Sound and vision blog

4 posts from December 2013

25 December 2013

Blue Christmas 1913

In November 1912, Thomas Edison released what became the last word in mass-produced cylinder technology – his four minute Blue Amberol series. These cylinders started to appear in the United Kingdom in February 1913 although cylinders of various other types had been around for more than twenty years. It’s a common presumption that phonographs were owned only by the rich, but they were mass-produced: in 1913 there were a million cylinder players in use in the United States of America. 


What would the soundtrack to Christmas in England have been like one hundred years ago?

It’s December 1913. You step into a shop to buy something for Christmas, something that everyone will enjoy. You’d like to fill your home with the wonder of recorded music.

In August 1913 the magazine The Phono Record reported that war has been declared. The record industry is booming and there are a number of record labels competing for your business: Besttone, Dacapo, Empire, Exo, Mignon, National, Odeon, Pathé, Zonophone and Columbia to name just a few. The gramophone is in fashion, and everyone is telling you that discs are the future, but your mind is made up: you’re buying an Edison cylinder phonograph to play the new Blue Amberols. 

Your neighbour upgraded for the similarly named, four minute wax Amberol series about a year ago, but you didn’t fancy those at the time. Even though he says they are the ultimate in cylinder technology, you think they sacrifice sound quality for more playing time; they seem too quiet, wear out quickly and are so incredibly brittle that they often self-destruct while playing. You’re glad you waited patiently for the next format, where wax is swapped for celluloid - he’ll have to re-buy the same releases on Blue Amberol if he wants to get top sound quality. 


Listen to the The Singer Was Irish by Peter Dawson, first issued on Black Amberol in November 1910, but recently digitised from a Blue Amberol at the British Library.

The Singer Was Irish (1CYL0001641)

Blue Amberols, even in a hundred years time, will be recognised as having been at the pinnacle of cylinder technology. The old Edison standards (two-minute black wax cylinders) which are still available, are noisy and play for only a little over two minutes. Hear for yourself:

A Christmas Ghost Story (1CYL0002319)

These new ones play for an unbelievable four minutes! Each one is dyed a brilliant blue to lower the surface noise and can be played 3,000 times – they’re "virtually indestructible". In the loudness wars, they win too.

In the shop the assistant has been reading his Edison Phonograph Monthly and is armed with the tactics to relieve you of the £9.9s.0d you’ve saved up. You’ve chosen a nice new Amberola VIII  in golden oak which has an internal horn, as do all modern Edison phonographs.  Now you just have to choose the cylinder records. The blue cylindrical cartons with Thomas Edison’s face all look the same and each one has a tiny stamp on it – the copyright act came into effect last year.  

Edison believes sound quality rather than artist's fame should be the key to selling records, so they don’t feature heavily on the packaging. There is a mere mention on the lid and a category - ‘Christmas song’ or 'Bell solo' - however, on the record slip inside the carton, there is much written about composers and an "if you liked this then you’ll like that" recommendation.

The Waltzing Doll (liner notes)

Waltzing Doll (1CYL0000039)

The assistant allows you to try out some of the records available on the lists before you make your purchase. The current catalogue is made up of sentimental American releases and instrumental ‘solos’ – bells, whistling and other instruments with an orchestral backing. These are for the most part recorded at Edison’s studio in New Jersey, but there’s also a small selection of English special releases - about fifteen on each month’s list.  Speeches and extracts from books, and even a ‘School’ series with titles such as ‘Ten problems in measurements’ are also available. 

Choose carefully - within the year war will be declared, and the list will be taken over by patriotic songs and forget-there’s-a-war-on specials.  In October 1914 war-time legislation will impose a tax of 33.3% on both cylinder players and records and by 21 March 1916 you won’t be able to buy any of the latest New Jersey-made records due to the import ban on cylinder players and records.


Here’s a selection of releases that were available in December 1913:

From the English list -

Christmas At Sea (1CYL0001641)

Blue Amberol 23150 Christmas at Sea, National Military Band. Recorded in London; available only on Blue Amberol.

Sweet Christmas Bells (1CYL0001648)

Blue Amberol 23143 Sweet Christmas Bells (Shattuck), Ernest Pike and Peter Dawson. Originally released on (wax) Amberol 12100; recorded in London, December 1909.

Why Don't Santa Claus Bring Something To Me? (1CYL0002080)

Blue Amberol 23146 Why Don’t Santa Claus Bring Something To Me? (Williams / Godfrey), Billy Williams. Originally released on (wax) Amberol 12499; recorded in London, October 1912.

