Cylinder recordings, invented by Thomas Edison in 1877, were the first successful form for recording and reproducing sound. Made first of tin foil, then wax, and later celluloid, the cylinder was used until the late 1940's.
Cylinders, like early disc recordings, were recorded acoustically: sound was picked up by a recording horn, basically an inverted megaphone, causing a membrane placed in the small end of the horn to vibrate. A recording stylus attached to the membrane etched or embossed the sound vibrations into the surface of a rotating cylinder or disc. "Styli" to play such recordings were made from a wide range of materials, including cactus thorns, precious and semi-precious stones, and steel.
The Library of Congress has about 50,000 wax and celluloid cylinder recordings, the largest collection in the world. These recordings are of such rarity and fragility that they are played only to make preservation transfers and user access copies.
The content of the cylinders in the LC collection is highly diverse. It ranges from field recordings of Native American ceremonies, through Grand Opera and popular music, to political speeches. For example, in addition to speeches by William Jennings Bryant and Theodore Roosevelt, the collection contains a cylinder that bears spoken greetings to the American people from Kaiser Wilhelm II. The Kaiser Wilhelm cylinder was the first sound recording acquired by the Library.
Would the Library like to add family-heirloom cylinders to its collections? That's a very difficult question to answer. For one thing, our cylinder holdings are part of the uncataloged arrearage--they are now being inventoried and cataloged--and thus not yet fully identified. Since the labeling practices of 19th century recordings were not as developed as today, many times the only way to know what's on a cylinder is to play it. That's not so simple, because the cylinders are extremely fragile and just the act of putting the cylinder on the machine and playing it will shorten its life, and may actually destroy it.
Are cylinder recordings valuable? They range anywhere from a few dollars to four or five hundred dollars, with rarities bringing several thousands. Most likely, family-heirloom cylinders will be at the lower end of this range because it is usually the rarity of the format that drives up the price. This doesn't mean that they shouldn't be taken care of, and much can be done to prolong their life.
What about care and handling? When handling, don't touch the cylinder's engraved surface with anything, including your fingers. Don't try to clean them, leave that to someone with experience. Store them standing upright in a clean, cool (50-60 degrees F.), and dry (below 40% relative humidity) environment. UV light accelerates the deterioration of plastics and bleaches out color. Keep the cylinders in a dark area.
A bibliography grew out of a search for information on replacement equipment for the cylinder recordings in the Library's collections. "The project rapidly expanded to include all information we could locate on cylinder recordings. It quickly became obvious that the sources were very limited, pulling them together in one place would save time in the future;" said Gerald Gibson, author of the bibliography. Among the topics covered are recording and reproducing, storage and handling, catalogs and cataloging, and repair of damaged items.
Cylinder Audio Recordings: an Annotated Bibliography was published by the Preservation Directorate in September 1996. The bibliography contains all published sources the Library of Congress could locate on this intriguing historic sound medium. Take a look at Cylinder Bibliography Published for information on how to obtain a copy.