Collections Blog

The Mystery Of The Wax Cylinders

The Tread of Pioneers Museum has two Ediphone dictating machines and nine associated sound-recording wax cylinders. We do not know the origins of our Ediphones, nor of the sound recordings captured on this obsolete media. What could be contained on these historic cylinders? Meeting minutes from the formation of a new club in town? A secret hiding place of a lost treasure?

The Ediphone was developed in the 1880s by Thomas Edison for recording speech or dictation. A sharp recording stylus was used to engrave sound waves into the wax cylinders. The cylinders could then be installed into the reproducing machine and played back. Ediphones were largely used by businesses, offices, hospitals, or police stations.

The museum’s machines likely date to the late 1930s-1940s, as they run on electric power and have more modern cords.

Ediphones were largely replaced by electrical and magnetic technologies by the 1950s. We are not certain of the dates or the origins of the museum’s Ediphones, because these machines, and their associated wax cylinders are unknown items in our collections, which means I can find no associated information with them, no dates of when they came to the museum, no donor information, no clue as to what the wax cylinders might contain, and the museum does not have a play-back machine.

Solving The Mystery

To solve the problem (and my intense curiosity), I contacted the Northeast Document Conservation Center (NEDCC) in Andover, Mass. The team at NEDCC has developed an optical scanning machine, called IRENE (Image, Reconstruct, Erase, Noise, Etc.) which creates 2D and 3D digital photographic images that can then be analyzed and converted into sound files. They can digitize any grooved media with IRENE…which means they can help us solve the mystery of the wax cylinders! Actually, as a conservation center, they do more. They clean and assess the cylinders if they are damaged or cracked; “fix” the audio file and piece together the sounds; create customized museum-quality mounts for the cylinders; and create preservation-quality master file for the museum’s records. Of course all of this comes at a price. NEDCC has quoted $5,665 for the care and digitization of our nine cylinders.

You can help solve the mystery! Colorado Gives Day is Dec. 6, and through the museum’s Colorado Gives Day website,, we have set up the “Mystery of the Wax Cylinders” campaign to solicit financial contributions to this valuable and exciting project. You can continue to give to this project through the website year-round, after Dec. 6 as well. You never know what secrets we might uncover!

Northeast Document Conservation Center; Jane Pipik

vintage machine used to play wax cylinders

These are not the museum’s machines, but the machine on the left is similar to the museum’s machine

Posted by Katie Adams at 15:13