This week I learnt about a mystery object in the museum’s collections – the mystery is not what the object is, but what the object contains.
What you can see is a wax coated cardboard tube, similar in size to a loo roll, with three bands in the surface of the wax. The tube was used with a graphophone, a device invented in the 1880s which recorded sound in a similar way to a vinyl record.
The Museum acquired the cylinder in 1929, but without any way of playing it. The donor, a descendant of Samuel Morse, suggested that the cylinder had been used with a graphophone that was demonstrated to Queen Victoria in 1878, although he gave no clues as to what was recorded on the cylinder.
Research half a century later by technical writer Paul Tritton uncovered a letter that the Queen’s Private Secretary had written home to his wife in August 1888 about a machine that could reproduce sounds as often as you liked,
” Edwards whistled and I laughed – my ‘coachman’s laugh.’ “
He also wrote that
“H. M. [Her Majesty] spoke into it – but we told Mr Morse he must not go round the country reproducing the Queen’s words.”
These revelations spurred the museum to try and play the cylinder – with no idea what might be on it. With the help of the National Sound Archive, now the British Library Sound Archive, the cylinder was played for the first time in decades.
The three marked bands you can see on the cylinder are three separate recordings. The first recording was a man speaking and then whistling.
One of the other recordings is unfortunately so damaged that it is impossible to make out any words. However, the second recording is about 20 seconds long, and although poor quality a few snatches can be heard of a well-spoken lady saying, “Greetings… the answer must be… I have never forgotten.” Could this be the voice of Queen Victoria? With only circumstantial evidence to guide us we can’t say for sure, and perhaps we will never know.
Listen here and make your own mind up.
To find out more listen to Punt, P. I. on BBC Radio 4, 2nd October at 10.30am for an interview by Steve Punt with John Liffen, Curator of Communication.