This week’s post is inspired by one of the more fun aspects of digitization work: the unexpected, unique, and strange audio objects that find their way to my desk from time to time. These are usually items that have been located in our catalog via Internet search by patrons, faculty, or library staff. Once the item has been identified as having potential research value and a listening copy is requested, it comes to us for evaluation and digital transfer. More often than not it’s just your typical cassette or VHS tape, but sometimes something special rises to the surface…
The first thing that struck me about this disc from the James Cannon III Papers was the dreamy contrast of complementary colors. An enigmatic azure label sits atop a translucent yellow grooved disc. The yellow has darkened over time in places, almost resembling a finely aged wheel of cheese. Once the initial mesmerization wore off, I began to consider several questions. What materials is it made out of? How can I play it back? What is recorded on it?
A bit of research confirmed my suspicion that this was an “instantaneous disc,” a one-of-a-kind record cut on a lathe in real time as a musical performance or speech is happening. Instantaneous discs are a subset of what are typically known as “lacquers” or “acetates” (the former being the technically correct term used by recording engineers, and the latter referring to the earliest substance they were manufactured with). These discs consist of a hard substrate coated with a material soft enough to cut grooves into, but durable enough to withstand being played back on a turntable. This particular disc seems to be made of a fibre-based material with a waxy coating. The Silvertone label was owned by Sears, who had their own line of discs and recorders. Further research suggested that I could probably safely play the disc a couple of times on a standard record player without damaging it, providing I used light stylus pressure.
Playback revealed (in scratchy lo-fi form) an account of a visit to New York City, which was backed up by adjacent materials in the Cannon collection:
I wasn’t able to play this second disc due to surface damage, but it’s clear from the text that it was recorded in New York and intended as a sort of audio “letter” to Cannon. These two discs illustrate the novelty of recording media in the early 20th Century, and we can imagine the thrill of receiving one of these in the mail and hearing a friend’s voice emerge from the speaker. The instantaneous disc would mostly be replaced by tape-based media by the 1950s and ’60s, but the concept of a “voice message” has persisted to this day.
If you are interested in learning more about instantaneous discs, you may want to look into the history of the Presto Recording Company. They were one of the main producers of discs and players, and there are a number of websites out there documenting the history and including images of original advertisements and labels.