Carlyle Smith Beals: a great Canadian astronomer

By François Larivée

Canada’s Dominion Astronomer and the Dominion Observatory

It may be a little-known fact now, but for several decades, Canada had a Dominion  Astronomer. This person was in charge of the Dominion Observatory in Ottawa, located on the Experimental Farm. The observatory was built in 1905 by the Geological Survey of Canada to provide precise temporal and spatial data for its mapping and topographic surveys. In those days, there were no atomic clocks to tell the exact time, so the movements of certain reference stars were used. Spatial coordinates were also determined by observing the precise position of a large number of stars. All of these observations were made using the telescope at the observatory. The Dominion Observatory was in operation until 1970, when its activities were transferred to the National Research Council of Canada.

View of a building under construction. The building’s construction is almost complete, but there is scaffolding in front of the building, and the metal structure of the cupola is still under construction.
The Dominion Observatory in Ottawa under construction, ca. 1905 (a053076)

Documents on the Dominion Observatory are archived in the Department of the Interior fonds and the Natural Resources Canada fonds. In addition, Library and Archives Canada has the fonds of the astronomer who was one of the Observatory’s most important directors, Carlyle Smith Beals (1899–1979), Dominion Astronomer from 1947 to 1964. During his career, Beals garnered international acclaim for his high-quality research and important discoveries. He not only was the director of the Dominion Observatory for nearly 20 years, but also carried out research in the vanguard of his field since the 1930s, when he began his career as assistant astronomer at the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory in Victoria, British Columbia.

A black-and-white photograph of two men standing side by side in doctoral gowns.
C.S. Beal (left) receiving an honorary doctorate from Queen’s University, 1960 (a149328)

From studying very hot stars and interstellar matter to studying impact craters

Beals conducted research at first on certain kinds of hot stars (P Cygni and Wolf-Rayet stars) and the chemical composition of interstellar matter. Among his important discoveries, Beals proved that hot stars are made up of large gas pockets and that interstellar matter is not distributed evenly throughout space. These discoveries were made while Beals was at the Astrophysical Observatory in Victoria, before he went to the Dominion Observatory in Ottawa. Another interesting fact about the Victoria Observatory, which is still in operation, is that when it first opened in 1918, the telescope, with its 1.83-metre-wide mirror, was for some months the largest in the world.

A black-and-white photograph of a cylindrical building, with an observatory cupola, on top of a hill.
Dominion Astrophysical Observatory in Victoria, British Columbia, ca. 1925 (a032169)
A black-and-white photograph of the inside of an observatory.
Telescope in the Astrophysical Observatory in Victoria (a149328)

As Dominion Astronomer in Ottawa, Beals was very active both as a scientist and as an administrator. He was renowned for his research on meteor craters (also called impact craters) in Canada. This research was a key part of his later career and won him worldwide acclaim. After two meteorite impact craters, the Brent crater in Ontario and the New Quebec crater (now called the Pingualuit crater), were identified in the early 1950s, Beals launched a comprehensive program to find meteor craters across Canada. The work involved analyzing thousands of aerial photos from the National Air Photo Library and from National Defence, and conducting geological studies in the field. This extensive research program earned international recognition for Canada.

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Images of Yukon now on Flickr

Yukon, located in the northwestern corner of Canada, is one of the country’s three territories. Alaska is to the west, British Columbia to the south, and the Northwest Territories are to the east.

Early humans are thought to have arrived in Yukon at least 20,000 years ago. They eventually developed into Inuit and First Nations groups of the Na-Dene linguistic family.

A black-and-white photograph of the port side of a passenger steamer. People are gathered at the bow and on the second level deck.

Steamer Victorian on the Yukon River near Dawson, Yukon (MIKAN 3299679)

Since Yukon is one of the most remote areas of Canada, Europeans in the fur trade did not arrive in the region until the early 19th century. Rumours of gold brought in miners and prospectors starting in 1874. Then, from 1896 to 1899, the discovery of gold in the Klondike region triggered a rush of migrants. To deal with the large increase in population, the Yukon Territory, formerly part of the Northwest Territories, became a separate entity within the Canadian confederation in 1898.

