From the vantage point of modern media technology, the Ediphone may look like a bit of a dinosaur, but in the history of Gaelic ethnographic audio recording it holds pride of place. A large part of the Coimisiún Béaloideasa Éireann/Irish Folklore Commission’s vast collection of oral narrative, poetry and song, as well as a significant portion of the Sgoil Eòlais na h-Alba/School of Scottish Studies’ archives, were recorded with the help of this unwieldy but effective instrument. Thanks to the Ediphone, songs and narratives that were too long and too fast-paced for dictation could be recorded at natural speed.
The Ediphone was essentially a dictation device for everyday office use and was widely used commercially from around 1910 well into the 1940s. Sound was recorded on wax cylinders which could accommodate no more than ten minutes of speech – sufficient for a long business letter – to be transcribed later on by a typist. Cylinders were designed to be reused, a special machine for shaving the cylinders being sold for the purpose.
A grant from the Rockefeller Foundation enabled Séamus Ó Duilearga (who was to direct the Irish Folklore Commission for 35 years) to purchase an Ediphone as early as 1930, and during its hey-day, each of the Commission’s full-time collectors was equipped with his own Ediphone. It was cumbersome, weighing in at 20 kilos or more; the sound quality at best was not great, and the need to change the cylinders every ten minutes interrupted the flow of narration. Nevertheless, the Ediphone proved to be effective, not least because “the machine” could be relied upon to cause a stir and often acted as an icebreaker. Collectors became expert in handling the machine; in October 1938, Liam Costello recorded ‘Eochair, a King’s Son in Ireland’ from Éamon a Búrc, the longest oral tale recorded in Ireland, on over two dozen cylinders; the tale runs to c. 30,000 words (67 pages of printed text in Kevin O’Nolan’s edition). One of the Commission’s most talented collectors was a Scot, Calum Iain Maclean from Raasay; in 1946 Ó Duilearga decided to send Maclean, equipped with an Ediphone, to do fieldwork in Scotland. The material which Maclean recorded on the payroll of the Commission spans over 10000 manuscript pages, much of it originally recorded on the Ediphone. In 1949 Maclean recorded a story from Angus MacMillan which was almost twice as long as Éamon a Búrc’s tale (58,000 words; for more on Maclean, see http://calumimaclean.blogspot.co.uk and http://www.calum-maclean-project.celtscot.ed.ac.uk).
By the 1950s, the Ediphone’s day was over, and the Commission switched to using other technologies – acetate disc, wire recording, and reel-to-reel tape – which afforded better sound quality and accommodated longer uninterrupted recording, and made permanent storage of the sound recordings feasible. Hundreds of the cylinders used by the Commission’s collectors are preserved in the National Folklore Collection and have recently been digitised; you can listen to some of the intriguing, if crackly, voices from the past on the Béal Beo website (http://www.bealbeo.ie). The surviving recordings represent only a tiny fraction of the material recorded on Ediphone, which for the most part was transcribed and erased to make room for new recordings. The material which the Ediphone helped preserve – albeit in manuscript – makes up a very substantial portion of the folklore collected in Scotland and Ireland. We owe a huge debt of gratitude to Edison’s cumbersome utilitarian invention.
Dr Barbara Hillers is Lecturer in Irish Folklore in the School of Irish, Celtic Studies and Folklore at University College Dublin.