Skip to content | Skip to document navigation

Research Guides

Sound Recordings in the National Archives

1. Historical Overview of Sound Recordings in Australia

In the beginning was the Word
and the Word multiplied
beyond all expectations of its sound.

In 1878 Thomas Edison patented a ‘phonograph’, a machine that could both record and replay sound.[2] The United States of America has supplied most of the world’s sound (and later, film and digital) technologies and techniques and much of the content ever since. Magnetic recording was patented in 1896, but Australians first heard recordings made on wax cylinders and played in the Adelaide Town Hall in 1890.

Anthropologists Spencer and Gillen took a phonograph on their expedition to central Australia in 1901–02, and we can still listen to their record of corroborees and lively Aboriginal conversation. Anthropology was the only social science in Australia that systematically recorded oral data until the mid-twentieth century.[3] The South Australian Museum’s Anthropology Department holds some of the country’s earliest oral history recordings, including a 1928 collection of Aboriginal material.[4]

Australians took as readily to making and using sound recordings, film and radio as they had telegraphy and telephony. The Australian Constitution granted the new Commonwealth government power over the provision of all communications services, making it ‘the dominant policymaker in the telecommunications and broadcasting industry, which increasingly came to characterise society in the twentieth century: what we have come to know as the information society.’[5]


Film spans the history of the nation, much of it in the original black and white medium. There is film of the inauguration of the Commonwealth in 1901, the dedication of Parliament House in Canberra in 1927, and the running of the Melbourne Cup every year since 1896. Most film produced in Australia has been non-fiction, but fiction film has attracted much greater public interest, and ‘has its own important place as a historical record’.[6] Possibly the first full-length narrative feature film in the world was produced in Australia in 1906, The Story of the Ned Kelly Gang. During the ‘silent era’ between 1900 and 1930 about 160 commercial feature films were produced in Australia, and a further 115 between 1930 and 1960.[7]

As evident in the collections of the National Archives, many other films were made for public agencies. Government cinematographers were appointed within the Commonwealth’s first decade. State governments soon followed, producing films to attract tourists and immigrants. The Commonwealth Cinema and Photographic Branch was formed in 1921 and the Australian National Film Board was appointed in 1945, becoming Film Australia in 1972. As the technology improved, many political speeches were recorded on film or tape, including from 1952 some 400 public speeches made by Prime Minister Robert Menzies.[8]

During the First World War, Captain Frank Hurley and other official war cameramen filmed such titles as With the Australian Light Horse in Sinai and Palestine for the Australian War Records Section. During the Second World War, a larger number of films were made for the Department of Information, Cinesound and Movietone News. Many of these films are held by the Australian War Memorial, as well as sound recordings collected by the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) and the Australian Imperial Force’s Military History Section.[9]

Government support for broadcasting and music, through the ABC, also extended to film, sometimes indirectly, as in 1959 when Commonwealth legislation required all television commercials to be locally produced. A small film industry was sustained by making commercials, filming documentaries and producing TV drama for the main commercial houses, Crawfords and Grundys.[10] Film production leaped in the 1970s when the Whitlam government established an Australian Film and Television School and the Australian Film Commission.[11]

There were many other forms of government-sponsored sound and film recording: educational, mostly on the ABC; staff training, especially defence force training; and promotional, including ‘advertorial’ for prospective and newly arrived migrants and investors.


The Marconi wireless radio system was introduced in 1905, only 10 years after its invention, and in 1922 Prime Minister Billy Hughes made the first public radio broadcast from a hall in Bendigo.[12]

Radio broadcasts – both entertainment and propaganda – played a prominent part in Australian life during the war and many programs have been preserved on the original vinyl disks or on reel-to-reel tape. The first radio services were broadcast in 1923, gaining immediate popularity. By 1929 there were 300 000 licensed listeners.[13] The opening of Parliament House in 1927 was broadcast over radio stations in Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia and reached over one million people.[14] Many small commercial stations started up in the 1920s selling advertising on-air and entertaining listeners with music, sport reports and variety programs.

During the 1930s a dual system of commercial and public service radio was established. Government licence fees funded the creation of a national public broadcaster, the Australian Broadcasting Commission, in 1932. The ABC catered for both mass audiences and rural and high-culture listeners and also performed a ‘national ideological function’, broadcasting ministers’ speeches and other national and educational material.[15] Prime Minister Joseph (Joe) Lyons spoke on air to inaugurate the ABC in 1932. In 1939, when he suffered a fatal heart attack, the ABC installed a microphone in a room at St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney, where the news of his death was broadcast soon afterwards by link-up to stations across the nation.

