Little Bits of History

Sound Recording

Posted in History by patriciahysell on June 29, 2013
Edison was cylinder recorder

Edison was cylinder recorder and player

June 29, 1888: Part of George Frideric Handel’s Israel in Egypt is recorded on a wax cylinder, the first (known) classical music recording. The great composer lived from 1685 to 1759. Israel in Egypt was written in 1738. The biblical oratorio was not well received at the time of its premiere and was reworked with sections deleted and others added. The recording was made by Col. George Gouraud at The Crystal Palace in London. The recording was made using Thomas Edison’s yellow paraffin cylinder. It is badly degraded and little can still be heard.

The cylinder method of sound recording was used from 1888 to 1915. The cylinders had the recording engraved on the outside and playback was achieved via a mechanical phonograph. Edison invented the system to record telephone messages. He first used wax paper successfully on July 18, 1877. He then used tin foil wrapped around a cylinder. Next came the use of wax cylinders. They were mass marketed in the 1880s. A soft wax was used and the recordings would wear out after a few dozen replays.

In 1890, Charles Tainter patented carnauba wax cylinders. The harder wax replaced the mixture of paraffin and beeswax. The early phonographs could both record and play back selections. When the soft wax cylinders no longer replayed recordings, the wax could be smoothed over and a new recording made. The 4 inch long cylinders were about 2 ¼ inches in diameter and held about two minutes of music. Eventually, with continued improvements, the cylinders could be played more than 100 times before the sound degraded.

The cylinders came in cardboard tubes with lids at either end. The cardboard protected the recordings. Record companies had a standard label affixed to their products and there was no indication of title or artist on the label. That information was written by hand on the lid. Later, a number was stamped on the lid and finally the name of the artist and title of the work were printed and glued to the lids. The cylinders were in competition with the disk method of recording and eventually, the disks won.

“Musical compositions, it should be remembered, do not inhabit certain countries, certain museums, like paintings and statues. The Mozart Quintet is not shut up in Salzburg: I have it in my pocket.” – Henri Rabaud

“There is nothing in the world so much like prayer as music is.” – William P. Merrill

“Music is the universal language of mankind.” – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

“Music is the art which is most nigh to tears and memory.” – Oscar Wilde

This article first appeared at in 2009. Editor’s update: Charles Tainter was born in Massachusetts in 1854. His formal education was meager, but the curious boy taught himself. He was hired by Alvan Clark and Sons Company which produced telescopes. They were under contract with the US Navy and Tainter was sent to New Zealand to observe the transit of Venus in 1874. Upon his return to the states, he opened his own shop and produced scientific instruments. He met Alexander Graham Bell and eventually went to work for him. After 1886 he worked on perfecting his graphophone and produced the first Dictaphone. He caught pneumonia in 1888 and was sickly for the rest of his life. Regardless, he perfected many of the products used for sound recording and is often called the Father of the Speaking Machine. He died in 1940, shortly before his 86th birthday.

Also on this day: I Love You Lighthouse – In 1860, the last stone to the I Love You lighthouse was placed.
Pygmy Mammoth – In 1994, the first near-complete pygmy mammoth fossil was found.
Globe Gone – In 1613, the London theater burned down.