Yukon’s population declined dramatically in the 20th century, but the construction of highways and a brief revival of mining triggered steady population growth in the 1970s. The economy has diversified to compensate for decreasing profits from mining.

Did you know?

  • The name “Yukon” is derived from the Gwich’in word “Yu-kun-ah,” which means “Great River” and refers to the Yukon River.
  • Yukon is home to the highest mountain in Canada and the second-highest on the North American continent: Mount Logan, 5,959 metres (19,551 feet).
  • Yukon has the smallest desert in the world, located near Carcross. This desert is approximately 2.58 square kilometres (1 square mile).

Visit the Flickr album now!

Images of the Dominion Archives Building now on Flickr

Library and Archives Canada collects and preserves the archives of some of Canada’s most notable architects, architectural firms and organizations. These archives contain many interesting collections, for example, records pertaining to the architects, design and construction of Ottawa’s former Dominion Archives building at 330 Sussex Drive.

A black-and-white photograph of a 3-storey, stone, and mortar building located on a large grassy area.

Public Archives of Canada, Sussex Street, Ottawa, Ontario (MIKAN 3192914)

Early in the first decade of the 20th century, Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier suggested that the addition of an archives building to the nation’s capital would help “make the City of Ottawa the centre for intellectual development in this country, and the Washington of the North.” The archives building was subsequently constructed between 1904 and 1906, and opened officially in early 1907. This Ottawa landmark housed Canada’s archival heritage until 1967.

Visit the Flickr album now!

See also:

Signatures, Spring/Summer 2017

Guest curator: Sarah Hurford

Banner for the guest curator series. CANADA 150 is in red along the left side of the banner and then the bilingual text: Canada: Who Do We Think We Are? and under that text is Guest curator series.Canada: Who Do We Think We Are? is a new exhibition by Library and Archives Canada (LAC) marking the 150th anniversary of Canadian Confederation. This exhibition is accompanied by a year-long blog series.

Join us every month during 2017 as experts, from LAC, across Canada and even farther afield, provide additional insights on items from the exhibition. Each “guest curator” discusses one item, then adds another to the exhibition—virtually.

Be sure to visit Canada: Who Do We Think We Are? at 395 Wellington Street in Ottawa between June 5, 2017, and March 1, 2018. Admission is free.


View of the Library and Archives Canada booth at the Truth and Reconciliation national event in Edmonton, Alberta, by Sarah Hurford, 2014

Photograph of a booth covered in photos with a computer on the side. A brown-haired woman staffing the booth is finding a photo for a couple visiting the booth. Another booth is in the background.

View of the Library and Archives Canada booth at the Truth and Reconciliation national event in Edmonton, Alberta by Sarah Hurford, 2014. © Sarah Hurford, 2014.

When the first residential school opened in the 1870s, the idea had mainstream support. Today, Canadians find the policy abhorrent. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has had a major role in educating the public.


Tell us about yourself

I have been interested in records relating to Indigenous heritage since my first summer at LAC as a summer student in 1998. This is when I saw firsthand how much of a difference finding historical documents made to people.

Is there anything else about this item that you feel Canadians should know?

This photograph was taken in the middle of a huge arena with thousands of people in it, and many booths: government departments, church sharing circles, vendors, and many, many visitors. It really was shared space, and for that reason alone, the arena itself was a site of reconciliation. It was a very unique experience, and the air was charged with emotion and the smell of burning sage. People stopped at the LAC booth to share their stories with us, ask us questions, and look at the photographs we had on display. To me, the event was particularly special since it was the last national event planned, so it was the last time I thought I would be in such an environment.

Tell us about another related item that you would like to add to the exhibition

The other related item I would like to add to the exhibition is this photograph, which shows a group of boys who lived too far away from the residential school at Aklavik to return home during the summers. At the national event in Edmonton, I met the grandson of one of these boys, who immediately found his grandfather in the photograph. Every time I see the photo, I remember meeting his grandson, and that experience really underscored for me that it was important that we were there at the national events to hear these stories, and that we understand that historical documents in our collections have an effect on the present day.