Scrooge's Awakening (1CYL0001205)

Blue Amberol 23139 Scrooge’s Awakening (Dickens – A Christmas Carol), Bransby Williams and Edison Carol Singers. Originally released on (wax) Amberol 12378; recorded in London, December 1911.

From the American list -

When I Get You Alone Tonight (1CYL0001245)

Blue Amberol 1602 When I Get You Alone Tonight (McCarthy /Goodwin / Fisher), Billy Murray. Recorded in New York, October 1912.

Jere Sandford's Whistling and Yodeling Special (1CYL0001259)

Blue Amberol 1988 Jere Sanford’s Whistling and Yodeling Special. Originally released (wax) Amberol 523; recorded in New York, October 1910.

Dixie Medley (1CYL0000366)

Blue Amberol 1532 Dixie Medley, Fred Van Eps. Originally released on (wax) Amberol 4M 804; recorded in New York, October 1911.

Blue Amberol cylinders are one of the many audio formats digitised at the British Library Centre for Conservation. This is done through a one-of-a-kind electrical cylinder player (similar to a record player) but in 1913 they would have been played back on a wind-up phonograph. Phonographs acoustically amplify, through a horn, vibrations caused in a diaphragm made by the movement of a stylus through a groove. The records played on them were recorded in the same way: microphones did not come into use in recording studios until the 1920's.

You can listen to more wax cylinders in British Library Reading Rooms by browsing the the Sound and Moving Image Catalogue between call numbers 1CYL0000001 and 1CYL0003000. The British Library's collection of ethnographic wax cylinders is available to listeners online.

Written by sound engineer Eve Anderson who is currently digitising wax cylinders at the British Library.

16 December 2013

After the Rain

Sebastiane Hegarty is an artist, writer and lecturer. With a background in sculpture, he has worked in various media from sound, installation and film to drawing and performance. His current practice is focused upon sound through field-recording and composition, and explores the relationship between time, place and memory. Recent works include Its Just Where I Put My Words, a personal audio reverie on voice and remembering, broadcast on BBC Radio 3’s Between Your Ears (2013) and Rain Choir (2013) a sound installation commissioned for the crypt of Winchester Cathedral. Other works have been published by Gruenrekorder and Very Quiet Records.

There is something intimately familiar and strangely nostalgic about the sound of rainfall. I can remember the hypnotic snap, crackle and pop of raindrops falling on the nylon roof of my childhood Parka.  The rain outside served only to amplify the dryness and warmth available inside my coat's synthetic skin. The lambswool muffle of the hood distanced me from my surroundings and focused my attention upon myself and my solitude: you are always alone inside a Parka. Pressed gently against my ears, the static noise of rainfall was reminiscent of radio interference and I imagined that I could hear voices inside the crackle and shush of my water resistant receiver.

Like my sonic memories, the sound of rainfall is often heard (and recorded) from positions of shelter; the listener is to some extent isolated or removed from the immediate site and damp result of precipitation. In the sound archive of the British Library we can hear the solitude of rain from under an umbrella, beneath the corrugation of a tin roof, behind a windowpane and from inside the canvas accommodation of a tent.

Rainfall on umbrella (Richard Beard - British Library Sounds)

Rainfall on corrugated tin roof (Jez riley French - British Library Sounds)

Rain on window, interior (Richard Beard - British Library Sounds)

Rain falling on tent (Simon Elliott - British Library Sounds)

This dislocation, though slight, places us at a distance. In the rain outside we can hear ourselves not being there, we can listen to our own absence. Perhaps this distance is one of the reasons why the sound of rainfall is so meditative, why it elicits a drift away into remembering and introspection. In the attic of rains white noise, we find fragments of voice we have forgotten, the past and present may associate in the apparitions of memory and imagination. For the theologian, John M. Hull, who lost his sight in his late forties, the rain ‘whispers like my mothers voice, singing hymns and melodies’, he is ‘surrounded (my emphasis) by everything I had been and was' [1]. In the information drizzle of static and hiss, our brain yearns for consequence and detail, so we hear not only ghosts and memories of voice, but also patterns of sound.