At first, all programs went to air ‘live’. It was not until 1935 that a disc recorder was installed in the ABC’s Sydney studios. Music broadcasting was helped by improvements in the sound quality of 78 rpm discs during the 1930s, which meant the ABC could use good quality records as well as present studio broadcasts of live performances. A huge stock of records was built up, numbering more than 118 000 by 1942.[16] Until tape was introduced in the mid-1950s, hard disc and later the wire recorder were the only means for recording program material.

The ABC was not merely a recorder and broadcaster, it was also a creator and promoter of sound. Half its radio programs were based on music. The ABC quickly assumed the major role in Australian music-making, not only in broadcasting but also by establishing orchestras and choral groups in every State capital and assuming the role of the country’s largest concert agency. From the 1930s to the 1960s the ABC directed the whole movement of professional music-making in Australia.[18]

The period 1939 to 1956 ‘was radio’s golden era, a time when radio was the sole domestic source of electronic information and entertainment’.[19] Collectively, the output of the commercial stations was immense but their recordings have been much less comprehensively preserved than those of the ABC. For example, most of the archives of Radio 5AD have been destroyed. Only fragments of its variety programs and serials broadcast in 1938 and the 1940s survived in private hands until copied for the State Library of South Australia in 1998.[20]

The dual system for radio was maintained until 1975 when a third sector, community radio, was established and new stations proliferated. In Sydney alone, stations increased from eight in 1975 to at least 50 by 1997.[21] In terms of sound recordings, this meant not only a dramatic increase in output but also diversification in content because many of the new stations represented special interest groups, especially ethnic groups, serving an increasingly multicultural population. A new public broadcaster, Special Broadcasting Service (SBS), was established in 1978 to provide multilingual TV and radio services. Within 20 years, it was broadcasting in more languages than any other network in the world.[22]


Television (TV) was introduced to Sydney and Melbourne in 1956 and to all capital cities by the early 1960s. The first broadcast from the ABC’s television studios in Melbourne took place just in time to cover the 1956 Olympic Games. In 1960 there were no relay facilities for ABC TV programs to the States and the news was sent by teleprinter so that news bulletins could be presented separately in each capital city. Copies of filmed material were also sent individually to each State. Videotape, recording both vision and sound on magnetic tape, was still in the experimental stage. It was not until 1962 that videotape recording equipment was installed by the ABC in each capital city.[23]

TV stations soon took over radio programming — and many of the entertainers and producers — and most radio stations fell back on sport, popular music and cheap talkback programs. By 1969 the numbers of TV watchers had surpassed radio listeners. Colour TV was introduced in 1975. By the 1980s most Australian households had at least one TV set and watching ‘the box’ was their main leisure activity.

The dual commercial and national radio system was replicated for television with public service broadcasting provided by the Australian Broadcasting Commission (since 1983, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation) and SBS. Just as with radio and film, TV exerted a powerful influence on local production. By the 1990s three-quarters of a billion dollars worth of Australian programs was being produced for television each year.[24]

New technology

Public institutions, initially universities and defence research, also pioneered and supported the next revolution in recording and producing sound and imagery, via computers. The Internet or World Wide Web, a computer information network operating in the linkages between computers, was invented in 1989. It was linked by satellite to the Australian Academic and Research Network (AARNet) in 1990, with the first commercial Internet provider starting in 1992.[25] Computers and the Internet have rapidly become highly productive sites of sound and image as well as a means of preserving and providing access to historical recordings.


This is the first time I have spoken in such a fashion, to be heard where I am not, perhaps to be heard at a time when I have even ceased to exist.[26]

Sound recordings include film and videotape, actuality broadcasts,[27] oral histories, radio and TV programs, music and other performance, and sound created on computers. All of them transcribe sound for replay beyond the time and place it was recorded, but for this to happen, the sound recordings must be properly preserved. The systematic preservation of sound recording happened much more slowly than its production.