Group of Inuit children dressed in overalls or coveralls standing on sandy, grassy ground with the school in the background.

Inuit children who lived too far away and had to stay at the Anglican Mission School during the summer by photographer M. Meikle (MIKAN 3193915).

Biography

A colour photograph of a smiling woman with hair parted on the side.Sarah Hurford has been an archivist at LAC since 2009, and specializes in records and search tools relating to Indigenous heritage. She has held positions in Reference Services and in Private Archives, and has provided reference support for two document disclosure research projects conducted for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. She is currently in the Government Archives Branch in the Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada portfolio.

Crown land patents: Indian land sales

This article contains historical language and content that some may consider offensive, such as language used to refer to racial, ethnic and cultural groups. Please see our historical language advisory for more information.

By Catherine Butler

Reference archivists at Library and Archives Canada (LAC) are often asked to assist researchers in tracking down patents for Indian land sales. Over the years, we’ve noticed that there is much confusion surrounding these records; specifically, what they are, what is held at LAC and how the records can be located. I hope that I can clear up some of this confusion.

What are Crown land patents?

Crown land patents are legal instruments issued when a territory in the Crown’s possession, such as a First Nations reserve, is divided and sold to a private individual or corporation. In Canada, First Nations reserves are considered to be federal Crown lands because they are owned by and are in trust to the Crown. LAC holds a number of the Indian land sale patents issued since 1763, though most of these records are still held in provincial archives.

Who issued patents for Indian lands?

Until 1845, the provincial secretaries for Upper and Lower Canada issued Indian land patents under the province’s Great Seal. Following the 1840 Act of Union between Upper and Lower Canada, the Office of the Registrar General was established for the united Province of Canada, assuming the responsibilities formerly held by the provincial secretaries.

By the time of Confederation in 1867, the provinces had become responsible for most Crown land sales, with the exception of lands held in trust for First Nations reserves, which fell under the authority of the federal government. The newly created federal Office of the Registrar General became responsible for issuing Indian land patents across Canada.

By 1886, this responsibility had been transferred to the Department of Indian Affairs, which retained the function until 1951. Since then, Indian land patents have been the responsibility of the Registrar General of Canada, though it should be noted that the last Indian land patent was issued in 1990.

What records are held at LAC?

Today, Indian land patents held at LAC are located in a variety of fonds, including the Department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs (RG10) and the Registrar General (RG68), and can therefore be a bit tricky to track down. Below is a list of the Indian land patents held by LAC.

DATES REGION REFERENCE
1700 to June 30, 1867 Quebec / Lower Canada / Canada East and Upper Canada / Canada West RG 68, Indexes to special grants and leases for Canada Company patents
1763 to September 2, 1845 Quebec / Lower Canada / Canada East MG8 – A26, Entrybooks of the Provincial Registrar for Quebec, Lower Canada and Canada East
1773 to September 2, 1845 Quebec / Lower Canada / Canada East RG 68, Vol. 893, Reel C-2883, KEY to the General Index
November 1842 to September 23, 1865 Nova Scotia  RG10, Vols. 459-461 and 1718, Reels C-13329 and C-13330, Nova Scotia Records
September 3, 1845 to June 30, 1867 Canada East and Canada West RG 68, Indexes to Indian and Ordnance Land Patents
July 01, 1867 to October 31, 1886 Canada RG 68, Indexes to Indian and Ordnance Land Patents 
November 1, 1886 to July 1, 1951 Canada RG 10, Vols. 10923-10999, 13267 and 14108, Land Patents
August 1, 1951 to February 2, 1990 Canada RG 68, BAN 2000-01430-5, Box 1–51, Indexes/Ledgers

Keep in mind that patents issued by the Provincial Secretary of Upper Canada between 1793 and 1845 are held by the provincial archives, as are the pre-Confederation Indian land sales for Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.

What information do I need to find an Indian land patent?

