Creating a Record, Edison-style

Gustaf 39-instant-smallGuest blogger Brett King is an award-winning steampunk artist, maker, and costumer, as well as a frequent attendee of the Alamance Makers Guild meetups. He loves to develop new skills and share his knowledge at maker faires and steampunk conventions across the country. You can follow his projects and appearances on his Facebook page.

 

As a steampunk artist and maker, I really love Victorian-era technology. Earlier this year I acquired a semi-functional Edison Fireside Phonograph from 1905, with the hopes of taking it to steampunk conventions and maker faires. These spring-wound phonographs played wax cylinder records through an amplifying horn. After learning about how phonographs worked and what additional parts I needed by leveraging sites like Interique, the Edison Shop, the Online Edison Phonograph Discussion Board, and eBay, I was able to restore the phonograph to at least a functional state.

After the restoration, I went looking for some records to play on my phonograph. I found the perfect song, perhaps the first “steampunk” song ever recorded – “Come Take a Trip in My Airship” (1904). It tells the story of a woman in love with an airship sailor who takes her to the moon and beyond. It had been released by Edison on wax cylinder, but I was having trouble finding a surviving copy. Many of the old wax cylinders develop a mold that ruins the recording, so finding a particular title can be challenging.

So, I decided to see if I could get a new version of the song made and put on to a wax cylinder. For the song, I reached out to one of my favorite steampunk musicians, the fantastic Unwoman, who does original music as well as covers. She graciously agreed to record the song if she could also release it through her Patreon and Bandcamp pages.

For the wax cylinder, I contacted the Victrola Guy, who has an incredible YouTube channel on old music players. He creates new wax cylinders by shaving the wax off of old moldy cylinders. He then plays MP3s through a speaker into an original Edison recording device which cuts the grooves in the record.

The result is one of the few new recordings done for a 2-minute Edison wax cylinder in the last hundred years. Unwoman is looking to create additional cylinders through a KickStarter campaign, so follow her Facebook page if you would like one of these records for your own.

The video above shows the record playing on my phonograph, with the setting being an interactive airship bridge I created for steampunk events.

One thing to note is that the record should sound louder and more clear than it does in my video. On these phonographs, most of the sound quality comes from the reproducer, which is a metal shell containing a copper diaphragm connected to a sapphire stylus (needle) by a wire. These mechanisms typically need to be rebuilt every 100 years or so, and mine was not at the time I created the video. I have since rebuilt the reproducer and the sound has improved. The pre-wax version of the song on Unwoman’s Patreon page sounds much better, obviously.

Edison Phonograph Reproducer
Edison Phonograph Reproducer with 4-minute record stylus (left) and 2-minute stylus (right)

The film playing during the video is from Fleischer Studios, best known for creating Betty Boop. This particular film is from “Dancing on the Moon (1935)”. There is actually a video for Come Take a Trip in My Airship that was done in 1924 and 1930 that has some historical significance. It was the first fully synchronized music video, and the second video to feature the iconic “Follow the Bouncing Ball.” Unfortunately I don’t have a copy of the video that I can edit to get it to line up with the song, but I will keep searching!

2 thoughts on “Creating a Record, Edison-style

  1. The basic distinction between the Edison’s first phonograph patent and the Bell and Tainter patent of 1886 was the method of recording. Edison’s method was to indent the sound waves on a piece of tin foil, while Bell and Tainter’s invention called for cutting, or “engraving”, the sound waves into a wax record with a sharp recording stylus.

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