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.

2 thoughts on “Cylinders: our earliest audio recordings

  1. I hope that future LAC blogs will also cover the earliest home recordings made by equipment involving a wire and a rotating disc that looks like the later vinyl record, played at 78 rpm, producing a fragile recording. I have several made by my godparents ca 1950 through 1952, containing their voices and those of my parents as well as my earliest talking and singing triumphs at age two.

    • Hello Ms. Humphries –
      thank you for your comment. It has prompted a great bit of conversation and research related to acetate discs and home vinyl recordings. It is hard to say whether we have the material in our collection to write an article on the topic, but if it’s feasible we will write something along on the topic.

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