The Univesity of California, Santa Barbara (USCB) Library, with funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the Grammy Foundation, and individual and corporate donors has created a digital collection of more than 10,000 cylinder recordings—the majority recorded by the Thomas Edison companies. The cylinders are from the years just before and after 1900 and are held by the UCSB Library. To bring these recordings to a wider audience, the Library makes them available to download or stream online for free.

First made on tinfoil, then wax, plastic, and finally, in 1912, on celluloid, cylinder recordings, roughly the size and shape of a soda can, were the first commercially produced sound recordings.

The phonograph—as a device to record and playback sound—was invented by Thomas Edison in 1877. His first version, while not commercially viable, recorded sound on sheets of tinfoil wrapped on a cylinder. It didn’t create an income for Edison, but as the first machine that was capable of reproducing sound, his phonograph was a publicity magnet.

After patenting his invention and benefiting from the publicity and acclaim it received, Edison and his laboratory turned their attention away from audio recordings to the more commercial—and highly profitable—development of electric lighting. Edison and his laboratory didn’t return to their phonograph for over ten years. When they did, the results were remarkable. Have a listen to a recording from 1917. American Patriotic Airs performed by the New York Military Band and issued by Edison as Edison Blue Amberol #3203, Edison record #3258. It’s a perfect bit of nostalgia for July 4th.

To support individual donations and expand the reach of their collection the UCSB Library created and Adopt-a-Cylinder program.

It costs the library $60 to preserve a single cylinder, including rehousing, cataloging, and digitizing it for public access. The library currently has a backlog of over 3,000 cylinders that have not yet been digitized. In 2010 a grant from the GRAMMY Foundation® supported the digitization of over 1,000 cylinders, but there are still thousands more to be preserved and digitized.

From UCSB Library:

“If you would like to Adopt-a-Cylinder, we will prioritize the digitization of a cylinder and put it online for you and others to listen to. A $60 tax-deductible donation will ensure the cylinder of your choice is preserved and accessible to the public. When you have found a cylinder in our catalog that isn’t online that you’d like to adopt, click on the on credit card payment link to pay online. When you get to the Special Collections Research Account login page, click the “first-time user” link, accept the terms, complete the form, click “submit information,” then click “submit request” to adopt the cylinder. You will then receive an online invoice to pay with your credit card within one business day.

Alternatively, to adopt multiple cylinders or to pay by check, email project director at Send a check payable to “UC Regents” to:

David Seubert
Department of Special Collections
UC Santa Barbara Library
Santa Barbara, CA 93106-9010

Please provide your name and city for our acknowledgments page and information on the cylinders you’d like to adopt. Here the most current and complete list of cylinders available for adoption.

Have a safe and sane 4th of July, don’t hold Roman Candles in your hand, and while you’re considering adopting a tune, enjoy this rousing march played by The 74th Regiment Band of the U.S. Marines in 1923. (Edison Blue Amberol  #4712, Edison Record #8615)

Here’s where you can find, listen to, and download recordings from the USCB Library collection of cylinders: Browse the Collection.