In order to track down an Indian land patent, the following information is required:

  • Patentee name
  • Date of issue
  • Location of the lot
  • Patent number (not required, but very helpful)

Catherine Butler is a reference archivist at Library and Archives Canada

New additions to the Virtual Gramophone!

By Margaret Ashburner

Library and Archives Canada (LAC) is pleased to present a list of newly digitized recordings from our 78-rpm disc collection. These early 20th century recordings include a variety of Canadian musicians, performers, composers and publishers. We will present the new recordings to you in six installments over the next few months.

French songs

Our first batch of newly digitized songs includes a variety of French-language songs. The release dates on these range from 1918 to the late 1930s and reflect the influx of francophone immigrants to Quebec, and Montreal in particular. With the boom in a French-speaking population came some great artistic developments for Canada, including francophone popular music, a small sample of which we have here:

A colour photograph of a black circular label at the centre of a 78-rpm disc. Gold lettering reads: “His Master’s Voice. Victor. Y-A des loups (Quentin-de Bexeuil). Georges Beauchemin. 263510-A.”

A Georges Beauchemin record label for Y-A des loups; image from Library and Archives Canada (AMICUS 31386448)

A colour photograph of a black circular label at the centre of a 78-rpm disc. Gold lettering reads: “Starr, Tenor, Avec piano, A SON CHEVET (Fyscher), LUDOVIC HUOT (Au piano: J. Allan McIver). 15929-A”

Record label for À son chevet by Ludovic Huot; image from Library and Archives Canada (AMICUS 31394570)

Featured performers

Georges Beauchemin, baritone

Georges Beauchemin is an interesting early example of the potential that recording technology brought to musicians. Beauchemin possessed a light baritone voice that would not have been suitable for solo stage and operatic roles. However, the new recording technologies allowed musicians with less powerful voices to be recorded and amplified.

Hector Pellerin, baritone

A black and white image of a young man wearing a tuxedo.

Hector Pellerin, photograph taken from the Virtual Gramophone. (AMICUS 2653974)

Hector Pellerin was an industrious musician who started out training in piano and organ but quickly moved on to popular music through his work accompanying silent films. He continued to work in various musical capacities before landing his first recording contract at the age of 29. He recorded in both wax cylinder and 78-rpm formats, ultimately making over 140 recordings.


Margaret Ashburner is the Special Collections Librarian of music at Library and Archives Canada

Images of Quebec now on Flickr

Quebec is the largest province in Canada, sharing borders with Ontario to the west, Newfoundland and Labrador to the east, and New Brunswick to the south. First Peoples in Quebec are generally from three main language groups: Algonquin, Inuit and Iroquoian. The arrival of Jacques Cartier in 1534, and Samuel de Champlain in 1608, signalled the beginning of early interactions between First Peoples and Europeans. Champlain established a fort at the site of Quebec City and French colonists settled within the area. However, in 1763 all French possessions in North America were surrendered by treaty to the British. New France became the Province of Quebec.

Black and white photo of tobogganists sliding past a group of people walking up to the top of the run.

The Toboggan Slide, Quebec City, Quebec (MIKAN 3387443)

In 1774, the Quebec Act was created to provide the people of Quebec with their first charter of rights. This paved the way for the recognition of French language and culture. The province was known as Lower Canada from 1791 until 1841, when it was merged with Upper Canada, following the 1837 Lower Canada Rebellion, and renamed Canada East. The merger was aimed at assimilating French-Canadians into the predominantly English-speaking culture of Upper Canada, but this was not to be. In 1848 the colony was granted self-government, and its French-Canadian identity was taken into account during the road to Confederation. In 1867, Canada East once again became the Province of Quebec, and part of a greater Canadian Confederation.

Did you know?

  • Quebec is the only province to have French as its sole provincial official language.
  • Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Quebec underwent the Quiet Revolution, a period of intense social, political and cultural change.

Visit the Flickr album now!

First World War photographs in private fonds at Library and Archives Canada

By Rebecca Murray

A.F. Duguid, an early Canadian military historian, noted as he researched the First World War in its aftermath, “It is remarkable how much of the most useful historical material is still held in private possession.” (Clio’s Warriors by Tim Cook, page 79)

The photographs of the Canadian War Records Office photographic collection (accession 1964-114) are illustrative of the life and work of soldiers during the First World War. As many of the photographs are digitized and available online, they are heavily used by researchers.

