,000 vintage cylinder recordings. Some of them have been transferred to other formats, including digital audio files, some of which are available on the Internet--including the endearing “Who Threw the Overalls in Mrs. Murphy’s Chowder” of 1901 (Sound-- Edison National Historic Site). Life expectancy of the format: Cylinder recordings have a relatively short lifespan compared with other formats. While Blue Amberol and other plastic celluloid cylinders are fairly durable (the breaking of their plaster core being the notable exception), brown wax cylinders have proven themselves to be very problematic. The most difficult problem surrounding them is that the cylinder itself is rather brittle, and can easily be broken or chipped. A chip or break at the wrong spot can render a cylinder unplayable. They don’t respond well to changing temperatures, which can cause cracks. They can become dirty, which impairs their playback quality. Wax cylinders also develop mold, which actually eats into the wax itself, causing irreparable damage. Areas on the cylinder which have been “eaten” exhibit more noise in playback (Sage). Storage requirements: To maximize lifespan, storage areas should be kept at a constant 45-50°F in a dark area. They need to be stored upright (on end). There are storage boxes available that hold the cylinders upright and protect them from physical damage. Constant, relatively low humidity is important as well to discourage mold. Cylinders require a unintuitive method for picking up: rather than grasping the cylinder from the outside, which can increase the possibility of mold growth, it is better to pick up cylinders by inserting fingers into the center of the cylinder and separating the fingers enough so that the cylinder is not dropped. Also, the cylinder should be brought to room temperature before handling (Cylinder, Disc and Tape Care in a Nutshell). Strategies to preserve: o Cleaning: There are compressed-air guns available to clean cylinders and types of discs that should not get wet (Owen 1981, 2). o Mold damage: Unfortunately, mold damage is irreparable. Glenn Sage has suggested that “liquid Pledge” applied using a cloth slightly reduces the “pink noise” that is associated with mold damage, but it alters the undamaged sound (Sage). o Cracks: Although crack damage is basically irreparable, the cylinder can be heated and the crack somewhat improved. Small cracks can be filled in using beeswax or another filler. These are modest fixes because they can alter the sound of the recording. o Alternate methods of playback: Playback methods that cause less wear on the cylinder, such as optical reproduction, are being considered and tested (Nakamura). o Transfer to other formats: Because cylinders are unable to withstand extended use, they are usually preserved by transferring to another medium for everyday use. They are often digitally recorded and copied to compact disc or preserved as a computer audio file. Preservation of Wax Cylinders: An Annotated Bibliography Cylinder, Disc and Tape Care in a Nutshell [Web site]. Library of Congress, 2002. http://www.loc.gov/preserv/care/record.html; accessed January 20, 2003. An LOC preservation page, explaining succinctly how to care for several recording formats, including cylinders. Handling, storage, cleaning, playback, etc., are considered. Fesler, John C. "Electrical Reproduction of Acoustically Recorded Cylinders and Disks, Part 2." Audio Engineering Society 31, no. 9 (1983): 674-93. The second of two articles previously presented at a conference of AES. This article features several useful drawings, photographs, and charts relating to the reproduction of cylinder recordings. There is a section dealing with the chemical composition of wax cylinders as well. Nakamura, T. Optical Reproduction of Sounds from Old Wax Phonograph Cylinders [Web site]. http://w3.kushiro-ct.ac.jp/hikari/waxcyl/waxcyl_e.html; accessed January 20, 2003. Mr. Nakamura explains the process of playing wax cylinders using an optical method rather than a stylus. Advantages and disadvantages, as well as other possible techniques, are considered. Owen, Tom. "Audio Restoration and Transfer Technology." Paper presented at the Audio Engineering Society, Hamburg 1981. A description of the rationale, methods, and instrumentation involved in the restoration and transfer of cylinders in 1981. Some of the issues dealt with in this article are still proving problematic today. Takes a historical approach to the technical growth of the recording industry and various tools available for restoration. ———. "Electrical Reproduction of Acoustically Recorded Cylinders and Disks, Part 1." Audio Engineering Society 31, no. 4 (1983): 266-75. The first of two papers presented at a 1981 conference of the Audio Engineering Society dealing with reproduction of cylinders. This provides a history of transfer procedures used and the procedure and results of a preservation program at the Rodgers and Hammerstein Archives of Recorded Sound. Petras, Fred. "Old-Tyme High-Tech Electronic Cylinder System." Audio (1984): 66-69. This article details a system designed to reduce wear on cylinders in playback. The engineer, Art Shifrin, created this system which is a combination of new and old technologies. Post, Jennifer, "Sound Archives," in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (online), 2nd ed. An encyclopedia article dealing with sound archives. There is a section dealing specifically with wax cylinders. Sage, Glenn. Early Recorded Sounds & Wax Cylinders [Web site]. Sage, Glenn, 2003. http://www.tinfoil.com/cylinder.htm; accessed January 20, 2003. This web site is devoted to the preservation of early recorded sounds. Mr. Sage appears to specialize in repairing damaged cylinders and transferring cylinder recordings to compact disc. He offers a free service for just this purpose, and offers compact discs of transferred recordings for sale to anyone. Shambarger, Peter. "Cylinder Records: An Overview." ARSC Journal 26, no. 2 (1995): 133-61. This article offers a key to how to recognize one type of cylinder from another, with years that the types were made, colors, etc. The article also provides a "frequently asked question" section. Smolian, Steven. "Cylinder Record Research." ARSC Journal 26, no. 2 (1995): 131-32. This is an article based on a session at an Association for Recorded Sound Collections conference in which collectors shared their wisdom regarding cylinder recordings and issues surrounding their preservation. Sound--Edison National Historic Site [Web site]. National Park Service, 2002. http://www.nps.gov/edis/sounds.htm; accessed January 20, 2003. The Edison NHS holds a collection of recordings by Edison's company. This site details the contents of this collection and makes available some transferred audio clips online. Weber, Jerome F., "Recorded Sound," in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (online), 2nd ed. Encyclopedia article regarding the history of recorded sound. Provides detailed section on the history of cylinder recordings and their rise and fall from popular use, and the different individuals and companies involved in their creation.
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