Before humans had real language, they had music. Artifacts dug dating back as far as 40,000 years ago indicate their use as musical instruments. Music has always way of expressing the ineffable, of connecting to the most primal regions of our psyche to communicate joy, love, fear, and a host of other emotions. And for most of human existence it was most ephemeral: the songs, concerts and performances could never be heard again once recited. That all changed with Thomas Edison’s invention of the phonograph.
On this day, June 29, in 1888, at the Crystal Palace in London, Edison’s wax cylinders were used to record 3,016-person choir performing Handel’s “Israel in Egypt.” This was the first field recording, outside of a studio, as well as the first known recording of classical music.
The cylinders were more than 100 yards from the stage, at the press area, and their sound quality left much to be desired. As a proof of concept, however, Edison’s inventions did fulfill his promise of “knocking them out of their boots.” Recordings of three of the cylinders survived to be re-recorded on modern equipment, and can be heard in reproductions to this day.