Top of page

Preserving Audio Cylinders: From Edison to the Archeophone

Share this post:

The following is a guest post by Audio Preservation Specialist Brad McCoy.

Collections tend to take pride of place in any discussion of moving images and sound recordings at the Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation. It’s understandable — we like talking about the more than 5 million items in our collective care. But we’re also responsible for preserving these sound recordings, films, and videos in order to ensure their survival and make them available for researcher access, and for that we need 1) playback equipment; 2) parts to maintain the equipment; 3) the knowledge to sustain the equipment; and finally 4) the expertise to make the best possible transfer. This last one requires what can be a lifetime of knowledge and experience to choose and properly prepare the collection items and use the right equipment for the best archival transfer…not to mention that we need this for an astonishing variety of formats. In that sense, we not only have to preserve collection items, we also have to preserve the knowledge and expertise that will be needed in the future to continue this important work.

Examples of legacy equipment maintained at the Packard Campus

Most of the equipment we maintain here at the Packard Campus is no longer manufactured—for example, audio reel-to-reel tape decks or audio wire players, 2″ Quadruplex videotape playback machines and many more—so we’re always looking to acquire older pieces in order to stock a parts depot. You’ll hear the word “cannibalize” around here a lot because we frequently take parts from an otherwise non-functioning machine in order to keep another one working. We even have a sizable space at the Packard Campus devoted to storing legacy equipment that we jokingly refer to as the Indiana Jones Room in honor of the concluding crane shot in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Sustaining our legacy equipment and keeping it operational requires highly specialized knowledge and skills on the part of our maintenance and engineering staff.

There are, however, a handful of examples where we employ a newly manufactured piece of equipment specifically designed to preserve a legacy format. A good example of this is the Archeophone, which we use to preserve audio cylinders. The Archeophone, which is manufactured in France by Henri Chamoux, offers a number of advantages over vintage players, including the ability to play cylinders backwards. This can be an advantage in cases of cracked or scratched cylinders where the stylus will not track in the forward direction, but will track in reverse, which can then be corrected later in software.

The Motion Picture Story (August, 1911)

Cylinder records were invented in Washington, DC, in the mid-1880s by Charles Sumner Tainter and Chichester Bell at their Volta Laboratory. From their original prototypes a variety of cylinder types were developed by others including Thomas Edison, and sold commercially. Brown wax cylinders were the first commercial sound recordings and these are among the most fragile of all audio formats. Subsequent cylinder formulas resulted in sturdier, better sounding, and more easily mass produced records, and new releases on cylinder were issued into the early 1900s when disc recordings gradually won out in the first major “format war.” Edison’s company sold their catalog of “indestructible” blue amberol celluloid cylinders until the company went out of business in 1929. We store approximately 7500 celluloid cylinders and about 16,500 wax cylinders at the Packard Campus.

Making the best archival preservation transfers of these cylinders requires knowledge and equipment that must be maintained and passed down. This need is among the many concerns of the audio preservation community and is one that was highlighted in the National Recording Preservation Plan. Specifically, Recommendation A1.8: Documentation of Legacy Technologies stresses the importance to research, collect, document and preserve information on legacy recording practices and technologies.” This recommendation also calls on archives to “initiate a program to videotape interviews and demonstrations by senior audio engineers.” In September 2013 our Audio Preservation Lab hosted experts David Giovannoni and Ward Marston to provide training to Packard Campus audio engineers about the preservation of audio cylinders using the Archeophone player. The engineers had three intensive days of education and training about the history, handling and the playback of audio cylinders. This ultimately led to new preservation transfers of some unique and historic cylinders from the Library’s collection that were of much higher sonic quality than ever before achieved This training was videotaped and edited by Packard Campus Institute staff with production by the Recorded Sound Section. These three videos pertain to background, formats and digitization/preservation of cylinders. We’re delighted to present them here.

An Introduction to Cylinder Recordings


Storage and Handling of Cylinder Recordings


Transferring a Cylinder


Comments (7)

  1. These are great videos. Thank you for publishing them.
    John Krivit
    Audio Engineering Society

  2. Excellent videos of cylinder transfer and record care. I have 70 black wax recordings in various condition and possess a standard Edison phonograph from the beginning of the 20th century. Many thanks.

  3. I have one Edison Special Black Amberol Wax Cylinder Record – Camp Meeting Jubilee by Peerless Quartette 4 Minute…original box and #D24 promotional series. The storage box has sort of cotton material on the inside liner – I just inserted a paper towel sprayed lightly with Lysol then read about only using Water (some cases 3 drops dish water soap) – so I lightly used Water on paper towel on inside of cylinder case and let dry – I was wondering though about storage. I see some F Temperature advise, but most houses are higher at 70-71d? Also, cylinder is glossy and clean – no sign of mold…would’nt colder temperatures acrually cause a Mold situation. I realize the softer Brown Was has more of a Mold Issue, but mine is Black

    • A temperature of 70-71 °F is not extreme. The most important thing is temperature stability. Wax cylinders react badly to sudden, dramatic changes in temperature. There are reports of cylinders cracking when they’ve been placed on cold mandrels. The cotton one often finds in original cylinder containers was intended strictly as padding for shipping at the time, and should be discarded as it may cling to the wax. Black wax cylinders are generally less susceptible to mold than other wax cylinders, and celluloid “Indestructible” cylinders do not host mold at all. Since your cylinder is currently free of mold, the best thing you can do is place it in an archival housing. We can’t recommend any specific products but there are some available from different suppliers.

  4. I bought in 2021 an Edison Special Amberol Cylinder Record – is Black (wax/plastic), D24 was special promotional series given out when phono bought by customer…Title Camp Meeting Jubilee, Peerless Quartette – case is Orange with Greenish Photo Thomas Alva Edison. I noticed sort of larger chip whole on threaded area – less than 1/8th inch – and appears very fine hairline crack entire length of cylinder – not sure if all through the entire length. I bought more for display – will not attempt to play – I believe is 1913? I was wondering safest way to preserve chip – a sealer to lightly put in the chip hole to prevent further cracking? January 10, 2021

    • The crack may separate over time, but since it is not a very rare cylinder and you bought it mainly for display, your best option might be to look for another one, as efforts to seal the crack may make it more apparent than it is now, and do more harm than good to the wax itself.

  5. I bought a dozen 4 minute blue cylinders on Ebay…….IN COLD WINTER…..over half were cracked from one end to the other (garbage quality) when I received them. I suspect these precious records should never be shipped in cold weather.

Add a Comment

This blog is governed by the general rules of respectful civil discourse. You are fully responsible for everything that you post. The content of all comments is released into the public domain unless clearly stated otherwise. The Library of Congress does not control the content posted. Nevertheless, the Library of Congress may monitor any user-generated content as it chooses and reserves the right to remove content for any reason whatever, without consent. Gratuitous links to sites are viewed as spam and may result in removed comments. We further reserve the right, in our sole discretion, to remove a user's privilege to post content on the Library site. Read our Comment and Posting Policy.

Required fields are indicated with an * asterisk.