And they're growing older. Tussey saved three separate collections after their owners left their homes for assisted-living facilities. But he's not sure who will save his. Or Carell's. Or Stinchcomb's.

"I hear that a lot," says Tim Brooks, a historian of the record industry and current president of the Association for Recorded Sound Collections, a coalition of professional archivists and amateur collectors. "You have to be realistic. The worst thing you can do is leave the collection to your children. Big, general collections are not generally sought after by archives or the Library of Congress. Those places have a lot of the records already. And even if you donate something somewhat rare, the archives will usually want money to pay for the housing."

Carell and Tussey have considered solving the problem by building their own archive. But that costs money, which they don't have. Carell is optimistic that the project will find an angel someday. Tussey's not so sure.

Alan Carell, 67, has been amassing records since he was a boy. Video: Meet the Men Who Own 50 Tons of 78s. Literally.
Jennifer Silverberg
Alan Carell, 67, has been amassing records since he was a boy. Video: Meet the Men Who Own 50 Tons of 78s. Literally.
Bruce Stinchcomb's wax cylinder player. Video: Meet the Men Who Own 50 Tons of 78s. Literally.
Jennifer Silverberg
Bruce Stinchcomb's wax cylinder player. Video: Meet the Men Who Own 50 Tons of 78s. Literally.

"It's a sad thing to spend time and effort and money and not be able to share it with posterity," he says. "The real stuff is in the grooves. There's a lot of lost information in the grooves."

Sam Brylawski, the former head of the Library of Congress recorded-sound section, now an archivist at the University of California Santa Barbara, agrees. He also believes that in time scholars will take more of an interest in old records, at which point Tussey's, Carell's and Stinchcomb's collections will suddenly become important — as will the collectors themselves.

"The real experts on recording artists are collectors," Brylawski says. "There are not a lot of academic courses on recording history. Pop culture was looked down upon. Music was late to be recognized. Collectors keep preservation alive. Thank God for them."

From the beginning — the night in October 1877 when Thomas Edison recorded himself reciting "Mary Had a Little Lamb" on a cylinder covered with tinfoil — phonograph records functioned as time machines.

"The phonograph was Edison's favorite discovery," says Glenn Sage, a self-described preservationist who posts sound files of wax-cylinder recordings (many of which were donated by Stinchcomb) on his website, "It worked the first time. It scared him. It was like a miracle the first time a disembodied voice was ever heard. You could hear dead people, your uncle's dying breath. The idea of hearing something that had already happened — it was more than just a painting or an ancient artifact. It had a humanness to it."

The earliest recordings were powered by the human voice. The sound waves, concentrated by a horn, traveled through a diaphragm to a stylus that etched the sound patterns onto a revolving piece of foil. Then you could move the stylus back to the beginning of the etched groove, start the cylinder spinning again and play back what you just said, just as you said it. (Or backward, or at a different speed, as Edison and his friends discovered the same night they first got the phonograph up and running.)

Gradually, foil evolved into more durable wax cylinders, and the phonograph became the world's first home-recording device. By the turn of the century, people were using phonographs to document their own lives, from a baby's first sneeze to a grandparent's last words. (Tolstoy had one; the author of War and Peace used his phonograph to record messages to his family.)

"You could buy a blank cylinder, put a horn on the machine and then stand around the piano and belt out a song, and you had a homemade record," says Sage. "If you didn't like it, you could shave it down."

Among the home phonographs was the Edison Fireside, a petite model first manufactured in 1908. Bruce Stinchcomb first stumbled across one in the 1940s while on an antiquing expedition with his parents. He was six years old.

"I spotted it," he recalls. "I knew what it was, and I was fascinated. It cost five dollars with a box of cylinders and a horn. It's weird, but when I was a little kid and I spotted that phonograph, it wasn't out. It was in its case. Someone said that maybe in a past life I had something to do with this thing. I don't know. Maybe I just saw a picture."

Stinchcomb still has that little Fireside, and it still works. "If machines aren't played, they don't play well," he says. "I'm like a steward of it."

Naturally, the phonograph companies realized there was money to be made in prerecorded cylinders. Edison was obsessed with collecting the voices of famous figures, but Victor and Columbia decided the phonograph's future lay in music.

The earliest commercial recordings were made one or two or three at a time, with a band or a singer standing before a row of phonographs and belting as loudly as he could. (Usually it was a he; the frequency of a man's voice was better suited to the phonograph than that of a woman.)

"There was no volume control," says Sam Brylawski, the record archivist. "It was up to the artist, coached by the technician. I've heard stories of clutching artists around the waist and yanking them back when they hit high notes. It was very primitive, more trial and error."

« Previous Page
Next Page »