100-year-old musical recordings can now be heard for the first time, thanks to new digital technology

If you listened to music recorded at the turn of the 20th century, you listened to it on cylinders. Not that anyone alive today listened to recorded music back then, and much of it has since been lost. Invented by Alexander Graham Bell (best known for his work on an even more popular device known as the telephone), the recording cylinder marked a vast improvement over Thomas Edison’s tin foil phonograph. Never hesitating to capitalize on an innovation – no matter who made the innovation – Edison then began to market its own cylinders, quickly turning its own name into the format’s most popular and recognizable trademark.

“Edison installed coin-operated phonographs that would play pre-recorded wax cylinders in train stations, hotel lobbies, and other public places across the United States,” writes Sarah Durn of Atlas Obscura. They have also become the average choice of hobbyists. “One of the most famous is Lionel Mapleson,” says Jennifer Vanasco in an NPR article earlier this month.

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

The “Mapleson cylinders” are only a portion of the New York Public Library’s collection of approximately 2,700 recordings in this format. “Only a small portion of these cylinders, about 175, have ever been digitized,” Durn writes. “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 support 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 damage. Only seven Endpoint machines exist in the world, including a recent acquisition from ta NYPL’s, which will now be able to play many of its cylinders for the first time in over a century.

Some of these cylinders are not labeled, their contents are unknown. Curator Jessica Wood, as Velasco puts it, hopes “to hear a birthday party or something that tells us more about the social history of the time, even someone calling out her name and explaining that they are testing the machine, which is a fairly common thing. to hear on these recordings. She knows that the NYPL collection contains “about eight cylinders from Portugal, which are perhaps among the oldest recordings ever made in the country”, as well as “five Argentine cylinders which have preserved the sound of tango music. centenary”. In this case, from the first cylinder, she puts familiar words on NPR’s microphone: “Hello, my baby. Hello my dear. Hello, my ragtime girl. This listening experience was perhaps something less than time travel. But then, if you really went back to 1899, what song would you be most likely to hear?

by Atlas Obscura

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcaststs about cities, language and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter city ​​books, 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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