The UCSB Library Invites You to Discover and Listen to its Online Archive of Cylinder Recordings

Do you remember cylinder recordings? Of course not. They became obsolete long before you were born. However, my grandmother had a few of them when I was a child although the cylinders were obsolete even then. (I’m not THAT old!)

Cylinder recordings

Welcome to the modern, digital, and online 21st century! Many of those old recordings are now available online. Yes, you can listen to the same music that some of your ancestors listened to. In those days, the devices were not called phonographs. Instead, they were “graphophones.”

Comment: I don’t think any of the recordings will ever win a modern-day Grammy Award! When I say these are old, I mean they are REALLY OLD. They are scratchy and very much low fidelity. But they still will interest many of us who are trying to imagine what our ancestors used for entertainment.

Edison Graphophone

The University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB) Library contains the Cylinder Audio Archive, a carefully curated collection of over 19,000 historic phonograph cylinders. Over the past 15 years, the archive has grown to become the largest online collection of downloadable historical sound recordings available anywhere.

Thomas Edison with his “graphophone” around 1877

Invented by Thomas Edison in the late 1800s — long before CDs, cassette tapes, and vinyl records — phonograph cylinders are the earliest commercial recording medium. These hollow cylindrical objects are roughly the size of a soda can and function similarly to vinyl records, with audio engraved as grooves that can be played by a needle.

The folks at the UCSB Library have digitized the recordings, including fiddle tunes, Hawaiian music, (highly racist) minstrel shows, historical speeches, sermons, and even home recordings made by regular people, which showcase the everyday experiences of life during the 19th century. The collection includes many historical recordings from different ethnic groups and countries.

It is theoretically possible to find a recording in the collection made by one of your ancestors although the odds of such a discovery are slim. Still, it certainly will provide many examples of the records your ancestors listened to.

You can read more about this collection in an article by Sheila Tran in The Bottom Line, a web site produced by the University of California at Santa Barbara, at: https://thebottomline.as.ucsb.edu/2020/01/cylinder-audio-archive-copy.

Even better, you can listen to the recordings at http://cylinders.library.ucsb.edu/.

Reminder: Again, these are not candidates for a modern-day Grammy Award!

Here’s a recording by George J. Gaskin recorded sometime between between 1896 and 1901: http://cylinders.library.ucsb.edu/detail.php?query_type=mms_id&query=990040834590203776&r=8&of=8.

Yes, our ancestors really did listen to these scratchy recordings!

Now, let me get my Compact Disc of “Don’t Start Now” by Dua Lipa, with a 192kHz sampling rate, and play it on the McIntosh MC2152 Amplifier with the GoldenEar Technology Triton Five loudspeakers. Yes, advances in technology are a wonderful thing!

4 Comments

The recordings on brown wax cylinders were invented and produced by Thomas A. Edison in the 1890s He called his machine a phonophan, not a gramophone. There is a Utube video of a recording that was made on such a cylinder at the opening of the Thomas Edison National Historic Site in 2009. The link to the video is


The gramophone actually came first, but did not use cylinders. It used flat glass plates into which a groove was etched. It was developed and patented by Emile Berliner in the late 1880s, while Edison was still experimenting with various kinds of wax for his cylinders.

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My favorite cylinders on the UCSB website are both genealogical.
I think I hear a woodpecker knocking at my family tree
https://www.alexandria.ucsb.edu/lib/ark:/48907/f36h4g5c
Krausmeyer taking the census
https://www.alexandria.ucsb.edu/lib/ark:/48907/f3kd1wp9

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I remember them and I’m 77. My grandfather or uncle had a player and many cylinders. I think it was sold at auction in the 1960’s.

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In about 1953, my parents discovered in the attic of the house they had just bought, 18 Edison Music Cylinders in an old box. They were removed from the attic and carefully cleaned and wrapped, each one, in shoe box tissue paper. (My Dad ran a retail shoe store.) I became heir to all of them when my Mother moved from that house to an apartment in 1984. At some time between 1984 and 2017, I had committed the cylinder titles, dates, etc., to a “catalog” spreadsheet. Later I did research online to find a digitized recording of one or two, and found only two.

In 2017, to date the collection and possibly identify who lived in that old house and owned them and left them in the attic, I researched online each recording and found recording dates for each one. I had come into a copy of the Abstract Of Title my Mother had ordered when she sold the house. The person to whom she sold the house still lived in the house and provided an excellent copy for me. The Abstract revealed the entire (starting in 1852) history of the original, once large addition to the original town in 1858, and how those acres were subdivided over time, a total of five subdivisions, bringing that street and lot “into view”, upon which that original house was built in 1883 on a big lot . Original owners of each parcel were also included in the Abstract, from the original acreage down to the current owners in 1984.

In 1906, the lot was conveyed to a woman who lived there until 1927. Eleven owners later came my parents! The 18 cylinders are dated from 1905 to 1920, suggesting the owner of the cylinders was the woman living in the house over the time span of those cylinder release dates. A 14-page PowerPoint presentation was prepared by me to “walk through” the Abstract of Title, visually.

And now comes these wonderful recordings at UCSB Library! On their website, I found and downloaded 16 of the 18 cylinder recordings I have in my “collection”. And I’m looking for possibly one or two possibly recorded by some ancestors. So glad I couldn’t sell them at my last garage sale!

Thank you UCSB. Thank you Mrs. Julia M. Ney, where ever you are.

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