The moment heralded an enormous change, a miraculous event; ensnaring echoes of voices no longer there. This device proved that we could literally rob history of its sanctity. Other technologies, such as writing, photography and other visual arts could also restore the past and remove the clouded veil from memory’s eyes, but none of them could capture the sound of the memory. And while the telegraph, the telephone, and soon radio would bring distant voices closer together, they were not restoring the past; they were speeding up the “currentness” of the present. The phonograph instead slowed the departure of time by preserving the sounds of the past for the present—hence the term “recording,” recording the past for the future in perpetuity.
The world would never be the same again. Instead of performing a famous work on a musical instrument in order to hear it again, you could listen to a recording of the first time it was ever played. Instead of just anybody performing an old popular song in the present, a specific recording from days past became the version of record (so to speak!).
This is not to say that recording technology was miraculous for everyone in its early days. American composer John Philip Sousa spoke to Congress in 1906, saying:
These talking machines are going to ruin the artistic development of music in this country. When I was a boy...in front of every house in the summer evenings, you would find young people together singing the songs of the day or old songs. Today you hear these infernal machines going night and day. We will not have a vocal cord left. The vocal cord will be eliminated by a process of evolution, as was the tail of man when he came from the ape.
And yet he too took advantage of the new medium. Many cylinders still exist today of Sousa conducting his marches.
Arguably many of the earliest cylinders that still exist today are of such low quality as to be of little use. But many early records can be used today as surely as they could before, provided they and their playback instruments have been properly maintained.
However, we have found new methods of recording and replaying sound. We have made improvements with better fidelity that are more sturdy and more efficient, and this is proven by comparing cylinders not only to the latest digital technologies – the Compact Disc and the iPod – but even to the cylinder's immediate descendants – the flat circular 78 RPM phonograph, the 45 and the 33 1/3 Long Playing phonograph. Such technologies are not any different in their basic purpose, but they have improved the design of the mediation by which sounds originating in other environments are brought to our ears.
Oddly enough, in recent years, sound no longer needs to have originated anywhere else. It can be created digitally and silently, sent through cables in binary form into electronic storage, pressed to a disc, and sent to you to play, having never actually passed through the air as a sound wave until you play it for the first time. Think about that – we can record sounds that aren’t even sounds!
Today, it is so easy to take recordings for granted. They are so ubiquitous in our culture that no longer do we really observe the miracle they provide. They are all however descendants of the early Edison invention. In my opinion, when listening to recorded sound, you are indeed listening to an audible Wonder of the Modern World