Version: March 26, 2006

William A. Penn

High-tech tabletop


One of the world's greatest and most interesting collections of phonograph cylinders is the one at Syracuse University, New York. Among the 22,000 or so cylinders in the collections, there are many of the oldest cylinders in existence, right back to 1885:

the voice of Pope Leo XIII, Caruso, popular music far from today's notion of the politically correct, and even a possible 1895 recording by soprano legend Adelina Patti, her only known cylinder recording if the label proves to correspond to the actual cylinder. The phonographic community has its serious doubts.

The actual audible content of many of the cylinders is still unknown, for at Syracuse they have been wise enough to wait for a technology that will not damage these cylinders as they are being played. And work is under way to bring such a technology into existence.

Financed by a one-year grant of $ 158,076 from the Institute of Museum and Library Services for completing "the development of a non-destructive playback system for wax cylinder recordings" the university's Belfer Audio Laboratory did work on a new player. Under the leadership of electrical engineering and computer science professor William A. Penn, a laser player was being developed. The idea was to build a player that works by reflection and interferometry readout of a helium-neon laser, without mechanically touching the cylinder played. In January 2000 the prototype occupied a 120 x 240 cm tabletop, but hopes were to shrink it.

In 2000, an Archeophone made by Henri Chamoux was purhased

It is not known to me whether the people at Belfer ever played a cylinder. In spite of several attempts at contacting the people at the library and the Belfer Lab, they have not returned a word to me. From other sources I have heard that the project is no longer active.

Other players

At Syracuse, previous attempts have been made to build a laser player (see The Library Connection, fall 1995), but apparently without success.

There is, however, at Syracuse other equipment which has been used for transfer of cylinders, including cylinders from the Yale Collection, which has no equipment of its own to play cylinders.

Christer Hamp, 2006

Further reading:
Bringing Back Voices From the 19th Century, by Anne Eisenberg, New York Times, January 20, 2000, at Allen Koenigsberg's site. External link
The Syracuse University Library Radius Project, by William A. Penn and Martha J. Hanson External link

Write to Professor Penn: Visit the Belfer Lab at Syracuse University:
Main page E-mail External link