Drip drop, drip drap drep drop. So it goes on, this watery melody, forever without an end. Inconclusive, inconsequent, formless, it is always on the point of deviating into sense and form [...] The music of the drops is […] infinitely close to significance, but never touching it. [2]


Drain Drum - Field recording for Rain Choir (3'09")

In the percussive disarray of raindrops, we hear rhythms form, evaporate and repeat. Our ear, or rather our brain, organises the drip and the drop into shapes and melodies, returning form and significance to the inconsequential. Perhaps it may be said that when we listen to rainfall we hear the process of audition itself; we listen to ourselves listening.  The distinction between the rain and ourselves might therefore be considered discrete: we are amongst the rain we are listening to, not physically, but sensuously, imaginatively and mnemonically.  In his diary of blindness, On Sight and Insight, John Hull equates the sound of rainfall to his own experience of bodily presence. He apprehends his body image as ‘arrangements of sensitivities’, in the same that rains complex ‘body’ appears, dynamically arranged by the site and moment of precipitation.

I am aware of my body just as I am aware of the rain […] The patterns of water envelop me in myriads of spots of awareness, and my own body is presented to me in the same way […] There is a central area, of which I am barely conscious, and which seems to come and go. At the extremities sensations fade into unconsciousness. My body and the rain intermingle. [3]

Abbey Drain - Field recording for Rain Choir (2'03")

The pitter, patter and splash of rainfall perform a concert of ever changing pitch, tempo, rhythm, and texture. The rain is not only described by the space and things it falls upon, it also describes those things and the place they constitute. Rain creates a dynamic ‘continuity of acoustic experience’, which for Hull ‘throws a coloured blanket over previously invisible things' [4]. Listening to the rain from the doorway of his home, Hull can hear the spatiality of the landscape: place comes into view. Under the cover of rains damp pall, he finds a visual sense of perspective, ‘a scene' [5], where the constituents of place exist in relation to each other.

The acoustic world is temporal in nature; sounds (and place) come and go, whilst the visible world appears uninterrupted and concrete. But in the continuity of rain we hear ‘the fullness of an entire situation all at once' [6]. And we are just another drop in this soundscape, the boundaries between the listener and the listened to, are emergent and permeable. To paraphrase John Hull: as we listen to the rain, we are the image of the rain, and we are one with it.


Audio works from Sebastiane Hegarty including ˈtʃɔːk : eight studies of hearing loss (British Library call number 1SS0009050) are archived at the British Library. For more recordings of rain, please visit the Weather collection on British Library Sounds.

[Image and additional audio courtesy of Sebastiane Hegarty]

Audio works from
Audio works from
Audio works from


[1] John M. Hull, On Sight and Insight, (Oxford: One World, 1997).

[2] Aldous Huxley,  ‘Water Music’ (1920), in On The Margin (London: Chattus and Windus, 1948), 39-44

[3] Hull, Op. cit

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

06 December 2013

Rescuing the Rivonia Trial recordings

A recording of Nelson Mandela’s remarkable speech delivered during the notorious Rivonia Trial of 1963-4, frequently quoted since his death last night at the age of 95, was heard for the first time in 2001 thanks to the British Library.

Speaking from the dock on 20 April 1964 during the Trial in Pretoria’s Palace of Justice, Mandela gave a spellbinding three-hour speech in his defence. Mandela (‘Accused Number One’) was charged with acts of sabotage designed to ‘foment violent revolution’.

His defiant closing words -

“the ideal of a free and democratic society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities…is an ideal for which I am prepared to die”

were widely reported in print and sent shockwaves around the world, leading to worldwide condemnation of South Africa’s racial policies. Mandela escaped the death penalty, but began a life sentence at Robben Island prison in June 1964. He was not released until 11 February 1990.

In 2000, during a visit to South Africa, a chance conversation between the British Library’s Oral History Curator Rob Perks and colleagues at the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) and the National Archives of South Africa revealed that rare ‘Dictabelt’ recordings of the trial existed, but that no means had been found to replay or transfer the sound. Knowing that the British Library’s Sound Archive still owned one of the rare recorders, Rob offered to make the transfers.

Trial transcript(Belts1-7)

Loaned to the British Library, these dictabelt recordings are
preserved in the National Archives of South Africa

Seven of the blue Dictabelts were loaned to the British Library and later returned to the custodianship of the National Archives of South Africa who retain all copyright in them. Discovering that the belts had been recorded at lower than normal speed in order to extend the recording time, Sound Archive audio engineers Peter Copeland and Adrian Tuddenham modified the Sound Archive’s Dictabelt machine to allow correct playback speed, which could be determined from low level mains hum, inadvertently recorded onto the belts at the time. By replaying the hum at the correct pitch it follows that the recording itself was replayed at the correct pitch. They also found they had to apply heat to the belts to smooth out the creases and allow playback with minimal groove-jumping.