That said, many researchers come to Library and Archives Canada (LAC) wanting to see images of the conflict that aren’t part of the official government records. This is a great example of when our private holdings—archival documents donated to LAC by individuals or organizations—can serve as an excellent complement to government holdings by providing an alternative view of an historic event.

This blog post highlights three fonds within our holdings, but there are many more. Please note that the complete references are provided below (in italics) to allow researchers to easily order the material for consultation, as not all of the items are digitized.

W. L. Kidd collection, accession 1974-137

Extent: 405 photos

Content Description: Personnel and activities of No. 7 Canadian General Hospital, Etaples, France (KIDD, W. L. 1974-137 SC 0333); examples of various types of wounds suffered by Canadian soldiers during the First World War (KIDD, W.L. 1974-137 06221). (1916–1918)

Comments: Search using the keyword “1974-137” in Collection Search to see descriptions and digitized images for a portion of the collection.

A black and white photograph of a group of soldiers and nursing sisters in a tent.

“Nursing sisters attending to soldiers in the dressing tent at the No. 7 Canadian General Hospital” (1917). Credit: W.L. Kidd (e002712847)

Margaret D. Cooke collection, accession 1989-248

Extent: 57 photos

Content Description: Canadian Army Medical Corps in England during the First World War, including 21st Battalion personnel; Saltwood Castle; soldiers at outdoor kitchen; Duchess of Connaught Red Cross Hospital at Cliveden, Taplon; No. 2 New Zealand Hospital at Walton-on-Thames; Moore Barrack, Shorncliffe, Kent; Mount Felix, Walton-on-Thames. War photographs: destroyed tank; trench; destroyed town (COOKE, MARGARET D. 1989-248 04147).

A black and white photograph of a woman in a nursing sister uniform with the cape, pin, hat and white gloves.

Nursing Sister Beatrice Baker, 1916 (PA-210762)

Anne E. Ross fonds, accessions 1982-174 and 1965-041

Extent: 1588 photographs

Content Description: Photographic material depicting […] activities and personnel of No. 3 Stationary Hospital, C.A.M.C., in Canada, England, and in the Mediterranean theatre of operations while based on the island of Lemmos, 1915–1917; photographs by E.R Owen of staff, patients, faculties, major events and visitors at the Duchess of Connaught’s Canadian Red Cross Hospital, Taplow, England, 1915–1916; photographs from the First World War (ROSS, ANNE E. 1982-174 05618, ROSS, ANNE E. 1965-041 05680A).

A black-and-white photograph of a group of four women sitting on deck chairs with blankets. Three of the sisters are wearing the dark overcoat while one is wearing a lighter coloured jacket. A soldier can be seen slightly in the middle of the group.

Nursing sisters sitting on deck of ship with a soldier (1916). Credit: Anne E. Ross (PA-202409)

If you’re interested in discovering these or other photographs held in private fonds at LAC, please contact us using our online form.


Rebecca Murray is a reference archivist in the Reference Services Division of Library and Archives Canada.

Guest curator J. Andrew Ross

Banner for the guest curator series. CANADA 150 is in red along the left side of the banner and then the bilingual text: Canada: Who Do We Think We Are? and under that text is Guest curator series.Canada: Who Do We Think We Are? is a new exhibition by Library and Archives Canada (LAC) marking the 150th anniversary of Canadian Confederation. This exhibition is accompanied by a year-long blog series.

Join us every month during 2017 as experts, from LAC, across Canada and even farther afield, provide additional insights on items from the exhibition. Each “guest curator” discusses one item, then adds another to the exhibition—virtually.

Be sure to visit Canada: Who Do We Think We Are? at 395 Wellington Street in Ottawa between June 5, 2017, and March 1, 2018. Admission is free.


This article contains historical language and content that some may consider offensive, such as language used to refer to racial, ethnic and cultural groups. Please see our historical language advisory for more information.

