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Brief Biographical / Historical Sketch


By speaking the words "Mary had a little lamb," Thomas Edison successfully created the first cylinder sound recording in 1877 using tin foil as the recording medium. A stylus created grooves in the medium that corresponded to sound. This technique is not unlike modern vinyl records and LP's. However, Edison discovered that tin foil was not very durable and often only lasted through one or two playbacks. In the decade before the twentieth century, a switch to soft brown wax was made in the hopes that this material would outlast the tin foil as a recording medium for the spoken word as well as vocal and instrumental music.

When the brown wax proved to be almost as problematic to maintain as the tin foil, Edison switched to black wax in 1902. These black wax cylinders were slightly more durable then their brown wax relatives. They also allowed for standardization of rotations per minute in playback speed making most of the Edison cylinders two minutes in recorded length.

Soon after the wax cylinders became popular, another Edison innovation came about in the form of plastic cellulose. This substance, most commonly referred to in the cylinders as Amberol, proved to be even more durable than the wax cylinders. The most popular version used by Edison was the Blue Amberol cylinder. This consists of a plastic cellulose cylinder with a plaster core. These, along with the wax cylinders, were played on special rotating cylinder phonographs that were able to read the peaks and valleys with a needle, like a modern record player.

With the emergence of the recorded disc, the Edison Cylinders fell out of vogue and were not made after the mid-1910s. Today, the Library of Congress pays special attention to their brown wax cylinders because of the cylinders extreme fragility. Of the surviving formats, these are most at risk of being lost forever. The next most vulnerable are the black wax followed by the Amberol. While both the black wax and Amberol are not as susceptible to mold and temperature fluctuation damage as the brown wax cylinders, they still require special care and housing to maintain their playability.

The Edison Cylinder Collection was gifted to the Center for American Music by its current director, Dr. Deane L. Root. The cylinders were collected by Dr. Root's uncle who had an affinity for old sound recordings. The Center for American Music accepted the gift due to the relevance of the recordings and their historic and research value to the University of Pittsburgh. The cylinders are currently housed in the archive where light, temperature, and humidity can be monitored and controlled.