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Dateline: Thinking Inside the Cylinder - 2002-07-15

A historic recording session of sorts took place this month in the midwestern state of Illinois. A rock band called "Moe" put down some tracks in a studio there. But as we hear in this Dateline report, they did it by stepping back to the 1890s when Americans were enthralled by the music on...cylinders.

From the 1890s through the middle of the first decade of the 20th century, Americans were fascinated by the sounds coming out of the newly-invented phonograph. The phonograph played cylinders made of various materials like wax and celluloid. Early recordings were made using nothing but the pressure of sound. The sound moved a diaphragm and its attached stylus which cut grooves into the cylinder. Like this one: "Well, I gone and done it! Yessir, Nancy nagged at me till I bought a computer. Well, I happened to hear about computers while I was over at Emory Hopkins' grocery store."

What? Computers? On a cylinder recording? You bet. This cylinder was recorded last year by sound engineer Shawn Borri of La Moille, Illinois. Mr. Borri, heard on the cylinder, is president of the North American Phonograph Company, a recording studio which houses a modern digital system, but which also makes cylinders for collectors, and is now recording original works. "That was a test recording of myself doing Uncle Josh who was a character who made records from 1897 to 1919 when he passed away, his name was Cal Stewart, and I picked up on that," he said. "A lot of collectors say it sounds like him, so I carried on the character."

"I love little baby ducks. . .old pickup trucks."

Mr. Borri has recorded modern day groups like the rock band "Moe", and country groups like "The Silver Pickers", heard in this recording made last year at a fair in La Moille, Illinois, Mr. Borri's home. "Many musicians have the idea that for natural sound, the wax cylinder has a more natural, flat tone, more true to life in some ways than electronic recording," he said. "I don't know where they get, but that's what they think, and it's pretty good for me."

For the first couple of decades following the invention the phonograph in 1877 by Thomas Edison, cylinders were the gold standard of recorded sound. And yes, Thomas Edison himself, did say that the first words he ever recorded were those of a famous nursery rhyme. "The first words I ever spoke into the original phonograph was a piece of practical poetry, 'Mary had a little lamb whose fleece was white as snow, and everywhere that Mary went, the lamb was sure to go,'" he said.

Originally, Thomas Edison believed that the phonograph would be used for business applications like dictation machines. Edison and his rivals who included the cousin of Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone couldn't generate enough income from business sales. So after some technological improvements in the acoustic recording process, they turned to the world of entertainment.

This remarkable surviving recording of soprano Teffie Stewart of New York, made in January of 1889, hinted that profits could lie in musical cylinders. Coin-operated phonographs in arcades, saloons and ferries began turning substantial profits as audiences flocked to hear this new wonder and the performers on the cylinders. When further refinements in the technology of phonographs dropped the price to affordable levels for American consumers, the commercial recorded music industry was born.

"Wedding bells are ringing gay, down Alabama way... For a new married couple leaving Dixie, they say... Then a grey-haired man, he smiled... As he said, 'God bless you, child,' That girl's grieving, because she's leaving. She can't stay away..."

Groups like the "Premier Quartet" which included John Bieling, Steve Porter, William F. Hooley and star vocalist Billy Murray; bands, singers, instrumentalists, and monologists, in fact, almost anyone walking the streets where studios were located, could suddenly find themselves as recording stars.

George Kipper, librarian and cataloger at the Library of Congress's Recorded Sound Section, says even whistlers, like this one, identified only as "Mrs. Shaw", became big stars. He recounts the tale of one whistler who led a double life. "We had a government clerk by day, who was a whistler at night, who was the world's first famous name recording artist," he said. "His name was John York Atlee, and he was born in 1842 and died, circa 1910. He cut quite a few records for the cylinder companies. He was gone by 1899 from the recording scene."

But others like the banjoist Fred Van Eps emerged to record cylinders and become famous. The Edison company established in-house bands which recorded everything from marches and polkas, to light classical selections and waltzes.

The technological limitations of the acoustic recording process steered cylinder producers towards instruments and music that recorded adequately. That's the view of Rick Benjamin, conductor of the 21st Century Paragon Ragtime Orchestra. "Anything that was percussive in nature that sent out a sharp soundwave like a drum or a piano, didn't record well," said Rick Benjamin. "It tended to make the recording stylus skip over the wax blank. And bands and orchestras and instruments like the banjo, or surprisingly enough, the xylophone, which is a percussion instrument, were able to be recorded very well, so this was a boost to ensemble performance of this kind of music, too."

Not only did the recording process favor certain instruments and musicians like Albert Benzler's band playing the Girls of America March, says Rick Benjamin, it also gave an advantage to the new sounds being heard in American popular music. "Because the technology was limited in the early days to only two minutes of recorded music, you couldn't do Beethoven symphonies or long operas," he said. "What fit perfectly was popular music...marches and ragtime and pop songs, which were two or three minutes long, and that fit on there. So this new technology was definitely a boost to new trends in popular music."

Ragtime and popular songs like the Edison Concert Band's rendition of Jovial Joe, began to fill the cylinder collections of Americans as the century changed from the 19th to the 20th. But the days of the cylinders were already numbered, says the Library of Congress's George Kipper. "I'd say by 1908, the cylinder was pretty much taking a back seat to the disc," he said.

The idea of discs as a medium for sound recording had been conceived by Edison but he never pursued it. It took an inventor named Emil Berliner who, along with his partners, introduced a new disc-playing phonograph in the 1890s called the gramophone. In this recording made in 1908, Emil Berliner discusses the research he and his family have in mind for recording sound. "I am glad to inform you that the younger members of my family are engaged in original research work on talking machine improvements, and that I have a well-equipped laboratory devoted to these researches," said Emil Berliner.

This recording of Nearer My God to Thee by the tenor Richard Jose in 1906, could have symbolized the beginning of the end for cylinders. Shawn Borri noted that in the coming battle between discs and cylinders, the cylinders didn't stand a chance. "Wax cylinders are rather clumsy to use and they take up a lot of space," he said. "The disc records you could take and stack up on top of each other and store more in a given space. Disc records were easier to duplicate. Cylinders took longer to make, a disc record could be stamped out rather quickly. As far as Emil Berliner and his disc records, that is what really won it, was the fact that he could quickly process the records."

Ironically, cylinders survived for the very reason Edison first envisionedas a dictation device for the American business office. "Dictaphone devices can be seen on such movies as Harvey with James Stewart, and other movies of the 1940s and 1950s, so they were definitely a part of the office scene," George Kipper said.

As cylinders march into history, behind Patrick Gilmore's band playing Blaze Away, Shawn Borri says much is owed to Thomas Edison and his wax cylinders. "We really owe the music industry to the wax cylinder," said Shawn Borri. "If it wasn't for Edison inventing the phonograph, we wouldn't have recorded sound or the music industry today. It's the very beginning of all recorded sound."

And perhaps it may be a bit of the future as Shawn Borri, and others alongside him, think outside the box and inside the cylinder.