A page for Joliette, Quebec, from the first Census of Canada, 1871

Can you find the entry for Adolphe Perrault? Times change: Perrault made his living as a voyageur! As time passed, census data would feed social policy. Many programs by which Canadians define themselves are the result.


Tell us about yourself

Before I came to LAC, I was a post-doctoral fellow on the People in Motion research project at the University of Guelph. Our goal was to develop an algorithm linking the 1871, 1881, 1891 and 1901 Canadian censuses together, to create a database of thousands of records that researchers could use to explore important questions about post-Confederation Canadian society, including health transitions, occupational changes and migration mobility. In the course of my own research, I became interested in changes that show how Canadians have viewed themselves over time.

Is there anything else about this item that you feel Canadians should know?

Ever since Intendant Jean Talon ordered the first census of the European population of New France in 1665–1666, the precursors to modern-day Canada were keen on learning about the demographic, social and economic aspects of their populations. LAC is the repository for many of the surviving documents of these censuses, including a near-complete collection on microfilm of the handwritten forms filled out by the individual enumerators (census takers) who went door to door in 1871 collecting information for the first census after Confederation.

Enumerators were required to complete up to nine schedules (forms), which covered population characteristics, deaths, economic activities and the like. What made the Canadian census unique was a question on Schedule No. 1 (Nominal Return on the Living) that asked for information on a person’s “origins,” an important issue in a country with four different provinces, a wide variety of cultures, and political tension between two major linguistic groups.

What was meant by “origin”? The manual containing the instructions to enumerators did not provide much detail, except by example: “Origin is to be scrupulously entered, as given by the person questioned . . . by the words English, Irish, Scotch, African, Indian, German, French, and so forth.” With a few exceptions (“Indian,” “Half-Breed,” “Hindoo” and “Jewish”), the answers corresponded with countries of origin rather than culture per se.

Ironically, for the first national census the answer “Canadian” was not an option because the designers wanted clear lines drawn between English and French, and other groups. Allowing “Canadian” might reduce the size of one group or another, with worrisome consequences for both political representation and cultural pride.

Tell us about another related item that you would like to add to the exhibition

This clever cartoon from the Canadian Illustrated News issue of May 6, 1871, which LAC holds in its collection, shows how the question about origins might produce a rather humorous conversation:

Enumerator. – “What origin, Ma’am?”

Lady. – “Canadian, of course!”

Enumerator. – “But you know we don’t take down Canadian origin.”

Lady. – “Well, then! follow Darwin’s theory, and enter us as descended from apes!”

A black-and-white cartoon of a census enumerator speaking to a woman sitting at a desk.

Cartoon from the Canadian Illustrated News (AMICUS 133120) depicting a potential conversation about the first census (image from page 288, Canadian Illustrated News of May 6, 1871, e011180501)

Not only a fine joke, but also an astute observation. What was a person’s origin anyway? How far back should one go? If birthplace was not considered (it was recorded separately), then was it the father’s cultural heritage, or the mother’s? And why couldn’t people whose families might have been resident for centuries be considered “census Canadians”?

According to the guidelines, while the enumerator in the cartoon could have been justified in entering “primate,” in practice the enumerator entries were all checked before counting and changed if they were determined to be inappropriate. In this way, thousands of self-described “Canadians” (and also “Americans”) were reassigned to another origin, usually based on their surname, and when the origin totals were published in the fall of 1871, “Canadian” was not a category.

Over the 20th century, a sense developed that origin should be less about the national ancestry of a person and more about the person’s cultural background: what eventually came to be called “ethnicity.” With this understanding, the origin questions in 20th-century censuses came to rely on the ethnicity of the person’s first paternal ancestor who came to Canada.

This did not suit some people, such as the 13th Prime Minister of Canada, John George Diefenbaker, who was proud of his “mixed” ethnic heritage and even more proud of not admitting it to an enumerator. In his memoirs, he wrote (please feel free to wiggle your jowls as you read this):

“I have never registered as requested in any census. I am a Canadian, and I register as a Canadian. When I was Prime Minister, I made certain that the 1961 Canadian census contained the question ‘Are you a Canadian?’ Although the change was disapproved by the Liberal and bureaucratic establishments, and in consequence discontinued after I left office, hundreds of thousands of Canadians answered this question, ‘Yes,’ and with ringing pride.”

