Before audio playlists, before cassette tapes and even before records, there were wax cylinders — the earliest, mass-produced way people could both listen to commercial music and record themselves.
“When I first started here, it was a format I didn’t know much about,” said Jessica Wood, assistant curator for music and recorded sound at The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. “But it became my favorite format, because there’s so many unknowns and it’s possible to discover things that haven’t been heard since they were recorded.”
They haven’t been heard because the wax is so fragile. The earliest, putty-colored cylinders deteriorate after only a few dozen listens if played on the Edison machines; they crack if you hold them too long in your hand. And because the wax tubes themselves were unlabeled, many of them remain mysteries.
Enter the Endpoint Cylinder and Dictabelt Machine, invented by Californian Nicholas Bergh, which recently was acquired by the library. Thanks to the combination of its laser and needle, it can digitize even broken or cracked wax cylinders — and there are a lot of those. But Bergh said, the design of the cylinder, which makes it fragile, is also its strength.
It will take the library a couple years to digitize all its cylinders. But when they’re through, listeners all over the country should be able to access them from their home computers, opening a window to what people sounded like and thought about over 100 years ago.
NPR: “Mystery Recordings Will Now Be Heard For the First Time in About 100 Years”
Filed by April 5, 2022on