Otona no Kagaku Kit #36, Edison Wax Recorder

(All rights belong to their owners. Gakken kit cover image used for review purposes only.)

Kit #36, Edison Wax Cylinder Recorder, 3,675 Yen, 92 pages
In a way, kit #36 is special on several levels. Beyond bringing the cylinder recorder concept down into the “normal kit price range” (rather than having it just as the plastic cup premium kit), this is also the 10th Anniversary celebration issue. The first Otona no Kagaku premium kit, the Edison cup recorder, was released in 2000, and Otona no Kagaku kit 1, the Putt Putt Boat, came out in 2003. So, the mook this time has several articles related to all 36 mook supplement kits.

First, some history. Thomas Edison developed the first phonographic machine in 1877, using tinfoil around a cylinder. Later enhancements included switching to a wax cylinder and using a larger speaker cone. Two needle assemblies are needed – a heavier needle fixed to a diaphragm for scoring the recording surface, and a lighter one for playback. As with most of Edison’s designs, recording takes place by shouting into the speaker cone, and the vibrations in the diaphragm cause vertical variations in the depth of the grooves in the surface. Emile Berliner, while working for Alexander Graham Bell developed a new style of gramophone to break Edison’s patent. This new approach was playback-only, using horizontal vibrations of constant depth. The advantages to Berliner’s patent were that records were easier to mass produce and the output sound was louder. Eventually, Edison’s “stenographer tool” was phased out.

The kit has a suggested assembly time of 60 minutes. Including the time taken to try recording with the kit, it took me about 70 minutes, largely because I was trying to be careful in understanding the directions. For the most part, this is a very simple kit. 2 AA batteries power a small 3V DC motor, which causes the candle spindle to rotate while also turning a drive screw to propel the speaker and needle assembly from the left to the right across the candle. The only really tricky part is in understanding how to put together the speaker box. You take the longest bolt and thread the adjustment knob head to the end of the bolt and hold it in place with a nut. Then put the bolt into the right-hand hole of the speaker box as shown in fig. 2 of the assembly instructions and thread a second nut about halfway along the bolt to hold it in place. This bolt is used to adjust the height of the record and playback needles over the candle.  As shown in fig. three, a medium-length bolt gets the second knob, nut and washer, and is driven into the speaker box body to be used as the needle angle adjustment control. After this, just build the kit as shown in the pictures.

(Underside of the record diaphragm head. Close-up of the record needle is shown in the insert.)

There are two diaphragm assembly heads that twist on to the speaker box. One is labeled “rec” and the other is “play”. Put one of the 5 supplied candles into the spindle holder, attach the “rec” head to the speaker box, and position the speaker box over the candle so that the needle comes into contact with the candle at a sharp angle. Use the two adjustment bolts described above to change the head height and needle angle. When done right, there will be a lot of wax shavings that build up on the table (use a piece of paper to catch them). Put in the batteries, turn on the switch and then yell into the speaker cone for 15 seconds. Turn off the switch, replace the “rec” head with “play”, reposition the speaker box to the left of the spindle and turn the switch back on. If you can’t hear your voice, use the smoothing tool to scrape the old recording off the candle, readjust the needle angle and head height and try again.

(Close-up of the two adjustment bolts. Head height is on the left, needle angle on the right.)

I’m still trying to get the recording adjustments right. Even if I yell right into the cone, all I get back are the motor noises.

(Speaker box with record head diaphragm assembly removed. Head height adjustment bolt close-up is shown in the insert.)

This is one of the first kits where it’s a good idea to keep the box. You need to store both needle heads so that they don’t get damaged or exposed to the elements, plus there’s the 5 candles, an extra pulley belt and the smoothing tool – the box is as good a storage container as any. The kit looks really nice, and is built very solidly. It’s the adjustment of the needle angle for recording that’s so tricky.

The mook starts out with 3 glossy photo sheets showing off all 36 kits. This is followed by a timeline of the kit releases, prices, descriptions and sold-out status (9, 17 and the Synthesizer Chronicle kits are the only older ones still in print, and then kits #24 on up.)  There’s an interview with 4 major contributors to Otona no Kagaku and highlights of their favorite kits (Delta Twister, Kids with Sound, theremin and the da Vinci helicopter).

They are:
伊藤ガビン Gabin Ito, Video game developer
土佐信道   Michi Tosanobu, Head of Maywa Denki
山中俊治   Shunji Yamanaka, Industrial designer
江口宏志   Hiroshi Eguchi, Entreprenuer

Then there’s 6 beautiful pages of old record players and 2 pages of examples of some of Edison’s other inventions (like a hair curler, electric toaster and a coal miner’s headlamp).  Comedian/guitarist Amemiya demonstrates how to use the wax recorder in a public bath. There’s 6 pages explaining the use of the Fourier Transform, 4 pages on how to make your own wax cylinders using color waxes and steel tubing, and 2 pages on the effectiveness of other materials in place of wax cylinders (chocolate, lacquer, crayons and fish paste are fails; Coupy Pencils and actual candles work well). 2 pages discuss the music of Open Reel Ensemble (a group that makes experimental music using old tape decks modded with Arduino controllers), 2 on Otokinoko (sound mushroom, featuring mushroom-shaped microphone systems), and 4 pages that look at the process of prototyping the tea carrying robot, the desktop vacuum robot and the steam bicycle. Note that other than the experiments with recording cylinder materials, there are no suggested mods to the Edison kit this time.

One very interesting article is on the “smart trashbox“. You can see the making of video, and the Frisk gum ad that shows the thing in action. Total cost is $650 USD.

The rest of the mook consists of the kit assembly instructions and another of Asari’s Manga Science chapters (this one on atoms, quarks and quantum mechanics). There’s also a full page spread announcing the 25th anniversary of the start of this Manga Science line.

(That’s my photo in the middle of the page.)

Now, the one remaining article that’s of the most interest to me is a little 2-page photo essay on “10 Year’s of Otona no Kagaku Reader Mods”. The best mods are the Hamster and Steam Engine Powered mini-Beests, and the pinhole camera fitted with a 35mm optical lens. But, squeezed out to one side is my photo of my modded reflective film projector. There’s a 2-sentence description of my mod and a link to the Otona no Kagaku mods page.  Cool.

Other mod links:
Steam-powered Beest
Reflex Camera
Putt Putt Boat
Hamster Walker
Pinhole Camera

Summary: The Edison Wax Recorder is a very nice-looking kit that is a good conversation piece. However, it’s a challenge to adjust the recording and playback needles just right, and it is 3,650 yen ($45 USD, not including the import mark-up). The mook is a bit short, but it does have great historical photos.  Recommended if you like sound-recording projects.

Next up, the third in the series of Theo Jansen mini-Beests, a 2-legged walker. Price TBD, tentatively scheduled for mid-December.

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