Before Compact Disks and MP3 Players there were these things called…

… audio cylinders. In honor or World Day for Audiovisual Heritage we have a post about early sound recordings.

Today we listen to music and voice recordings through digital formats. However, the first recorded sounds were captured on cylinders. These cylinder records were the first popular recording and listening format, playing for 2-4 minutes.  The Ohio History Connection’s collection of 315 cylinder records were recently rehoused in boxes better suited to their preservation.  While rehousing these records, an inventory of the songs recorded on each cylinder was created.  The collection is truly varied. It contains few duplicates and includes many areas of early recording – from singers and musicians to orchestras and comedians.

Thomas A. Edison

Thomas A. Edison

Thomas A. Edison, a native of Milan, Ohio, is given credit for making the first sound recording in 1877 with his recitation of “Mary Had A Little Lamb” on tinfoil.  Tinfoil was far from a permanent recording medium because these recordings could only be played a few times before they began to deteriorate. After the initial invention Edison chose to focus on the incandescent light bulb rather than improve the recording system.  Into this void jumped Alexander Graham Bell, his cousin, Chichester Bell, and Charles Sumner Tainter, who captured sound by using a stylus to etch the recording into wax instead of Edison’s original tinfoil. The three men debuted their Graphophone in 1887 through the Colombia Phonograph Company. 

After the release of the Graphophone Edison returned to sound recording. Using Bell, Bell, and Tainter’s innovations as a starting point for his own, he produced records through the Edison Phonograph Company.  Wax cylinder records were improved by both companies until they could be played many more times before the grooves deteriorated, after which the wax could be shaved and smoothed so that a new recording could be made.  This allowed families to record their own history as well as listen to popular singers, musicians, and comedians.  These records, though more durable than the first tinfoil records, were still not the permanent records that would eventually come about.  Tinfoil and wax cylinders are relatively rare today, largely due to their inherent impermanent nature.  While we do have some wax cylinders from the turn of the 20th century in the Ohio History Connection collection, a large portion our audio cylinder collection is composed of the next type of cylinder record to enter the market.

Edison Amberol Record

Edison Amberol Record

Frenchman Henri Lioret began using celluloid, an early form of plastic, to make audio cylinders commercially in 1897. Edison began to use this celluloid for his cylinder recordings in 1912.  Celluloid cylinders were vastly more durable than tinfoil and wax cylinder records, in part because they would not automatically break if dropped. Celluloid records are among the most commonly found cylinder records today.  By the time Edison began making celluloid cylinders, his chief competitor, Columbia, had ceased making cylinders and moved on to disc records.  As the disc records gained in popularity, Edison continued to make cylinder records for a loyal, but ever-dwindling market.  In 1929, Edison bowed to the inevitable and ceased production of the cylinder record.

While the majority of our cylinder records are from the Edison Phonograph Company, our collection also holds examples from his competitors – Columbia Phonograph Company and Oxford Indestructible Records.  The companies standardized their records sizes so that consumers could play recordings from all companies on the same player.  However, as the technology advanced, so too did the equipment needed to play it; meaning that consumers did something we are all still familiar with today – purchase new equipment to play new types of recording formats.

The University of California, Santa Barbara began a cylinder digitization project in 2002, with the goal of preserving their cylinder record collections and enabling a wider audience to hear the past.  Their collections happen to contain some of the same records as ours.  You can search for specific recordings to download and listen to here:  Or, you can listen to a podcast or live stream on their Cylinder Radio here:

Interested in learning more about the earliest forms of sound recording?  Click on the links below:

Smithsonian Institute. “Early Sound Recording Collection and Sound Recovery Project.”             Smithsonian Institute. 2011.         recording-collection-and-sound-recovery-project.

The Library of Congress. “The History of the Edison Cylinder Phonograph.” The Library of Congress: American Memory. 1999.  

UC Santa Barbara Library. “Cylinder Preservation and Digitization Project.” University    of California, Santa Barbara. 2014.

Caitlin Smith, History Collections Intern

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