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The Story of the Manufacture of Wax Cylinder Blanks - Part 2

The 'seventies were exciting years, with so many things opening up to me. By the end of 1975 I had met Ernie Bayly, editor and producer of “The Talking Machine Review International” and kindly man that he was, he had given me the names and addresses of people he knew who had made wax phonograph cylinders. These were: Edward Murray-Harvey, Paul Webb (of Canada) and Peter Curry, who was now living in Guernsey. All of them replied, but the letter I got from Peter Curry was a veritable treaties on how to make wax cylinders and I think what impressed me most about his letter was the fact that it contained chemical formulae and equations. He had unwittingly linked the two passions of my life at that time-Chemistry and Phonographs and I knew that before long, I had to meet him-even if Guernsey seemed like being on another planet.

Looking back at Peter Curry's letter, the key points were how to make the sodium, aluminium and if required lead salts of stearic acid. Stearic acid is found in beef fat, along with palmitic acid, and the two are often used to make high quality church candles, and “wax” crayons. He had found a source of this material, and had bought a 25kg sack. He offered to send me some in a biscuit tin, and I well remember the description on the customs form when it arrived “stearic acid- waxy non corrosive” I wonder what the postman thought!

He went on to say that the phonograph mass (to give it its proper name) was really a mixture of the sodium and aluminium salts of stearic acid, excess free acid and some soft wax or tempering. The sodium stearate was easy to make-you just added caustic soda solution (or “lye”) to the molten stearic acid, at about 160 degrees Centigrade, but the aluminium salt was formed by dissolving this metal in another portion of the caustic soda and adding it in the same way. After all action ceased, the tempering was added, and the molten mass filtered through cotton gauze. He correctly admonished me about the dangers of the chemicals and temperatures involved. He had, he said evolved two rules of making phonograph mass, and I quote them here:

   Rule 1. Never leave the molten mass unattended

   Rule 2. Never break rule 1.

I had to laugh, and I wondered just what sort of person would be waiting for me in Guernsey if I ever decided to make the trip.

The summer of 1976 was one of the hottest on record. This was, of course before global warming, so we just accepted it as a bonus, and set about enjoying the good weather. I had just taken my O-levels under very hot and sticky conditions, and remember on one occasion getting through several sheets of blotting paper (what ever happened to that?) to mop my brow. I signed off the exam answer with “It is very hot in here” and I wonder if the examiner ever considered my plight and awarded me more marks! With the last exam over, it seemed an excellent time to travel, and a trip to Guernsey was duly planned.

I had never travelled on my own before, and as I waved goodbye to my father at Bournemouth Central Station, bound for the Ferry at Weymouth, I wondered if I was about to make one of the biggest mistakes of my life. After all, I didn't exactly know the person I was going to be visiting for a week, and Guernsey was then in a state of emergency, having had water rationing for several weeks. I was advised to have a bath before I came! Supposing we did not get on, or what if he only had a few hours' free time, what would I do for a week on my own? Many other worries assailed me but the train was moving, and a train of events was also set in motion.

There was no going back. In those days, at Weymouth, part of the train became a “boat train” and a railwayman would open a large gate, and the train went down the high street and on to the docks. It was quite strange to be going down a road with houses and shops in a railway carriage-albeit at about 2 miles per hour. I boarded the ferry, feeling very anxious, and sat back to try to enjoy my crossing. I have never met so many people called “Rabey” and “Le Mesurier” and found out afterwards that these were common names in Guernsey.

The crossing was very enjoyable, the English Channel being like a mill pond on that day in August, and the hours went past quite quickly. I remember the constant announcements about the services the ship was offering particularly those that began “and for your drinks........” and “would Mr and Mrs Rabey please come to the purser's office......” and on we sailed. Peter would meet me at Black Rock Quay. He had sent me a photograph of himself, that he described as “a good likeness” and also would be carrying a copy of the Hilandale News, so that I would recognise him. He had considered carrying a mould for phonograph cylinders, but thought he might get arrested for carrying an offensive weapon.

We had no difficulty in recognising one another. We drove back to the Hotel that Peter, his sister and brother-in-law managed at that time, and to my relief, discovered that there was a piano in the lounge that I could play. That would be a comfort if things turned out badly! We were very shy at first, and I later discovered that Peter was recovering from an illness that did not help him in matters of conversation and relationships. Our interest in records, however, easily surmounted any small difficulties that existed, and we soon became firm friends. We would often play wax cylinders for hours-me operating the machine, and Peter listening and offering the odd comment about how and where he bought the record and suchlike.

My bedroom was in the attic, among the corbelled chimney breasts, slate dust and intense heat; but that was of no consequence. I was in the presence of the one man who could help me with my quest, and the days flew by.

Whilst on Guernsey I bought some wax cylinders in an antique shop, did a turn as a waiter to earn my keep, and of course spent hours talking about making wax cylinders. I was a little disappointed, I must confess, that all of Peter's cylinder making activity was now in the past. He had made his moulds, reamer and shaving machine in the '60s and constant changes of circumstance had made it difficult to set up a work-shop. I felt that he was passing on the mantle to me to carry on, and I suppose I did just that!
All Text and Images © Copyright Paul Morris 2008
All Rights Reserved - No unauthorised use permitted.