Now Available: The Ultimate Old-Timey Playlist

Listen to digitized recordings of wax cylinders, an obsolete technology that revives turn-of-the-century culture

Wax Cylinder
Patrick Breen - Flickr/Creative Commons:

There's something fascinating about obsolete technology, whether it's a Walkman or a mind-bending zoetrope. Who knows what's hidden inside media after it's been left in the dust by modern tech? Now, there's a chance for you to find out: As Claire Voon reports for Hyperallergic, researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara's Cylinder Audio Archive have digitized recordings of more than 10,000 wax cylinders.

Think of it as the ultimate olden-timey playlist—a chance to rock out to cakewalks, popular World War I songs, and more. The recordings were originally made on wax cylinders, a technology that was used between 1877 and 1929. The cylinders were the earliest commercial medium for recording sound and were used with early phonographs.

Commercial companies and curious individuals recorded sounds on wax cylinders, like a record in the shape of a tube. They were sold inside cardboard packaging that contained slips of paper to identify each recording. For the first time, the cylinders made everything from speeches and anti-Prohibition songs to foxtrots available in people's homes.

Not only did wax cylinders usher in the beginning of the modern recording industry, but they were also perfect for field recordings. Audio conservationist George Brock-Nannestad writes that the cylinders could even be used in places that lacked electricity—and were used long after the last ones were made in 1929. The UCSB Cylinder Audio Archive contains gems, such as mysterious anthropological recordings made in Tahiti during the 1920s.

Researchers at the Cylinder Audio Archive aren't done yet, either: Voon writes that the archive still has more than 2,000 recordings left to digitize. If you're taken by the bygone technology, you can even "adopt" a cylinder to make sure it gets preserved. So, who wants to step up and make sure this 1907 recording of "Teach Me How to Win a Beau" survives into the 21st century?

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.