Outside the Box... Inside the Cylinder

by Scott Berman

Ask some youngsters when a movie, album or song came out, and they’ll say “it’s old” if it predates 1990 or so. How about 1890?

Rantoul, Illinois resident Shawn Borri can relate. Big time. His passion is to record and play music with technology so old that not only does it predate today's big board consoles and high-tech digital equipment, it also predates MTV, CDs, TV, radio, human flight and 12 U.S. states!

Borri, 35, uses hand-cranked cylinder phonograph technology more than 100 years old. He records musical performances, demonstrates the technology at universities, and has supplied equipment for a big-budget independent motion picture production. Additionally, using today’s versions of ingredients specified by chemists a century ago, Borri manufactures cylinders on which to record. It’s an anachronistic obsession: just a handful of people in the world manufacture cylinders in this way. How did this come about? Let’s rewind to the 1980s.

Something About Edison…
Borri became interested in inventors while growing up in LaMoille, Illinois, north of Peoria in Bureau County. His favorite: Thomas Alva Edison. There was something about Edison’s machines that, to Borri, seemed very neat indeed.

Borri had also started collecting 78-rpm records by the third grade. Then, in 1986, when he was a student at LaMoille’s venerable Allen Junior High School, a janitor discovered in the building’s attic a decrepit 1920 Victrola phonograph, which Borri eagerly restored. He keeps a yellowed clip of a newspaper article about the incident, which included a photo of an 11-year-old Borri. The experience stoked an enduring interest.

This writer visited with Borri recently. He’s a slender, small-framed man, friendly and informal, and talkative about his area of knowledge. He began telling his story after ending a cell phone chat with a fellow hobbyist, Chuck Richards of Waynesville, Illinois, who recently started making cylinders.

Borri has worked in canning at the Del Monte plant in Mendota, Illinois, and is now a direct service provider for disabled people at a facility in Princeton. It’s a long commute from Rantoul, and he’s looking for a home that’s closer. He enjoys his work, but aside from an interest in punk music that Edison wouldn't recognize, Borri's real passion is his phonograph pursuits.

“Some people think it’s a little nuts. I think that at times,” Borri says. He explains that this “occasional hobby” took on a life of its own, largely due to the enthusiasm of hobbyists, who “almost hound me to make them cylinders.”

Built to Last
After getting his start repairing phonographs, Borri was able to acquire a 1901 Edison Triumph Model A cylinder phonograph, which, depending on condition and other factors, can range in value from several hundred dollars to $1,500 or more. The Triumph model is known to hobbyists as an elegant and robust complement to Edison’s Gem, Standard, Home and other phonograph models, which, along with cylinders, were sold to consumers all over the world from the 1890s to the 1920s, when they were conclusively eclipsed by disc phonographs—a.k.a. record players—that, along with audio tape, were essentially the consumer standard until the rise of digital technology in the 1980s.

In 1877, Edison unveiled sound reproduction via a hand-cranked phonograph that recorded on bits of tin foil. It was a sensation, but tin foil was commercially unusable. By the late 1880s, however, Edison’s technicians had come up with a formula for commercially viable cylinders and mechanisms for both recording and listening. Consumers could buy recordings, just like today, and their machines came with stylus attachments to make their own recordings on blank cylinders.

Edison’s cylinder phonographs are hearty, solid and built to last, with heavy gears powered by hand cranks—no need for electricity, aside from some early models. Borri records on his Triumph, as did Edison’s own studios, and the Rantoul man has, among other equipment, an Edison Home phonograph in need of repair—it’s costly and times are tough—as well as a Western Electric Gramophone record player and plenty of cylinders and discs. Tucked away in a corner is a cylinder Ediphone, which was the swan song of the original cylinder market. Businesspeople used this machine for dictation as late as 1960 or so.

Half a century later, Borri is one of many hobbyists around the world that relish, buy and trade these old machines and cylinders. But Borri has taken it further than most. In 2000, after plenty of research and at no cost, he acquired the long-dormant business name of Edison’s long-forgotten North American Phonograph Company. He set up a subsidiary called Edison Phonograph Works and has been working with phonographs ever since.

Future-Proof Sounds
It takes a certain formula to make authentic cylinders for these machines, and Borri figured out how, after inquiring with archivists at the Edison National Historic Site in West Orange, New Jersey, and after much trial and error. He estimates that he’s made about 10,000 cylinders over the years, from an Edison-based formula of aluminum-stearate with steric acid made from palm wax, instead of the rendered animal fat used a century ago—chemicals that he buys from a Boston wax company. He makes and sells roughly 500 to 1,000 blank cylinders annually, for about $16 each. Borri ships them by the dozen in cardboard boxes into which he glues pegs to hold the cylinders. The business, while having slowed down recently due to the recession, just about pays for itself.

There have been plenty of highlights. For example, Borri, working with another hobbyist, recorded work by percussionist and traditional music enthusiast Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead for a 2004 National Geographic project. Among his clients in recent years: numerous hobbyists; the Edison site, which had precise specifications for a cylinder to put on display; and New York-based artist Pablo Helguera, who is building a recording archive of fading and obscure native languages, all on cylinder.

Why would sound archivists want to use cylinders? An occasional Borri collaborator, Mark Rubel of Pogo Studio in Champaign, Illinois, explains that “the less complex the technology, the longer-lasting and more future-proof” it is. Borri has demonstrated the technology to Rubel’s music classes at Millikin University, and students typically ask how such old technology can still work so well.

And “it really does work pretty darn well,” Borri says, while demonstrating recording on a cylinder he made. He launches into an imitation of vaudeville monologist Cal Stewart (1856-1919) as the cornpone character Uncle Josh Weathersby, shouting a memorized historic routine into an enormous horn and playing it back. The sound was tinny but quite clear. Then, he loads a century-old cylinder of Stewart doing the same routine. Two things were apparent: Borri is a spot-on mimic of Stewart, and the old recording seemed less distant, so to speak, because it was so much like the one just about a minute old. A listener could picture Stewart, a friend of both Mark Twain and Will Rogers, standing in a studio and doing his thing.

Passion Unabated
And for the moment, Borri continues doing his thing. Filmgoers may soon be able to glimpse his Triumph and cylinders in that aforementioned motion picture. Called Bolden!, it’s a dramatization of the story of ragtime pioneer Buddy Bolden (1877-1931). The film, with Anthony Mackie in the title role, was financed, written and directed by musician Daniel Pritzker, an heir to the Pritzker family fortune.

Borri was retained by the film’s prop master, Phil Schneider, to supply a phonograph—his trusty Triumph, of course—and cylinders, and traveled to the film’s North Carolina shooting location twice since 2007. What’s it like working with Borri? “Absolutely positive,” reports Schneider. “He was fantastic…has a vast knowledge…and operated professionally.” If Borri comes across as a little eccentric or quirky, so what? Says Schneider, “I need people who are passionate about what they do.”

So with the film’s slated release, 2011 is bound to be an exciting time for the Rantoul resident. Yet sadly, Borri says that expenses may soon drive him out of the cylinder business, an eventuality that Schneider laments, because “he’s keeping an old mechanical art form alive.”

That being said, what’s next for Borri? His goals include recording a symphony orchestra live on cylinder, something that, he says, has never quite been perfected; manufacturing disc records the way Edison’s company used to do; and just staying in the business of phonographs. However that turns out, Borri’s passion for this special field shows no signs of abating—nor does his sense of wonder seem any less keen than it was back at Allen Junior High. a&s

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