What did 1889 sound like?

By Carlene E. Stephens
A group of people by what appears to be a hot-air balloon.

Q: What’s cylindrical, made of wax, and part of one of history’s great showdowns?
A: These records in the museum collection with audio recorded 130 years ago.

Three cylinders of differing heights.
Three wax cylinders recorded in 1889 from the museum’s collection.

One of these records was created at the top of the Eiffel Tower, another in a free-floating balloon, and the third in a fancy sound lab. It’s likely these recordings have remained silent for more than a century. 

Until now, that is.

The cylinders recently were scanned with IRENE, a system of special equipment that converts the grooves of these cylinders to digital sound files (all without touching the object), at Library of Congress. IRENE stands for the stages of the process:  Image, Reconstruct, Erase Noise, Et Cetera.  Thanks to IRENE, we can listen in to the medium of recorded sound when it was a new technology.

These three cylinder records are some of the earliest examples of recorded sound. They are also evidence of a crucial showdown in 1889 between two of the era’s renowned tech titans: —Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell.

Edison created the tinfoil phonograph, the first instrument to record and play back sound in 1877. In the process of improving on Edison’s tinfoil phonograph, Alexander Graham Bell and his Volta Laboratory Associates invented a wax cylinder for recording and playback, and a machine to play it on (the graphophone).

A man sits at a machine
Edison listening to recorded sound. 

By the time of these recordings in 1889, Edison had improved his own sound recording device. He discarded the tinfoil of his prototype machine for wax cylinders. The inventors were in fierce competition.

Edison took his inventions to the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris. There his extravagant display exposed the technology to millions of visitors, many of whom had never heard recorded sound before. Bell’s associate Charles Sumner Tainter staffed a display for sound recording and playback at the Paris world’s fair too, but it was a sad little spot when compared with the giant Edison exhibition.

A cylinder with grooves.
One of the wax cylinders Edison’s team recorded in Paris.

While in France, Edison’s team made two of the recordings in our collection. The earliest of these cylinders, begins with key information about time and place, in French:

“…le six novembre [November 6th] en Haut de la Tour de Monsieur Eiffel [at the top of Mr. Eiffel’s tower]"

Then, very faintly, a violin begins to play. Listen carefully (the sound files are still somewhat difficult to hear) and you can hear it for yourself. 

“Mr. Eiffel’s tower” was built for the fair and served as its entrance arch. Eiffel built himself a hideaway on the top-most level, about 900 feet up. Edison visited the fair, where he was reportedly treated like royalty. Eiffel invited him to the tower, and Edison’s gift to his host was the most recent version of the phonograph.

The recording itself was made on the last day of the fair—November 6, 1889—on a blank wax cylinder manufactured by the Edison Phonograph Works of Orange, New Jersey. It’s not clear who did the recording, but the cylinder ended up in the hands of William J. Hammer, Edison’s representative to the Paris World’s Fair.

An impressive display of light bulbs and other technology.
Edison’s exhibit at the Paris World’s Fair. Archives Center, William J. Hammer Collection.

After Hammer’s duties at the fair were over, he did something he’d always wanted to do—go up in a balloon. On November 14, 1889, in the company of two other Americans, he took that ride. Together they floated for nearly 100 miles over the French countryside and landed safely.

Several men stand in the basket of and around what appears to be a hot air balloon. You can see large horns to project sound from the balloon.
W. J. Hammer and his associates prepare for their balloon ride. Hammer also borrowed a giant phonograph horn from the Edison exhibit to communicate with people below as they floated by. Courtesy of National Air and Space Museum Archives, William J. Hammer Collection.
A small box and a round cylinder.
A cylinder Hammer recorded for a balloon ride.

During the ride, Hammer reportedly dropped a dozen sealed boxes with recordings attached to parachutes. He imagined this technique could be used for military surveillance: “an officer making observations from a military balloon could dictate such observations to a small phonograph attached to his side.” In fact, Edison had just completed a miniature instrument he called “the military phonograph.”

We have one of those recordings in our collection. It is smaller than the standard record size and comes with a custom box, roughly a three-inch cube. On the box, an inscription reads “Sent from my free balloon November 14, 1889 Paris from W.J.H,” and another instructs if found, please return to William J. Hammer at the address of his Paris hotel.

There is a very large crack in this cylinder, so it was a challenge to recover sound from it. Those of us who have worked with the record think this is what we hear on it:

“An Edison phonograph […] American industrial nation, Paris Exposition 1889. Are you ready? Do not go yet. Bonjour, messieurs et mesdames. […] Into the […] phonograph […] everybody on the ropes. Lift off! […]”

Do you hear what we hear?

A black cylindrical recording.
The third cylinder in our collection tells a different story.

Meanwhile, back in the United States, Alexander Graham Bell was making recordings as well. The museum has one of these recordings, the second confirmed recording of Bell’s voice known to exist. The recording was made on December 6, 1889 in Bell’s laboratory, a carriage house behind his father’s home in Washington, D.C. Bell recorded himself; his father, Alexander Melville Bell; a man who identifies himself as David Hess or Haas; and perhaps a fourth speaker. Here are the first words of the recording:

“Eighteen hundred and eighty-nine, December 6th, the phono-graphophone has made its appearance in the Volta Laboratory in Georgetown, D.C., for the first time on this day. How does it come out? Alexander Graham Bell.”

A machine with a rod, and a needle that allows you to play what is on a wax cylinder.
Bell and his Volta Laboratory associates Charles Sumner Tainter and Chichester Bell invented this machine to play wax cylinders. Please note: In an 1888 business deal, the North American Phonograph Company renamed the Volta machine the phonograph-graphophone, an unwieldy name—shortened to phono-graphophone in the recording here—that never really stuck.

1889, the year these recordings were made, marks a major change in how Americans thought of recorded sound. At the World’s Fair, Edison exposed millions of visitors to the new technology. Back in the United States, enterprising agents of Edison’s phonographs started attaching coin-operated slots to them and set them up to play records in hotel lobbies, train stations, and other public places. Demand for prerecorded selections—music and spoken presentations—began to create a demand for Edison-made records. It looked like Edison emerged triumphant in the competition for recorded sound.

But triumphs can be fleeting. Emile Berliner would go on to find commercial success with discs that altered the audio landscape again. While Edison and Bell had encouraged recording, Berliner’s records were all prerecorded. Listening, not recording, became the new medium’s main experience for most people.

An exhibit with a large stain glass window featuring a dog.
The works of all three sound pioneers—Edison, Bell, and Berliner—are on display at the museum.

You can listen in to these early recordings at the museum or online.

Special thanks goes to audio restoration specialist Peter Alyea, who scanned the records to create audio files. Earl Cornell and Carl Haber assisted from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. This team has had success in the past with retrieving sound from flat experimental recordings from Alexander Graham Bell’s Volta Laboratory (hear earlier results here).

For drawing our attention to a box of very early Edison cylinder records in the collection, we thank researcher Patrick Feaster. For expert handling and repair in our most recent endeavor with cylinders, we had great help from paper conservator Janice Ellis, conservation fellows Mary Wilcop and Morgan Burgess, and Work and Industry collections manager Shari Stout. And we thank our generous funders for this stage of work: the Alexander and Mabel Bell Legacy Foundation, the GRAMMY Foundation, and the Smithsonian Women’s Committee.

Carlene Stephens is a curator in the Division of Work and Industry.