Trial transcript(Belt 1) 

The sound was then passed to Sound Archive engineer Nigel Bewley, who corrected the frequency response, carefully edited the sound to repair the groove-jumps and the reduced the surface noise using CEDAR (Computer Enhanced Audio Restoration). The resultant audio quality is remarkably clear considering the recording technology used, allowing Mandela’s speech to be heard again for the first time since the Trial.

The Rivonia Trial of 1963-4, one of the most important political trials of the twentieth century, marked a turning point in South Africa’s history and the struggle against apartheid. Attracting huge international attention at the time, ‘Rivonia’ led to the world-wide condemnation of South Africa’s racial policies.

On 9 October 1963 at the Palace of Justice in Pretoria, Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Dennis Goldberg, Govan Mbeki, Ahmed Kathrada, Lionel Bernstein, Raymond Mhlaba, James Kantor, Andrew Mlangeni and Elias Motsoaledi - leading members of the African National Congress (ANC) - were charged under the General Law Amendment (Sabotage) Act and the Suppression of Communism Act with acts of sabotage designed to foment ‘violent revolution’ and overthrow the state. Named ‘Rivonia’ after the Johannesburg suburb where sixteen ANC leaders had been arrested in July 1963, the full trial began on 3 December 1963 and culminated on 12 June 1964 in life sentences for eight of the accused. Nelson Mandela was the last to be released on 11 February 1990 after 27 years in jail.

Rob Perks, Lead Curator of Oral History


Listen to audio clips recovered from the 1964 dictabelts

Audio extracts from NSA C985, transferred by the British Library from the Dictabelt originals loaned by The National Archives of South Africa and © The National Archives of South Africa.

20 April 1964, Nelson Mandela.

01 Defence Council, Bram Fischer; end of opening remarks; Prosecutor Percy Yutar; Justice De Wet; Nelson Mandel, beginning of his statement from the dock

 02 Nelson Mandela; the ANC and guerrilla warfare

 03 Nelson Mandela; communism; African poverty

 04 Nelson Mandela; the effects of white supremacy

 05 Nelson Mandela; closing remarks _ it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die_


03 December 2013

The nuclear secrets of a Farnborough Morris dancer

Thomas Lean, Oral History of British Science project interviewer (Made in Britain strand) writes:

In the 1950s Britain was building a nuclear arsenal to bolster the country's position as a great power and deter the Soviet Union. At secretive sites across the UK, boffins toiled away developing nuclear weapon systems; giant rockets were tested in the Australian outback and on the Isle of Wight; in the remote Pacific, British scientists detonated a series of nuclear devices as they unravelled the secrets of the hydrogen bomb; and in a small town near Farnborough, a young rocket scientist named Roy Dommett had a tricky conversation with his wife Marguerite: 

[Roy] came home one day and he said, ‘We’ve got to have a talk.’  And he said, ‘I’m working on something that I think is very important, but I can’t talk to you about it.’  He said, ‘But it might help the world in the future, what do you want me to do?’ Listen to this extract on Voices of Science

Roy Dommett at Farnborough Air Services Trust with the Chevaline missile bus, 2012

What Roy couldn't talk about was his work on Britain's nuclear deterrent as part of the guided weapons group at the Royal Aircraft Establishment, Farnborough. The work was so secret his wife knew little of it until he was awarded a CBE in 1991 for a life's work supporting Britain's nuclear deterrent, including the cancelled Blue Streak ballistic missile and the Chevaline upgrade to Polaris. In his interview for An Oral History of British Science, Roy gives us a fascinating insight into the hidden world of the Cold War rocket scientist, and his unique solution to the stress and secrecy of the work – a lively interest in Morris Dancing:

My job was sitting in an office with one other person, and I could go day after day without talking to no more than one person at a time.  You know, I needed an activity where I actually met people, got out and did things with people. Watch Roy Dommett talking about the problems of combining morris dancing with missile science

Roy Dommett, middle left, with fellow Morris dancers in Abingdon, early 1970s

The day job was challenging; developing complex systems to survive the incredible pressures and temperatures of being blasted into space, before hurtling down over the Soviet Union at many times the speed of sound, where they would have to fool Soviet defence systems around Moscow. All to deliver a nuclear payload if the worst happened. While their ultimate purpose may have been terrible nuclear devastation, such systems were intended to deter aggression and make nuclear war less likely, as Roy recalls in this clip it was a paradox not lost on the designers.

Roy Dommett is amongst a hundred engineers and scientists to feature on Voices of Science, the British Library's new history of science web resource, based on a thousand hours of interviews collected as part of An Oral History of British Science.