Project IRENE Using optical scanning to digitize ethnographic field recordings on wax cylinders

Collection History

Field Trips

The origins of the cylinder collection can be traced back to the anthropological field work of Alfred L. Kroeber (1876-1960). As a student of Franz Boas, Kroeber was particularly interested in utilizing language as part of his research. Hired by the newly established University of California Museum of Anthropology in 1901, and funded by patron Phoebe A. Hearst, Kroeber was able to embark on several field trips during his tenure at Berkeley. These trips provided Kroeber with the opportunity to study the diversity of native languages within California; collecting notes, sound, and images in the process.

Cylinders 1900 - 1938

While Kroeber is responsible for the largest contribution to the collection, the collection of 2,746 original cylinders was built from the efforts of more than twenty individuals working in the field from the period 1900 to 1938. A singular aspect of the collection’s content is the emphasis on recording speech in conjunction with song. While the majority of the collection is made up of recorded song, the spoken narratives provide more information about native language than any other contemporary collection.


Ethnographic Map of California Native Peoples, Handbook of the Indians of California, Kroeber, A.L.

Significance of Edison Phonograph

The original technology used to create the cylinders, the Edison phonograph, was first patented in 1877 by Thomas Edison. It became commercially available in 1889, just a decade before Kroeber’s field work began. For anthropological research, the ability to record sound was invaluable. Until that point, everything had to be handwritten. For example, it was only possible to describe a song or performance instead of hearing the actual acoustics. It is important to note, however, that once the phonograph was in use, it was not intended to act as a recording device, but rather as a tool for transcription and sampling.


Advertisement for the Edison New Standard Phonograph, in Harper's, September 1898.


Golla, Victor. California Indian Languages, Berkeley: University of California Press 2011.

Keeling, Richard. A Guide to Early Field Recordings (1900-1949) at the Lowie Museum of Anthropology, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.

Jacknis, Ira. "Alfred Kroeber and the Photographic Representation of California Indians," American Indian Culture and Research Journal, 20:3, 1996, pp.15-32.

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