Diefenbaker’s “Are you a Canadian?” did not replace the origins question, which continued to be asked, but it may have led to the 1971 official change in policy—100 years after the first census—that finally allowed people to answer “Canadian” (and allowed the enumerator to record that answer and not have it changed). Only 71,000 chose to do so in that year, but the attitude trend accelerated over the next 40 years; by 2011, over 10 million were answering “Canadian,” sometimes in combination with other origins, but for almost 6 million, exclusively. In 2016, the question was, “What were the ethnic or cultural origins of this person’s ancestors?” We will soon see how many people now want to be counted as “census Canadians.”

Biography

A colour photograph of a man standing in front of a white board with his arms crossed and smiling at the photographer.

J. Andrew Ross is an archivist in the Government Records Branch of LAC.

Cylinders: our earliest audio recordings

By Margaret Ashburner

One of the fascinating elements of Library and Archive Canada’s (LAC’s) retrospective audio collection is that it captures both the history of Canadian music and the development of sound recording and formats. Audio technologies have developed and changed rapidly over the last century, from wax cylinders to digital. There is a story to be told in the recordings, but also in the formats themselves.

LAC’s audio collection goes all the way back to the beginning of recording technology, which was first developed in the late 19th century. The earliest audio format developed for production was the phonograph cylinder. These cylinders were produced in a variety of materials, though all had a similar in design.

A colour photograph of hands holding a dark blue grooved cylinder. In the background is the cardboard case for the cylinder.

Example of an Edison brand Blue Amberol cylinder.

Cylinders have small grooves etched into the outside, exactly like those of a vinyl disc. The recording can be played by a machine that rotates the cylinder while a needle traces the grooves. The resulting vibrations are then amplified. This YouTube video shows a cylinder in action: note that the needle is fixed and the cylinder moves, unlike a record player where the needle moves and the disc remains fixed. Early cylinders were made from wax, which produced good acoustic results, but were quite fragile. Later cylinders were made from plastic, some tinted different colours to create a distinctive appearance (Roll Back the Years, p. 32).

A colour photograph of a wax cylinder being pulled out of its protective cardboard container by a string that is attached on the inside of the cylinder. On the cardboard, the word “Concert” appears in uppercase letters, while above, in smaller print, can be read “National Phonograph Co, New York, U.S.A.” “Made at the Edison Laboratory, Orange, N.J.” is visible below.

An example of a wax cylinder and its cylindrical cardboard container.

While the sound quality produced by cylinders is no match to the digital recordings of today, it is important to remember that, at the time, there were no alternative methods of sound reproduction. Households that bought an Edison machine and cylinders for the first time would not have had any way of playing music in the home other than live performance. It would have been quite the magical experience to go from relying on amateur performance and concerts to having a device that could play music at any time.

Challenges of the cylinder format

The small size of the cylinder, and limited surface area, meant that recordings could not be very long; the typical playing time was two or four minutes. This placed limits on the repertoire that could be performed and often influenced the tempo for a selection. These two examples of “The Holy City” are both performed by Canadian Henry Burr: Version 1 is two minutes long and Version 2 is four minutes long. In both versions, Burr adopts a very elastic tempo, but one that is fairly consistent between the two recordings. In Version 1 he accommodates the smaller cylinder by abbreviating the song and omitting more than half of the music. Much of the poetic narrative is lost in this version, but this is the challenge posed by the cylinder format.

A colour photograph of a cylinder player with a Blue Amberol cylinder on a horizontal tube and the needle hovering above the cylinder.

A modern wax cylinder player.

These time restrictions had a significant influence on popular music compositions of the time, and have contributed to today’s trend of the three- to five-minute “hit single.”


Margaret Ashburner is a Special Collections librarian (music) in the Published Heritage Branch.