Federation prompted the first official historical sound recording but this was the only one of its kind for many years. In 1903 the South Australian Public Library asked Governors and leading Federation men to speak ‘a few words, of suitable character into a phonograph’. Those practised public speakers seem to have been unnerved at the prospect and refused or ignored the request, and only the second Governor-General, Lord Tennyson, was recorded on an Edison Concert phonograph. It may have helped that Tennyson was accustomed to phonographs, his father, ‘the Poet Laureate, having had one with which he used to amuse himself and his family…’[28]

In 1935 the Federal Cabinet authorised the Parliamentary Library (precursor of the National Library of Australia) to collect films and sound events of historical interest, and in 1937 a National Historical Film and Speaking Record Library was established within the Library. The National Film and Sound Archive, now ScreenSound Australia, was established separately from the National Library in 1984.

Until as late as the 1970s and 1980s, most sound recordings came into library collections ‘as items accompanying personal papers or the archives of associations and groups’.[29] Contemporary broadcasts, music and films were acquired in a similar fashion. The ABC began to collect music and spoken word recordings in the 1930s, and later preserved its own radio and TV programs — news, current affairs, documentaries, entertainment, education and sport — as an important audiovisual record of Australian history. Since the late 1980s, libraries have also collected the new forms of audiovisual recordings that have emerged with the digital revolution, including locally produced CD-ROMs, Internet websites and other computer records.

Very few recordings were made of people’s recollections, for which the term ‘oral history’ was first coined in 1948 at Columbia University in the USA. Oral history combines interview with reminiscence and forms a distinct subset of sound records, although not all oral history is taped. However, the introduction of portable tape recorders was ‘an important technical precondition’, firstly of folk song collection, then, more broadly, for the recording of oral history.[30] The invention of the transistor in the mid-1950s enabled the miniaturisation of radios and recording equipment, revolutionising and greatly expanding the possibilities of use. Lightweight cassette tape recorders became available in the 1960s. By contrast, the heavy but fragile wax cylinders used by Spencer and Gillen in the early 1900s took up an entire suitcase.

These technological advances stimulated the growth of oral history and folklore sound recording in Australia, informed by new interest in folk life and social history and a resurgent nationalism. The new tape recorders also stimulated significant changes in broadcasting. The ABC pioneered current affairs programs, using interviews. In the 1960s it broadcast oral history interviews, and in the 1970s it broadened into entire oral history series, a role still performed today by the ABC’s Social History Unit.

The National Library was the first institution to collect recorded oral histories systematically, albeit in response initially to the work of Hazel de Berg, who began in 1957 to tape Australian writers speaking their own work. Her recordings were later supported by, and transferred to, the National Library where they form the core of its oral history collection. She completed 1 290 interviews before her death in 1984.

In 1961 the Battye Library of Western Australia began to interview a broader range of people than the National Library but it took some time to recognise the value of the sound recording itself. Originally, as each interview was transcribed, the tape was wiped for reuse. In 1979 the Northern Territory Government also established an oral history program, recognising that it could fill gaps for a society that had lost many documentary records in cyclones and other disasters. Most State and Territory libraries and museums have since created oral history collections, the main ones being the State libraries of Western Australia, South Australia and New South Wales.

‘The richest vein of oral history has derived from the enthusiastic participation of community groups in the production of local history’.[31] Like the earlier generation of folksong collectors, most oral history collectors were voluntary or professional historians working on their own, although many of their recordings were later lodged in library collections. The recording and preservation of oral history, usually on tape, took off in the 1970s, supported by the Oral History Association of Australia, established in 1978, and its State branches.

Since then, Commonwealth, State and local government, schools and universities and private and commercial organisations have also commissioned commemorative oral histories and supported other interviewing projects. Ongoing recording and preservation was less commonly supported — the longest local government program was the City of Adelaide Oral History Project, conducted from 1984 to 2000.[32] Government support for oral history was most generous during ‘historic’ celebrations such as State sesquicentenaries, the Australian Bicentenary of 1988 and the Centenary of Federation in 2001. Some of these recordings are held in the National Archives.

The huge variety and extent of recordings is revealed in Australia’s Oral History Collections: A National Directory.[33] The directory lists some 460 collections, including national collections at the National Archives, ScreenSound Australia, the Australian Institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, the ABC, the Australian War Memorial, the National Museum of Australia and the Australian National Maritime Museum, as well as State libraries and archives; local government libraries; school, church and historical groups; Aboriginal communities; universities; and privately held collections.

