(Open Culture) In an 1878 North American Review description of his new invention, the phonograph, which transcribed sound on wax-covered metal cylinders, Thomas Edison suggested a number of possible uses: “Letter writing and all kinds of dictation without the aid of a stenographer,” “Phonographic books” for the blind, “the teaching of elocution,” and, of course, “Reproduction of music.” He did not, visionary though he was, conceive of one extraordinary use to which wax cylinders might be put—the recovery or reconstruction of extinct and endangered indigenous languages and cultures in California.

And yet, 140 years after Edison’s invention, this may be the most culturally significant use of the wax cylinder to date. “Among the thousands of wax cylinders” at UC Berkeley’s Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology, writes Hyperallergic’s Allison Meier, “are songs and spoken-word recordings in 78 indigenous languages of California. Some of these languages, recorded between 1900 and 1938, no longer have living speakers.”

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