How To Listen to 10,000 of the First Phonograph Recordings Ever Made

Listen to 10,000 of the First Wax Cylinder Recordings, or Phonographs, Ever Made

An Edison Gold Moulded Cylinder Record, circa 1904. (Photo: Phonatic via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Want to hear history? Through the University of California Santa Barbara Cylinder Audio Archive, the tunes and voices of over a hundred years ago can be projected from your computer or phone. The internet archive compiled over 10,000 wax cylinder recordings—known as phonograph cylinders—from the earliest years of sound recordings. Invented by Thomas Edison in 1877, the phonograph became a vehicle for late 19th and very early 20th-century sound.

The wax cylinders recorded sound through engravings on their surfaces. The sound could then be played back on a phonograph, a machine similar to a modern record player with a large horn. Companies began to mass produce cylinders that recorded songs and orchestras played live. Those who happened to own their own recording equipment could even make home recordings. All these genres can be found in the UCSB archives. From the 1890s to the late 1910s when disc format began to be used, this dominant medium captured the sounds of turn-of-the-century America.

Try exploring perky polkas, ragtime, and even yodeling. You can listen to cylinders in Welsh or Yiddish, or specifically search for harmonica melodies. Playlists will take you through Central Europe or the work of Black artists and composers. The early speeches of Theodore Roosevelt, William Jennings Bryan, Ernest Shackleton, Sarah Bernhardt, William Howard Taft, and others are also preserved. Whatever you're looking for, you will probably find it in the annals of audio history.

Long before disc records, recordings were engraved on wax cylinders which could be played on phonographs.

Thomas Edison

Thomas Edison listening to a wax cylinder recording. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons, Public domain)

Through the University of California Santa Barbara Cylinder Audio Archive online, one can listen to more than 10,000 cylinder recordings.

Phonograph Cyliners

Phonograph cylinders (in front) and disc records (back). (Photo: Jonathunder via, (CC BY-SA 3.0)

This includes recordings made at home and those commercially produced.

Phonograph Machine

An Edison phonograph. (Photo: Norman Bruderhofer via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Learn more about how these fascinating records were made over 100 years ago.

h/t: [Open Culture]

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Madeleine Muzdakis

Madeleine Muzdakis is a Contributing Writer at My Modern Met and a historian of early modern Britain & the Atlantic world. She holds a BA in History and Mathematics from Brown University and an MA in European & Russian Studies from Yale University. Madeleine has worked in archives and museums for years with a particular focus on photography and arts education. When she isn’t writing, she enjoys hiking, film photography, and studying law while cuddling with her cat Georgia.
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