Skip to content

By Kerry Grist on

Eavesdropping on history: listening to our collection

Assistant Curator Kerry Grist charts how it became possible to record sound, how we can listen to music performed a century ago and picks some of her favourite recordings that have been preserved in the Science Museum Group Collection.

Many of us now soundtrack our lives with digital playlists, physical records or radio but for most of history, music was usually heard through live performances: someone singing, playing, humming or whistling right in front of you. Or, if you were lucky, via a mechanical musical instrument like a music box or automata. Songs were preserved by an oral tradition or with sheet music. That is until the end of the nineteenth century, when it became possible to record and listen back to history.

In 1877, whilst working on improving the telegraph, Thomas Alva Edison successfully recorded sound that could be played back. The sound was recorded onto a piece of tin foil wrapped around a cylinder that was rotated by hand. Somebody would speak (or more likely shout!) into a mouthpiece that contained a diaphragm and a needle, the diaphragm would vibrate the needle which would then make a mark onto the tin foil. When the cylinder was re-wound to the beginning, the needle could then follow those marks which would re-play the sound through a horn placed into the mouthpiece. He called the device a phonograph.

Replica of Edison’s first phonograph, 1877.

This was a ground-breaking development; the phonograph was the first machine to record and play back sound. It meant that for the first time, people could listen to music at home without attending a live performance – they could even make their own recordings.

Thomas Edison initially only viewed his invention as a novelty device due to the limitations of tin foil and moved onto his many other inventions – such as incandescent lighting – rather than moving the phonograph into mass production. It was 10 years before he returned to the phonograph, when his competitors had taken up the challenge and improved on his design.

Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the first practical telephone, created the graphophone by 1887 and it engraved soundwaves onto wax-coated cardboard cylinders with a hollow centre. One of the oldest cylinders in our collection is an 1888 graphophone cylinder which is thought to contain a recording of Queen Victoria! A restored version of the recording is available.

1897 ‘Q’ Type Graphophone.

Edison quickly got to work making improvements of his own and settled on an all-wax cylinder that was ready to coincide with the graphophone’s commercial release in 1888. Surprisingly, there was some collaboration between the competitors; Edison and Bell came to a patent sharing agreement. Edison’s all-wax cylinder became a standard format, interchangeable between the phonograph and graphophone. This made pre-recorded music more accessible and marked the emergence of the music industry.

From this point on, sound reproduction was continuously advancing, with a number of updates to the cylinders. For example, ‘Edison Gold Moulded Records’ were introduced in 1902 to increase mass production capacity by moulding cylinders from a master copy. In 1908, Edison’s ‘Amberol’ cylinder increased the record’s capacity from 2 minutes to 4 minutes. Additionally, celluloid, an early type of plastic, revolutionised cylinder design, preventing cracking and shattering.

The 1913 Edison ‘Concert’ phonograph, with an Edison Blue Amberol Cylinder ready to play. Blue Amberol cylinders had a plaster-of-paris core coated in wax, with a surface layer of celluloid that improved the cylinder’s structural integrity.

There were many competitors to the phonograph across the world. One was Henri Lioret’s “Le Merveilleux” spring-motor driven phonograph, which was primarily sold in France and England. It was ahead of its time, using celluloid cylinders almost a decade before Edison marketed his distinctive Blue Amberol cylinders. It also had a more user-friendly operating system, and it was cheaper. However, it did not have the success of the standard phonograph.

Central works of Lioret spring motor driven phonograph No. 2

A more successful competitor was the gramophone, which played disc records instead of cylinders. It was patented by Emile Berliner (1851-1929) in 1887 but took a number of years to become commercially available and was initially marketed as a toy. But gramophones did eventually outpace phonographs’ popularity in around 1912 and the mass production of phonograph cylinders ceased in 1929.

Early example of gramophone by Berliner, with ear tubes, horn, two records and one point stamped “E. Berliner Grammophon D.R.P. 45048”.

Despite phonograph cylinders having long become an obsolete technology, it is still possible to play them which gives us a direct insight into what was listened to. Thanks to the UCSB Cylinder Audio Archive, which contains over 10,000 songs, we can listen to some of the cylinders in our collection. Here are my top five picks from the Science Museum Group collection:

Secret Love Gavotte is an upbeat but whimsical instrumental tune performed by Albert Benzler. Albert was chief xylophone and bells player for Edison’s National Phonograph Company in the US, as well as a musical advisor for Thomas Edison. The song was originally written in 1876 by Johann Resch with the title Heimliche Liebe. The version in the Museum’s collection was recorded on a brown wax cylinder around 1900-1902, but the UCSB archive version was recorded on an Edison Gold Moulded record a few years later in 1907 and is likely of a higher quality.

The next two songs are from a group of seven cylinders. Little is known about their owner but the cylinders give an insight into their musical tastes. The group also shows the variety of cylinders available in the UK, with examples from smaller British distributors “White Records” and “London Popular” as well as Thomas Edison’s own label. Additionally, you can see the development in cylinder design over the years, with gold moulded records and both black wax and blue celluloid Amberols included.

Dream Faces is sung by Elizabeth Dickerson Spencer, a soprano singer who recorded almost exclusively for Thomas Edison’s recording labels. It was written and composed by William M Hutchison, but little is known about him.

Wild Woodbines is a comedic monologue with an orchestral accompaniment about underage smoking, leading up to a humorous twist. It was written by the successful duo of Robert Patrick Weston and Frederick Johnson Barnes, and sung by Billy Williams, an Australian entertainer who moved to the UK in 1899.

The next song is Simon the Cellarer, originally written by composer John Liptrot Hatton and lyricist William Henry Bellamy in 1860. It is a British comedic tale of Simon and Dame Margery, a drunken pair of singletons considering marriage – but Simon denies Margery’s advances. The recording in the UCSB archive is a British version sung by Peter Dawson, an Australian singer. The cylinder in our collection is an American version of the song by Arthur Middleton, an American opera and bass-baritone singer, said to be the house bass for Edison’s National Phonograph Company. It is recorded on a Royal Purple Amberol cylinder, one of the latest designs made by Thomas Edison in the late 1910s. These cylinders were the same as his Blue Amberols but dyed purple and marketed as higher end recordings.

The final song is an earlier recording on a brown wax cylinder, and the difference in quality is clear. Angel’s Serenade was composed by Italian cellist Gaetano Braga, with lyrics narrating a mother and daughter who hear the voice of an angel, which is portrayed through the instruments, eventually following the voice. The original score instructed the singer to perform in a separate room to the instruments. This version was performed by the Columbia Orchestra at the turn of the century. It has no audible vocals, but this could be due to the quality of the recording. It was produced by Columbia Phonograph Co., now Columbia Records, who claim to be the oldest surviving name in the music industry.

Listening to what these cylinders hold provides an insight into life at the turn of the century and the breadth of musical genres available. What has survived is limited by the restraints of those who could afford to purchase and maintain the technology, as well as by limitations of the technology itself, and, of course, cylinders don’t always match what their cardboard box claims, especially as wax cylinders could be shaved down and recorded over. Regardless, it is tantalising to think about what these cylinders could tell us about their owners. Perhaps one day we’ll be able to listen to some of the cylinders which hold personal recordings and hear voices from the past, preserved for eternity.