Thomas Edison to Spotify: 140 Years of Recorded Sound at British Library

PUBLISHED: 14:00 11 October 2017

Wax Cylinders from the British Library collections (c) British Library Board

Wax Cylinders from the British Library collections (c) British Library Board


The British Library is looking back through the archives with a new exhibition tracing the evolution of sound technology and the influence it has had on our lives

Alfred Taylor - 1922 (c) British Library Alfred Taylor - 1922 (c) British Library

The average person in the UK will listen to 13 years’ worth of music over their lifetime, says a study by Audio-Technica.

It would have been hard to imagine for the pioneers of sound recording just how easy it is for us now.

Until March 11 next year, the British Library is looking back to the invention of the phonograph in 1877 with new exhibition 140 Years of Recorded Sound, tracing the evolution of technology and the influence it has had on our lives since then.

The evolution of sound is mapped from ethnography and documenting wildlife to the launch of the BBC in 1922 and proliferation of live broadcasting, winding through pirate radio, dub reggae remixing, the charts and the invention of cassettes, walkmans, CDs, iPods and streaming.

A specially commissioned sound installation by former composer-in-residence Aleks Kolkowski takes inspiration from the 1922 “Wireless Log” of 16 year old Alfred Taylor. Taylor kept written accounts of radio broadcasts, a valuable resource now as many early recordings have been lost. He documented the audio quality as well as his feeling of delight at being able to hear the applause and coughs of the audience at a live broadcast from the Royal Opera House.

Sound booths positioned along the timeline play sounds from the archive from “I am Doctor Brahms” in 1889 to the Swet Shop Boys’ account of airport security in 2016. The 100 tracks document a full spectrum: Christabel Pankhurst speaking about Suffrage for Women on her release from prison in 1908, James Joyce reading Ulysses, the voice of Amelia Earhart, the original Doctor Who theme tune, the mating call of the haddock, LL Cool J, Maya Angelou, Whale song and the EU referendum result.

“Preserving the nation’s sounds is just as important to us as preserving the nation’s words,” says Steve Cleary, lead curator of literary and creative recordings at the British Library, “and we hope to surprise and intrigue visitors to the exhibition with examples of unusual recordings and sound technology over the past 140 years.”

The free exhibition runs until March 11 2018. For full details of the events programme go to


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