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Thursday, May 16 • 2:30pm - 3:00pm
(Imaging Tools/Techniques/& Tactics) Collaborating to Conserve Sound and Substrate of Rare Phonograph Cylinders from the Edison Laboratory

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In 2012, an inconspicuous wooden box stamped “W. J. Hammer” was opened in a storage room at the National Museum of American History (NMAH). Inside were 26 wax cylinder records, 14 of which were in two or more pieces, accompanied by a note reading, “Violin played on the Eiffel Tower, Nov. 6, 1889.” The box’s owner, William J. Hammer, was Thomas Edison’s agent at the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris, which showcased two modern technological marvels: The Eiffel Tower and Edison’s phonograph, the first piece of equipment capable of recording and reproducing sound. Due to their potential significance, the 26 cylinders were earmarked for sound recovery at the Library of Congress (LOC) via IRENE-3D, a technology developed by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL), which generates audio files from high-resolution topographical images of groove structures. Intact cylinders must be set into two plugs or fragments can alternatively be pieced together temporarily onto a 3D-printed suction mandrel for scanning. In the latter case, however, transporting and scanning fragile fragments posed a potential risk to their material integrity. On the other hand, it was uncertain if repairing before scanning could negatively impact sound recovery, either by increasing scan time or obscuring audio. Collaborative discussions between NMAH Objects Conservation and LOC Audio Preservation resulted in a repair approach that adhered to ideal conservation standards while meeting the needs of the sound recovery process. Repair challenges related to the material itself were that the wax mixture used by the Edison laboratory at that time was still experimental, and these cylinders exhibit sensitivity to most solvents, outer surfaces containing audio information and could not be touched or weighted down, break edges of fragments were often dull, and adhesive squeeze-out had to be avoided. For the scanning process to be successful, grooves needed to be realigned and the height differential of break edges need to fall within about 200 microns to prevent the confocal scanning probe from going out of focus.   Tests with mockup materials were performed to identify an adhesive that was water-deliverable and water-reversible, and which would also withstand both travel and scanning. An ethylhydroxyethylcellulose, Ethulose 400, was chosen, applied to fragments which were then clamped using the combination of a suction mandrel and kneaded erasers. Evaluation of the repairs were done using IRENE’s technology. The confocal scanning probe was used to first measure height differentials across repairs. Next, topographical imaging was performed to evaluate the quality of the audio across the repaired edges. Initial results suggested that the cylinders could indeed be repaired in a manner that was reversible but strong, within the constraints of the scanning technology, which minimizes handling of fragile fragments. This presentation seeks to emphasize the fruitfulness of cross-collaboration between disciplines of conservation, audio preservation, and physics. Actively seeking out, adapting, and re-imagining technologies in disciplines outside of the conservation world can be challenging, but this process of translation and information-sharing can yield results far beyond what might have initially been envisioned, allowing the recovery of voices from the past.

avatar for Mary Wilcop

Mary Wilcop

Fellow in Objects Conservation, Yale University Art Gallery
Mary Wilcop is the Fellow in Objects Conservation at the Yale University Art Gallery. She was previously a third-year graduate intern in Objects Conservation at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. Mary received her M.A./C.A.S. in Art Conservation... Read More →

avatar for Earl Cornell

Earl Cornell

Senior Software Developer Beamline Controls, Engingeering, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
avatar for Peter Alyea

Peter Alyea

Digital Conservation Specialist, Library of Congress

Thursday May 16, 2019 2:30pm - 3:00pm EDT
Earth Ballroom A Earth Convention Center, Mohegan Sun
  General Session, Imaging Tools/Techniques/& Tactics
  • Ticketed Included in Main Registration
  • Authors in Publication Order Peter Alyea,Earl Cornell
  • Abstract ID 19038
  • Tags phonograph cylinder,IRENE,Thomas Edison,ethulose,ethylhydroxyethylcellulose,National Museum of American History