Wax Cylinder Recordings
Long before vinyl records, cassette tapes and compact discs, there were wax cylinders.
In the late 1870s Thomas Edison invented the phonograph, a machine that could record and reproduce sound. The sounds were recorded on hollow cylinders made from wax and measuring about five cm in diameter and 11 cm in length. Each cylinder could record sound for up to two minutes. The Edison phonograph, along with prerecorded wax cylinders, became commercially available in 1889, changing the world of recorded sound forever.
The NFSA collection includes the earliest known Australian sound recording, which was recorded on wax cylinder in 1896, as well as an Edison Standard D model phonograph and new songs by contemporary Australian artists recorded using this vintage technology.
In October 2013 The Basics (Wally De Backer, Tim Heath, Kris Schroeder) recorded an acoustic version and a wax cylinder version on an original 1903 Edison Standard D model phonograph of their song 'I Don't Need Another' at the NFSA.
This track is a blend of the two versions.
Wax cylinder recording on an original 1903 Edison Standard D model phonograph of 'Guardian Angel, Guiding Light', composed and performed by Keith Potger (one of the original members of The Seekers).
Recorded at the NFSA in September 2013
A close up of the wax cylinder used to make Keith Potger's recording of Guardian Angel, Guiding Light.
Vocalist John James Villiers, with piano accompaniment, performs a song which features imitations of chooks. The Hen Convention was recorded in 1896 and is the earliest known Australian sound recording.
Summary by Maryanne Doyle
The Edison Standard D model phonograph dates from around 1908 and has a clockwork spring-powered motor. It has been fitted with a recorder head that can play back two-minute cylinders.
Recording on this equipment is a purely mechanical process, with no electricity involved. The performer sings down a metal horn and the energy of that sound is concentrated onto a thin circular mica disc in the recorder head. The vibrations of the disc move a thin glass rod which cuts the spiral groove in the cylinder.
The distance of the performer from the horn is critical; the performer has to be able to hear a reverberant echo coming back out of the horn for there to be enough mechanical energy to cut the groove.
NFSA Senior Disc Preservationist, Gerry O'Neill, closely supervises the recording of Keith Potger's Guardian Angel, Guiding Light.
Recording on wax cylinder is a purely mechanical process, whereby the performer sings down a metal horn and the energy of that sound is concentrated onto a thin circular mica disc in the recorder head. The vibrations of the disc move a thin glass rod which cuts the spiral groove in the cylinder.
Stiff Gins (Kaleena Briggs and Nardi Simpson) sing 'Dust', a song in two Aboriginal languages. A wax cylinder recording made on an original 1903 Edison Standard D model phonograph.
Wax cylinder recording on an original 1903 Edison Standard D model phonograph of 'Cleopatra' by Urthboy.
Wax cylinder recording of 'Wanjoo', a song in the Noongar language of Western Australia performed by Guy Ghrouse (instrumentalist) and Gina Williams (vocalist) on an original 1903 Edison Standard D model phonograph.
Recorded at the National Folk Festival Canberra, April 2014
In this recording, Fanny Cochrane Smith talks about being the last of the Tasmanians. She then sings in both English and her own language. It is part of a series of recordings made between 1899 and 1903.
Summary by Sophia Sambono
In 1901-02, Baldwin Spencer and Frances James (FJ) Gillen undertook an anthropological research expedition to Central Australia. They traversed the continent from Oodnadatta to Powell Creek and then eastwards to Borroloola on the Gulf of Carpentaria, publishing their experiences as The Northern Tribes of Central Australia in 1904. On the way they recorded many wax cylinders, working with the Arrernte, Anmatyerr, Kaytetye, Warumungu, Luritja and Arabana peoples.
Their recordings are now part of the British Library, Royal Geographical Society of South Australia and Museum Victoria. The pioneering use of wax cylinders in their expedition captured the distribution of song and dance traditions across the Australian inland. Their work was subsequently expanded on by successive researchers, including anthropologist Ted Strehlow, and Aboriginal community members. Selected recordings are available online via the Spencer and Gillen project website.
The ‘Song of Tjitjingalla Corroboree’ (heard here) was recorded at Stevenson Creek in South Australia on 22 March 1901. Spencer’s introduction notes that this corroboree had first been described in north-central Queensland and was subsequently performed by Arrernte people at Alice Springs.
Cover image: Arrernte men performing dances from the Tjitjingalla corroboree, Alice Springs, 27-30 April 1901. Photographers: Sir Walter Baldwin Spencer and Frank Gillen. Source: Museums Victoria
Find more significant Indigenous recordings in our Indigenous Sounds of Australia curated collection. And you can also hear more recordings on wax cylinder at our Wax Cylinder Recordings curated collection.
Wax cylinder recording of a didgeridoo performance by Broken Hill musician Anthony Hayward on an original 1903 Edison Standard D model phonograph.
Recorded at the Broken Hill Regional Art Gallery NSW, November 2014.
Wax cylinder recording on an original 1903 Edison Standard D model phonograph of 'Bold Jack Donahue' composed by John Dengate, performed by Chloe and Jason Roweth.
Recorded at the National Folk Festival, Canberra in April 2014.
Edison wax cylinder recording of Australian light baritone vocalist, Hamilton Hill, singing 'Skylark Skylark' (1903) after being digitised by NFSA experts.
NFSA Senior Disc Preservationist, Gerry O'Neill, digitises the 1903 wax cylinder recording of the song Skylark Skylark by Hamilton Hill.
This is a re-creation of the derailment of a train that occurred between Allansford and Warrnambool on 11 March 1897 recorded by Thomas Rome.
Drum virtuoso George Twentyman, known as 'Herr Schoot’, created effects to mimic the sounds of a steam train pulling out from a station and then leaving the rail.