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.

The Montreal Rolling Mills Co.: laying the groundwork for the steel industry

By Lucie Paquet, Senior Archivist

As the second half of the 19th century began, Quebec was entering a period of industrial growth. Montréal, located on one of the largest canal networks in North America, became a strategic industrial centre. The expansion of its seaport, the extension of the Lachine Canal, and the use of water power attracted many investors. Seizing the opportunity, businessmen established a wide range of factories, including foundries, to process raw materials. The Montreal Rolling Mills Co., which specialized in making steel products, became one of the city’s most prosperous firms.

Black-and-white drawing showing an industrial complex in 1868.

Drawing of the Montreal Rolling Mills Co., taken from its letterhead, 1868, vol. 274, file 14 (MIKAN 4932176)

Library and Archives Canada (LAC) has seven metres of documents produced by the Montreal Rolling Mills Co., stored in the Steel Company of Canada Limited archives (R15513). In 1910, this company, created by the merger of five major steel firms (Montreal Rolling Mills Co., Hamilton Steel and Iron Company, Canada Screw Company, Canada Bolt and Nut Co., and Dominion Wire Manufacturing Co.), established its headquarters in Hamilton, Ontario. Property titles, sales contracts, insurance contracts, financial statements and other documents for the management and day-to-day business of the company were archived in Hamilton until they were transferred to LAC in 2006. Most of them are textual records and technical drawings. There are few photographs, but this absence may be offset by the archives of the Dominion Bridge Company, also held by LAC.

Among the most important Montreal Rolling Mills Co. documents are account books, shareholder lists and transactions, minutes of meetings, correspondence between merchants, financial statements, and contracts for the purchase of land and buildings located along the Lachine Canal. The documents make it possible to analyze in detail the industrial changes that took place in Montréal in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

On May 8, 1868, the year after Confederation, several Montréal hardware merchants met in the offices of Morland, Watson & Company to form a new company: the Montreal Rolling Mills Co.

Colour image showing the cover of a minute book of directors’ meetings and two pages of text from a meeting held in 1870.

Cover page of a minute book and text from a meeting of company directors and shareholders in 1870, vol. 101, file 1 (MIKAN 4932158)

Continue reading

Stelco archives now acquired

By Lucie Paquet

Library and Archives Canada is proud to announce that it has acquired the archives of The Steel Company of Canada, more commonly known as Stelco. These archives are now part of our national heritage. They include more than 100 metres of textual records, thousands of photographs, technical and architectural drawings, and over 200 film and sound recordings. The Steel Company of Canada (Stelco) fonds, currently in archival processing, documents all aspects of the evolution of the steel industry from the beginning of its mechanization in the 1880s through to the 1980s.

Black and white photograph showing an industrial complex for steel production and processing.

Aerial view of The Steel Company of Canada Limited (Stelco) mills in Hamilton, circa 1952. (MIKAN 4915715)

The Steel Company of Canada Limited was formed in 1910 as a merger of five companies that had previously taken over some 40 smaller ones, operating in various areas of Quebec and Ontario: Hamilton Steel and Iron Company Ltd., Montreal Rolling Mills Company, Canada Screw Company, Dominion Wire Manufacturing Company, and Canada Bolt and Nut Company. Each one had its own speciality, from the primary production of steel for the rail, agricultural and marine sectors to consumer products. This new, large company enabled the Canadian steel industry to keep pace with strong American and European competition.

The account ledgers, correspondence, management minutes, patents and photographs provide a detailed account of the beginnings of this industry, its development and its challenges.

Black and white photograph showing a mill beside a canal. Other factories and railway tracks for transporting steel materials can be seen in the background.

Saint-Henri steel mill, one of Stelco’s departments in Montreal, May 17, 1946. (MIKAN 4915716)

The archives not only document the company’s expansion, but also the development of several entire cities, towns and neighbourhoods.

Black and white photograph showing a close-up of blast furnaces on an industrial site.

Blast furnaces of The Steel Company of Canada Limited (Stelco) in Hamilton, circa 1948. (MIKAN 4915717)

Cities like Hamilton quickly became major industrial centres referred to as “steel towns.”

Black and white photograph showing men in a plant. A large number of workers manually operating the first mechanical machines can be seen in the background.

Interior view of workers at one of the steel processing plants in Hamilton, circa 1920. (MIKAN 4915719)

In the mid-twentieth century, the plants attracted many immigrants and the population in urban centres doubled in just a few short decades.

Black and white photograph showing employees packing products inside a plant.

Interior view of workers in the finishing and packing department in Hamilton, circa 1920. (MIKAN 4915720)

The Stelco archives bear witness to the working conditions of men and women who spent their whole lives in the plants.

Black and white photograph showing a group of people holding a flag with a V for victory.

Parade of Stelco managers and employees not long after the end of the Second World War, in 1945. In the foreground can be seen Stelco directors H.G. Hilton and H.H. Champ, and a military officer, among others. (MIKAN 4915722)

Stelco and its workers had important responsibilities during the First and Second World Wars, responding to the demand for military materiel from the Canadian and British governments and contributing to the Allied victory.

But success did not stop there. The phenomenal growth of urban centres during the 1950s, real estate, energy resources, means of transportation and various consumer products created strong demand for steel.

Black and white photograph showing workers operating a machine used to roll the steel and make it into panels.

Interior view of a more modern plant from the 1960s for producing steel in rolls and panels. (MIKAN 4915723)

There followed the creation of large industrial complexes and the introduction of a high-tech research centre, which enabled Stelco to develop new steel products and increase operations and production in all areas, both residential and commercial.

Black and white photograph of a man in a white lab coat taking a photomicrograph.

Engineer from the metallurgical laboratory testing the quality of the steel structure by means of “photomicrography,” circa 1960. (MIKAN 4915724)

A collage of coloured advertisements. The first image shows different residential products, including a wood fireplace for the living room, the second shows the manufacturing of steel panels, and the third shows several architectural drawings for building construction.

Collage of three advertisements from Steel in Homes (1967), Stelco Plate Products (November 1969) and Expanding the Markets for Stelco Steel, circa 1970. (MIKAN 4915725)

The Steel Company of Canada Limited (Stelco) exported its products worldwide, becoming one of the largest steel companies in North America. As an example, it was actively involved in the design and construction of the Expo 67 Steel Pavilion.

Black and white photograph showing several modern architectural structures.

In the background, the Canadian Steel Pavilion at the Montreal World Fair in 1967. This pavilion was built by the four largest Canadian steel companies: Algoma, Stelco, Dofasco and Dosco. They reproduced in miniature all the components associated with steel manufacturing. In the centre of the image, the Canadian Pulp and Paper Industry Pavilion can be seen. (MIKAN 4915727)

Over the coming months, we will introduce you to the world of Stelco—its plants, directors, employees, operations, innovations, products and challenges, as well as its social, sports and cultural activities.


Lucie Paquet is an archivist with the Science, Governance and Political Division of Library and Archives Canada.