Bendigo recording one of Australia's oldest

TRANSCRIPT: Click here to read of transcript of Mr Randall's speech

A 110-year-old piece of audio from a Bendigo Sunday school is one of Australia's earliest surviving sound recordings.

Recorded on a device known as a brown wax cylinder, the 1904-05 recording was donated to the National Film and Sound Archive in 2012 by Queensland woman Dorothy Tietze, who had family originating in Bendigo.

Thanks to NFSA sound curator Tamara Osicka, the history of the recording is now known and preserved in digital form, available for the public to hear for the first time.

The two-minute recording is of Albert Henry Randall, secretary of the Quarry Hill Methodist Sunday School, announcing the results of that year's examination process. 

Ms Osicka, who has worked at NFSA helping preserve audio recordings for about 12 years, said uncovering the wax cylinder's story and its digitisation was an involved two-year process.

"We had sketchy details at the start, but knew it was a home recording from Bendigo," she said.

She said the Bendigo recording was made sometime between March 1904 and December 1905, but no exact date was known. 

"Because it’s so old and was scratched, we didn’t know we would even get a recording," she said.

"It was a wonderful moment realising we were listening to a recording from 110 years ago." 

Ms Osicka said while use of the cylinders as audio storage devices became widespread in 1890s, not many of these recordings had survived before 1903.

A 1896 recording, the earliest surviving Australian sound recording, is only eight years older than the Bendigo wax cylinder.

Made of beeswax, brown wax cylinders are fragile by nature and preserved recordings rare because the cylinders could only be played a limited number of times, Ms Osicka said. 

"There are over 100 brown wax cylinders in NFSA archives but a lot of these the sound recordings no longer exist, normally good for about 20 listens before wearing out.

"Each time you play a brown wax cylinder the groove holding the audio wears down.

"And because they are made from beeswax the cylinders are tasty to mould, so the mould eats away at the sound recording."

She said the digitisation of the audio meant they could play the audio back again and again.

*The wonderful thing about copying a cylinder and creating a file, is we can actually play with that file and boost the quality of his voice," she said.

Ms Osicka's first research involved hitting the internet and using the National Library of Australia's Trove database to try and find records of people mentioned in the recording.   

Her research also saw Ms Osicka travel to Melbourne and Bendigo to try match up dates and names, initially leading her to believe the Golden Square Methodist Church might have been the setting for the recording.

"Through the help of the church, I worked out the people mentioned in the recording were from a sister church, the Quarry Hill Methodist Church," she said.

"Once I worked it out, everything started to make more sense."

She said some of the names mentioned in the audio recording, as well as Mr Randall himself, were well respected members of the community at the time.

The contents of the audio and its focus on the results of a Sunday school examination indicated that Methodist Sunday school at the time would have been “a serious matter”, Ms Osicka said.

"You would learn about the Bible and be tested on it, like a school exam," she said.

But she said the reason the brown wax cylinder would have been used at this particular event was less clear. 

"We're not sure why they were using it to record this event, it could be they had important guests, that they had a particularly good year, that they recorded all of their events, but we don’t know for sure," she said.

Ms Osicka said the best part of the detective process was finding a photo containing four of the people named in the audio recording.

"The special moment for me was seeing that photo taken five years after the recording," she said,

“Seeing their faces and the clothes they’re wearing crystallised for me how long ago this really was."

To view Ms Osicka's blog for the NFSA about the project, visit www.nfsa.gov.au

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