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

What is a Wax Cylinder?

This diagram explains what a wax cylinder is. Typically, a cylinder is 4-6 inches (~10cm) tall and 2 inches(~4cm) in diameter. It is covered in a malleable wax that holds its shape but can be cut away or otherwise deformed by pressure. During recording a cutting stylus would cut a groove that winds around the exterior of the cylinder. The grooves are spaced with 100-200 grooves per inch and are around 20 μm deep. A μm, (pronounced micron) is one millionth of a meter. For reference, a human hair is typically around 50-100 μm thick. The cutter would bob up and down as it cut the groove with its speed dictated by the volume of the sound it was recording. The up and down motion of the cutter causes the groove to change in depth by 5-20 μm.
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diagram and method