A Library’s Mysterious Trove of Wax Cylinders Will Soon Break Its Century-Long Silence

The recordings may include mundane conversations—and some of opera’s most legendary singers

Nick Bergh handles a damaged wax cylinder, which archivists will be able to read with the new Endpoint machine without the risk of further damage.
Nick Bergh handles a damaged wax cylinder, which the Endpoint Machine will be able to read without risk of further damage. Alex Teplitzky / New York Public Library

Boring chatter. Silly vaudeville acts. Bygone operas. These are just a few of the kinds of sounds that could be buried in a trove of wax cylinder recordings that no one has listened to in 100 years or more.

Now, after a century of silence, the rarely-heard recordings will finally become audible—and available to the public. As NPR‘s Jennifer Vanasco reports, the library has acquired a new machine to digitize the priceless sounds.

“They could be people’s birthday parties,” New York Public Library (NYPL) assistant curator for music and recorded sound Jessica Wood tells NPR. “Or they could be 'The Star-Spangled Banner' or something incredibly common.”

Wax cylinders were the earliest way people could listen to music on a widespread commercial scale. The cylindrical form of audio was first invented by Thomas Edison, who hit on the technology while trying to record an early telephone message in 1877. They evolved into a predecessor of the modern record made of hollow, brown wax stored about 4 inches long. The recordings weren’t all professionally produced—some were made by amateurs who purchased blank cylinders or hacked existing ones for personal use.

Early opera recordings on wax cylinders by Lionel Mapleson, part of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Archives of Recorded Sound at The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.
Early opera recordings on wax cylinders by Lionel Mapleson, part of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Archives of Recorded Sound at The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. Robert Kato Lionel / New York Public Library

Although a collection of the cylinders—many unmarked—have been in the NYPL for decades, most have not been heard in over 100 years due to the fragile nature of the wax. If held for long periods of time, the cylinders can break, and they easily deteriorate after being played on the Edison machine repeatedly. 

Edison’s format may have gone obsolete, but librarians think modern technology is up to the job of restoring the cylinders. The library recently acquired the Endpoint Cylinder and Dictabelt Machine. Invented by Nicholas Bergh, the machine will enable the digitization of the recordings. Due to a combination of laser and needle, the machine can even digitize broken or cracked wax cylinders.

Only around 175 of the library’s 2,700 recordings have been digitized to date, and the project will capture the contents of five to six cylinders a day, writes Sarah Durn for Atlas Obscura. Many of the cylinders have not been labeled, which further adds to the enigma regarding the sounds they possess. NPR reports it will take a few years to digitize the cylinders and make the recordings accessible to listeners across the country.

The Endpoint Cylinder and Dictabelt Machine, with wax cylinder cannisters.
The Endpoint Cylinder and Dictabelt Machine, with wax cylinder canisters. Jonathan Blanc / New York Public Library

Some other institutions have digitized their precious cylinders already, as Erin Blakemore reported for Smithsonian magazine‘s Smart News section in 2015. By then, researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara’s Cylinder Audio Archive had digitized a cool 10,000 wax cylinders.

Re-recording sounds that would otherwise languish in a library could reveal historic gems, like the contents of the NYPL’s collection of more than 100 “Mapleson cylinders.” The recordings were produced by Lionel Mapleson, the Metropolitan Opera’s librarian, who filled them with an irreplaceable collection of opera recordings in the early 20th century. From audiences’ giggles to the low notes of some of opera’s most celebrated baritones, the live recordings capture a bygone age at the Met.

As music archivist Edward M. Komara wrote when the recordings were added to the National Recording Preservation Board’s prestigious National Recording Registry in 2002, part of the opera cylinders’ appeal is the “artists who sound more unfettered on stage than on their commercial records.”

The contents of many of the rest of the library’s cylinders are still mysteries—but perhaps they’ll reveal treasures that will make archivists react similarly to audiences of yesteryear.

Bergh tells Atlas Obscura that Edison’s first listeners reportedly fainted at the sounds of their own voices when they first heard themselves on wax cylinders. “It was quite shocking apparently,” says Bergh.