Susan Marsden


Chapter notes | All notes

1 From Hazel de Berg's poem, 'The artist: for Patricia Thompson', dedicated to the transcriber of the first 10 000 pages of Mrs de Berg's oral history interviews, in D Rich, 'My mother Hazel de Berg, oral history pioneer', Voiceprint (Oral History Association of Australia, NSW Branch), no. 8, May 1996, p. 15.

2 See M Williams, 'A brief history of magnetic recording: the first fifty years 1898–1948', in Oral History Association of Australia Journal, no. 4, 1981–82; and 'A brief history of magnetic recording: the second fifty years 1898–1998', in Journal no. 5, 1982–83.

3 A Roberts, 'The development of Australian oral history, 1798–1984', Oral History Association of Australia Journal, no. 7, 1985, p. 7.

4 Australia's Oral History Collections: A National Directory, located at

5 KT Livingston, The Wired Nation Continent: The Communication Revolution and Federating Australia, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1996, pp. 185–86.

6 I Bertrand, 'Film', in G Davison, J Hirst and S Macintyre (eds), The Oxford Companion to Australian History, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1998, p. 252.

7 D Throsby, 'Public funding of the arts in Australia – 1900 to 2000', Year Book Australia 2001, p. 551.

8 A Roberts, 'The development of Australian oral history, 1798–1984', Oral History Association of Australia Journal, no. 7, 1985, p. 7.

9 M Piggott, A General Guide to the Library Collections and Archives, Australian War Memorial, Canberra, 1983, pp. 27, 29.

10 S Lawson, 'The film industry', in A Curthoys, AW Martin and T Rowse (eds), Australians: A Historical Library. Australians from 1939, Fairfax, Syme & Weldon, Sydney, 1987, p. 243.

11 J Gardiner-Garden, 'Arts policy in Australia: a history of Commonwealth involvement in the arts', Parliamentary Library, Background papers (Social Policy Group), 2 May 1994 (printed item: 027680; online text: 891054), published online at

12 'History of communications in Australia', Year Book Australia 2001, no. 83, Australian Bureau of Statistics, Canberra 2001, p. 830.

13 S Macintyre, The Oxford History of Australia, vol. 4: 1901–1942, The Succeeding Age, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1986, p. 219.

14 'As it was in the Beginning (Parliament House in 1927)', Parliamentary Library Research Paper 25, 2000–01, located at

15 A Moran, 'Radio', in The Oxford Companion to Australian History, p. 542.

16 R Covell, Australia's Music: Themes of a New Society, Sun Books, Melbourne, 1967, pp. 128–29.

18 R Covell, Australia's Music: Themes of a New Society, Sun Books, Melbourne, 1967, pp. 128–29.

19 A Moran, 'Radio', in The Oxford Companion to Australian History, p. 542.

20 Word of Mouth, no. 36, January 1999, p. 6.

21 A Moran, 'Radio', in The Oxford Companion to Australian History, p. 542.

22 Year Book Australia 2001, p. 516.

23 Australian Broadcasting Corporation, A Short History of the ABC, 1995, published online at

24 C Hazelhurst, 'Television', in The Oxford Companion to Australian History, p. 633.

25 'History of communications in Australia', Year Book Australia 2001, p. 831.

26 Australian author Xavier Herbert, when recorded in 1961, quoted in B York, Speaking of Us: Voices from Twentieth Century Australia, National Library of Australia, Canberra 1999, p. 11.

27 Actuality broadcasts were broadcasts of important historical events, such as General MacArthur's acceptance of Japanese surrender in World War II.

28 B S Baldwin, 'The Public Library of South Australia's oral history project, 1903–1908', Oral History Association of Australia Journal, no. 2, 1979–80, p. 49.

29 R Block, '“In the beginning” … Oral history collecting at the State Library of New South Wales', Oral History Association of Australia Journal, no. 13, 1991, p. 67.

30 A Roberts, 'The development of Australian oral history, 1798–1984', Oral History Association of Australia Journal, no. 7, 1985, p. 7.

31 S Marsden, 'Oral history in South Australia', in E Richards (ed.), The Flinders History of South Australia: Social History, Wakefield Press, Adelaide, 1986, p. 479.

32 Word of Mouth, Autumn 2000, p. 16.

33 Australia's Oral History Collections: A National Directory is located on the National Library of Australia's website at The online database allows users to search thousands of hours of oral recordings held around the country. Much of the material listed was collected in the 1980s and 1990s and was first published in 1997.