We owe a lot to Mr. Edison

Thomas Edison - cylinder close-up

The man of the hour - Thomas Alva Edison

In 1877 Thomas Alva Edison invented the phonograph cylinder–a hand cranked cylinder covered with tin foil. It may seem unlikely now, but this simple invention would lead to the first commercial format for recording and reproducing sound. It is common knowledge that Edison was a visionary who created not only to fulfill a perceived need, but to fulfill needs no one had ever considered before. In this case, Edison foresaw many possible uses for his invention, among them letter-writing and dictation, audio recordings for the blind, education, music, and even the idea of creating “family records” (like recording the last words of a dying relative). Edison outlined his plans for his invention in an article called The Phonograph and its Future published in the The North American Review in 1878, which you can see here thanks to the lovely people at the Cornell University Library.

Edison knew the potential for his humble cylinder, but I wonder if he truly understood that by giving us the key to recorded sound that it would have such far-ranging and long-lasting repercussions. It’s true that the phonograph cylinder did not win the battle for format supremacy. But it was that all important first step down a long road that would influence not only music and popular culture for all time, but it also shaped one of the basic foundations of civilization: how to preserve and distribute information. Taken together with his motion picture camera and the light bulb, well… let’s just say that life would be a whole lot different without them. For one thing, you wouldn’t be reading this blog right now.

Edison has certainly had a significant, if indirect, impact on my own life. So in honor of Mr. Edison and his wonderful inventions, here is your chance to explore the lost medium of the phonograph cylinder!

I recently got to play with an Edison Fireside Phonograph Model B (circa 1912) and a whole bunch of wax cylinder recordings from the early 20th century. Now for all you phonograph collectors out there in the ether that is the Internet, please don’t yell at me that this is not really a Model B. I am not an expert and my identification is only approximate–so there! Sadly, I couldn’t put the whole thing together and make it work, but it was still a really fun experience and an amazing window into the roots of music technology. The player worked without electricity and was operated through the use of a hand crank. Tin foil quickly proved to be an inconvenience, so Edison switched to wax by the late 1880s. Each cylinder typically held 2-4 minutes of material and featured popular songs, short stories, and monologues of the day.

Edison cylinder with cardboard cover

Example of an Edison cylinder with a cardboard cover

Despite the fact that the phonograph cylinder was sent to languish in musty attics and moldy basements in 1929 when Edison’s company stopped producing them, the medium has enjoyed a few last hurrahs. Through the power of the Internet, the advances of recording technology, and the work of some very crafty archivists, many cylinder recordings have been brought back from the grave. One project of note is the Cylinder Preservation and Digitization Project from the Donald C. Davidson Library at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Not only have they digitized approximately 8,000 of these babies, they freely stream the recordings on their website. If that isn’t neat enough, they produce a podcast on the subject called Cylinder Radio. I would totally download one to play for you here, but the University of California is a pretty big institution and their copyright and use fees page is a little unclear. So I’m a chicken, so sue me! No wait… Just go there and poke around! I assure you it will be worth your time!

Edison cylinder player close-up

Close-up shot of the Edison cylinder player with hand crank

Another great resource that has brought many cylinder recordings back to life is the Thomas Edison National Historical Park in West Orange, NJ. Designated a historical landmark in 1962 by the National Park Service, the site preserves both Edison’s laboratory and his estate. They have also generously digitized many early recordings which you can stream here.

Edison Horn

Close up shot of the inside of the horn for the Edison Cylinder Player

But perhaps the neatest little revival of the Edison phonograph cylinder can be laid at the feet of They Might Be Giants. Known for their experimental alternative music, children’s albums, and a real knack with theme songs, TMBG are the perfect champions of this obsolete format. Apparently they thought so too, because in 1996 they performed and recorded 4 songs on an 1898 Edison wax recording studio phonograph at the Thomas Edison National Historical Park. Here’s a sample of one of the recorded songs, I Can Hear You, which Greg from Greg’s Sandbox kindly released into the wilds of the Internet. And TMBG also performed the song on The Daily Show in 1999.

The music industry certainly has come a long way since the days of the phonograph cylinder. But when it comes right down to it, credit for the whole thing can be laid at Edison’s feet. Without his vision and the inventions he produced, the world and American culture would have taken a very different path. Louis Armstrong would never have recorded Mack the Knife. Elvis Presley would never have wiggled his hips on the movie screen. The Beatles would never have shaken their mop-tops on the Ed Sullivan Show. MTV would never have become a household name. And Lady Gaga would never have climbed out of an egg on stage. Makes you wonder if these days Edison is spinning in his grave…

Edison cylinder player with horn

Edison cylinder player with horn

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