100-Year-Old Music Recordings Can Now Be Heard for the First Time, Thanks to New Digital Technology

If you were lis­ten­ing to record­ed music around the turn of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, you lis­tened to it on cylin­ders. Not that any­one alive today was lis­ten­ing to record­ed music back then, and much of it has since been lost. Invent­ed by Alexan­der Gra­ham Bell (bet­ter known for his work on an even more pop­u­lar device known as the tele­phone), the record­ing cylin­der marked a con­sid­er­able improve­ment on Thomas Edis­on’s ear­li­er tin­foil phono­graph. Nev­er hes­i­tant to cap­i­tal­ize on an inno­va­tion — no mat­ter who did the inno­vat­ing — Edi­son then began mar­ket­ing cylin­ders of his own, soon turn­ing his own name into the for­mat’s most pop­u­lar and rec­og­niz­able brand.

“Edi­son set up coin-oper­at­ed phono­graph machines that would play pre-record­ed wax cylin­ders in train sta­tions, hotel lob­bies, and oth­er pub­lic places through­out the Unit­ed States,” writes Atlas Obscu­ra’s Sarah Durn. They also became the medi­um choice for hob­by­ists. “One of the most famous is Lionel Maple­son,” says Jen­nifer Vanasco in an NPR sto­ry from ear­li­er this month.

“He record­ed his fam­i­ly,” but “he was also the librar­i­an for the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera. And in the ear­ly 1900s, he record­ed dozens of rehearsals and per­for­mances. Lis­ten­ing to his work is the only way you can hear pre-World War I opera singers with a full orches­tra”: Ger­man sopra­no Frie­da Hempel, singing “Evvi­va la Fran­cia!” above.

The “Maple­son Cylin­ders” con­sti­tute just part of the New York Pub­lic Library’s col­lec­tion of about 2,700 record­ings in that for­mat. “Only a small por­tion of those cylin­ders, around 175, have ever been dig­i­tized,” writes Durn. “The vast major­i­ty of the cylin­ders have nev­er even been played in the gen­er­a­tions since the library acquired them.” Most have become too frag­ile to with­stand the nee­dles of tra­di­tion­al play­ers. Enter End­point Audio Labs’ $50,000 Cylin­der and Dictabelt Machine, which uses a com­bi­na­tion of nee­dle and laser to read and dig­i­tize even already-dam­aged cylin­ders with­out harm. Only sev­en of End­point’s machines exist in the world, one of them a recent acqui­si­tion of the NYPL’s, which will now be able to play many of its cylin­ders for the first time in more than a cen­tu­ry.

Some of these cylin­ders are unla­beled, their con­tents unknown. Cura­tor Jes­si­ca Wood, as Velas­co says, is hop­ing to “hear a birth­day par­ty or some­thing that tells us more about the social his­to­ry at the time, even some­one shout­ing their name and explain­ing they’re test­ing the machine, which is a pret­ty com­mon thing to hear on these record­ings.” She knows that the NYPL’s col­lec­tion has “about eight cylin­ders from Por­tu­gal, which may be some of the old­est record­ings ever made in the coun­try,” as well as “five Argen­tin­ian cylin­ders that have pre­served the sound of cen­tu­ry-old tan­go music.” In the event, from the first cylin­der she puts on for NPR’s micro­phone issue famil­iar words: “Hel­lo, my baby. Hel­lo, my hon­ey. Hel­lo, my rag­time gal.” This lis­ten­ing expe­ri­ence per­haps felt like some­thing less than time trav­el. But then, were you real­ly to go back to 1899, what song would you be more like­ly to hear?

via Atlas Obscu­ra

Relat­ed con­tent:

Down­load 10,000 of the First Record­ings of Music Ever Made, Cour­tesy of the UCSB Cylin­der Audio Archive

Opti­cal Scan­ning Tech­nol­o­gy Lets Researchers Recov­er Lost Indige­nous Lan­guages from Old Wax Cylin­der Record­ings

Hear Singers from the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera Record Their Voic­es on Tra­di­tion­al Wax Cylin­ders

A Beer Bot­tle Gets Turned Into a 19th Cen­tu­ry Edi­son Cylin­der and Plays Fine Music

400,000+ Sound Record­ings Made Before 1923 Have Entered the Pub­lic Domain

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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