One of the items selected for our upcoming “From the Back Room” exhibition is an Edison Blue Amberol. These wax cylinders were one of the earliest types of sound recordings.

Our Edison Blue Amberol. On the left is the wax cylinder, and to the right is its packaging sleeve.

The original phonograph, invented by Thomas Edison in 1877, played recordings impressed on tin foil-wrapped cylinders. A person would speak into a mouthpiece and the sound vibrations would be indented onto the cylinder by the recording needle in a vertical groove pattern. A second needle was then used for playback. The wax cylinder was patented in 1886 by Chichester A. Bell (cousin of Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone) and Charles S. Tainter. Edison had stepped away from the phonograph after 1878, but when he came back to the idea ten years later to improve his design, he adopted Bell and Tainter’s wax cylinders. These became the most widely used type of sound recording until the 1920s.

“I was never so taken aback in my life–I was always afraid of things that worked the first time.”  – Edison on hearing his voice play back to him from his first phonograph

The Edison Company not only manufactured phonographs, but also mass produced wax cylinder recordings. This was fairly common, with companies like Brunswick and Victor doing the same.  The type of wax cylinder from our collection, a Blue Amberol, was introduced by the Edison Company in 1912. Blue Amberols could play for up to 4 minutes and 45 seconds, and had a surface layer of “indestructible” blue-tinted plastic celluloid. They were considered a vast improvement over the earliest wax cylinders introduced in the 1880s, which could play for only 2 minutes. Edison-brand phonographs designed to play Blue Amberol cylinders were called “Amberolas”. The Museum also has an Amberola 30 model in the collection that dates to between 1915 and 1929. Amberola 30s originally retailed at $30 (approximately $360 today), giving them their “30” name.

Our Blue Amberol is recording #3691. Recorded in 1919 by the Peerless Orchestra, the four-minute-long piece of music is titled “Easter Fantasia (descriptive)”. Take a listen through this Youtube video:

A slightly higher-quality version of the recording is also available via the University of California – Santa Barbara Cylinder Audio Archive. Click here to access the alternate version.

Locally, Amberol records and Edison phonographs were sold by stores like the Smithers Music Store and Gray’s Jewellery. The Smithers Music Store, featured in the Smithers Interior News advertisement below, was owned and operated by Margaret Warner (wife of Interior News editor/owner L.B. Warner, and later Margaret Dunn) from 1918 to 1920.

Smithers Music Store advertisement from 1919.

To learn more about the history of the phonograph and Edison’s contributions to sound recording history, visit the Library of Congress “History of Edison Sound Recordings” webpage by clicking here.