Marius Barbeau A glimpse of Canadian Culture (1883-1969)
Introduction Objects Photos & Papers Themes Barbeau's Story Kids & Teachers

The Canadian Museum of Civilization's wax cylinder collection

The Canadian Museum of Civilization possesses 3,312 original wax cylinders which were recorded between 1899 and 1949.

Of that number 1,692 include songs and folkloric music recorded mainly about French - Canadians.

The remaining 1,620 relate to various aboriginal peoples including the Inuits in Canada.

Types of cylinders in the collection

The museum collection is indiscriminately composed of two types of standard format cylinders which were available during the period: all versions of two minute cylinders (pale brown, brown, dark brown, dark grey and black) and the more versatile and resistant four minute cylinders (black).

There are also another 87 giant format (6 inches) cylinders recorded in 1949 on a late model electrical device, the "Edison Ediphone Master Wax Voice Writer". The museum also possesses a small collection of 9 commercial cylinders which illustrate various types of 2 and 4 minute cylinders produced by Edison and his competitor Columbia.

Research tool for anthropologists

The fragility and rapid deterioration of the cylinders probably explains why they were considered to be a temporary medium for the collection of information. Originally the goal was not to build an audio collection but rather they were used as a collection tool to compliment field notes.

For example, this explains why ethnologist Marius Barbeau, recorded only the essential parts of a song; the chorus and one or two verses. With this he was able to proceed with the musical transcription and maintain the distinctive qualities of the singer's interpretation. He chronicled the rest of the song and any other information using stenography.

When the subject was more complex or an aboriginal language was used, it became therefore essential to record the entire piece which could necessitate the use of more than one cylinder. However, Barbeau, like other anthropologists kept all the recorded cylinders even though in principal, they had already extracted the required information. So there was no question of leveling out the cylinder surface and reusing them which was common practice.

Copies on less fragile carriers

The fragility of the old wax cylinder recordings has pushed the museum on many occasions to make copies on less fragile carriers. Towards the end of the 1940's, ethnologist Barbeau, copied part of his collection of French Canadian folk songs onto records.

Between 1958 and 1962 the systematic copying of all recordings was undertaken. The project began again in 1981 and was carried out until 1986 with more modern equipment. These copies, produced on magnetic tapes, are not of consistent quality and are prone to damage.


Historical overview of phonographs and wax cylinders

The cylinder phonograph represents the first available and commercialized audio recording device in the world. It was invented in 1877 by Thomas Alva Edison.

His experiments drove him to create a device equipped with a stylus attached to the centre of a diaphragm which, when activated by the vibration of the sound waves, indented the pattern on a sheet of tinfoil wrapped around a rotating cylinder. To listen to the recorded message, the stylus was placed in the groove that had just been produced.

By riding over the "hills and vales" of the groove, the stylus transmitted the vibrations to the diaphragm which reproduced the recorded sound. For the first time, Edison was able to hear the voice which he had just recorded: "Mary had a little lamb".

Fully aware of its multiple applications, Edison registered his invention on December 24, 1877 and obtained the patent on February 19, 1878. In doing so, he preceded another inventor, the French poet and scientist Charles Cros, who on April 30th 1877 had presented a very similar invention, "the phonoautograph" to the Paris Academy of Sciences.

Starting in the spring of 1878, Edison set out to commercialize his invention. Under the sponsorship of "The Edison Speaking Phonograph Company", sales representatives criss-crossed the continent promoting the new device: "The Edison tin-foil phonograph".

Its success was instantaneous but short - lived. Its complexity and the fact that the tin - foil only allowed a few playbacks made this machine little more than an object of curiosity.

Edison had to put his invention aside for some time in order to concentrate on the development of incandescent light bulbs. During this time Alexander Graham Bell, his cousin Chichester A. Bell and Charles Sumner Tainter, took Edison's idea but replaced the tin-foil with wax and used a mobile rather than a fixed stylus to mark the cylinder. In 1886 C. Bell and Tainter obtained the patent for this invention. But in 1887, Edison took over again with a series of modifications, this time using a wax cylinder (also called a phonogram).

Presented as a dictating machine reserved for company usage, the new device, in addition to causing opposition from stenographers, had limited usage because of its electric motor. Edison once again changed his strategy and in 1896 he introduced a phonograph for domestic use with a spring operated motor. In 1898 the "Edison Standard Phonograph" was put on the market.

The wax cylinder phonograph era has begun.

The cylinders continue to evolve. Around 1888, the cylinders become standard in size with a diameter of a little more than 2 inches and a length of 4 inches (5,5 cm x 10,5 cm). Generally they are made of a wax compound. The speed of recording remains variable, depending on the case, starting from 90rpm for voice recordings, producing a final recording of about 4 minutes to 120 - 160rpm or more for music, producing a final recording of 2 to 2.5 minutes.

Starting in 1902, a standard speed of 160rpm was established. With 100 grooves per inch, these cylinders had a duration of two minutes.


Wax cylinder composition

The first wax cylinders (1895-1901) produced by Edison were brownish in colour and were initially composed of a mixture of mineral, vegetal and animal wax. (100 parts yellow ceresin, 25 parts beeswax and 25 parts stearic wax).

The mix is melted, purified and then moulded in order to produce cylinders which are subsequently calibrated, rough coated and then sapphire polished. They are then ready to be used as a recording device.

Eventually the wax was replaced by a combination of two compounds. A mixture of an asphalt product and carnauba wax was used for the base of the cylinder and a compound (metallic soap) made up of stearate soda and a metal hardener was used for the recording surface.

From the beginning Edison made a business out of selling both recordable and pre-recorded cylinders. The production method was the same for both and each cylinder had to be recorded individually by etching each one, which meant recording over and over again in order to produce sufficient copies.

The Edison Gold-Moulded Cylinder

In 1902, Edison greatly improved production by developing a moulding system for original recordings, allowing mass production. The "Edison Gold-Moulded Cylinder" (1902-1912) gave a considerable boost to the industry of prerecorded cylinders for entertainment purposes.

Fragility of the cylinders

The cylinders remained fragile and had a short life span. The cylinders could be taken to a store and a credit obtained against a new purchase or the surface could be razed so that it could be recorded on again. Edison estimated that a cylinder could be reused 50 to 75 times before it needed to be thrown out.

For this purpose devices to raze the surface of the cylinders or phonographs integrating this equipment were sold. Over the years, gradual improvements made the cylinders more durable and able to be played over 100 times.

The Edison Amberol Cylinder

In 1908 Edison came out with the "Edison Amberol Cylinder" (Black wax Amberol) (1908-1912). This cylinder, of standard dimensions had 200 grooves per inch, doubling the recording capacity. At 160rpm, it allowed four minutes of recording instead of two. This innovation became the new standard and the phonographs were consequently modified.

The Edison Blue Amberol

Starting in 1912 prerecorded cylinders took a new turn with the "Edison Blue Amberol". This cylinder, moulded in celluloid or blue bakelite (one of the first thermoplastics made of cellulose, nitric acid and camphor), was to compete with other supposedly unbreakable cylinder manufacturers and with the gramophone disk introduced by Émile Berliner. This type of cylinder was produced until 1929, but it was the last jolt for the wax cylinder industry, because in 1915 it was Edison's turn to venture into the commercialization of the disk.

Recordable cylinders for domestic use remained essentially the same and continued to be available until the end of the 1940's.



View all items in the collection