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Wax Cylinder Recordings Tell Story of Culture Across the Centuries

For the first time in 80 years, a commercial music recording has been made on an Edison phonograph – technology that was invented in the 1890s.


Aboriginal singer-songwriting duo Stiff Gins were inspired to reprise the old technology when they heard a 100-year-old wax cylinder recording of a Tasmanian Aboriginal woman.


“When we heard it, it was not just of another time and place, that’s simplifying it,” said Stiff Gins singer Nardi Simpson.

“It was spiritual.”

Aboriginal woman Fanny Cochrane Smith was recorded singing in 1903.

She was born on Flinders Island in 1834 and was typical of Aboriginals of the era who spoke both English and an Indigenous tongue.

Her recordings are in the collection of the National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA) and are the only known recordings of a Tasmanian Aboriginal language.

“The Fanny Cochrane Smith recordings were captured around the turn of the century, to capture something considered a dying culture,” said NFSA CEO Michael Loebenstein.

“If we look at it from the perspective of the anthropologist or the perspective of the museum or archive as a place where things go and die, it captures just that.

“This is the dead record, this is the insect that’s in the amber stone.”

But Mr Loebenstein views it differently.

“For me it’s such a strong statement – ‘here I am, I’m a living person and this is 50,000 years of history speaking through me’,” he said.
(Re)making history

The Stiff Gins composed an original song in an Indigenous language and the NFSA brought an old Edison phonograph back to life so the singers could record onto wax.

“It’s a purely mechanical device,” said sound archivist Graham McDonald.

A team of sound archivists worked to ‘reverse engineer’ the workings of the phonograph.

“There’s no electricity,” said Mr McDonald.

“The cylinder gets driven by a clockwork motor – you sing loudly down the horn, the mechanical energy of the voice moves a needle up and down on the wax cylinder,” he said.

The NFSA had to source wax cylinders from the only remaining manufacturer in the world, a small maker in Devon, England.

The machine’s large brass funnel or horn is both the part that is sung or spoken into, and where the sound is played out.

When Thomas Edison invented the machine in the 1890s it was the first time people had ever heard something recorded played back to them.

It enabled a person on an outback station in Australia to hear an opera recorded in London, something revolutionary at the time.

It also allowed ethnographers to take the machine into the field to record the languages of other cultures.

The Stiff Gins wanted to reclaim the technology by using it to express themselves on their terms.

“People should think about this when they walk into a museum,” said singer Kaleena Briggs.

“These objects are still alive and they’re talking to each other and there are stories there just waiting to be heard.”
Spiritual story

The song the duo wrote deals with the idea of life after death, and the continuation of spirit and culture.

“It’s been the most rewarding thing,” said Simpson.

“We’ve been doing gigs for 15 years and finally this is something that speaks to our place in the world.”

After recording their song in a wood-panelled library room at the National Film and Sound Archive, the singers listened to their voices played back on the wax cylinder.

The whoosh of static can be heard on both the antique and the new recordings, but the modern version sounds much crisper.

But both recordings compress and ‘thin out’ the sound, making the singers (perhaps in all cases) sound much older than they are.

Briggs and Simpson gasped and smiled at each other as they heard the recording.

They were listening to the sound of history being re-made.

“It’s not just about collecting something and ticking a box,” said Briggs.

“It’s about paying respect to something that’s part of history.”

See the Edison phonograph in action on ABC 1’s 7pm News and News 24’s The Culture Quarter tonight.

This article originally appears at:
Article taken from the following publication:
ABC Indigenous
Article submitted by:
Siobhan Heanue

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