Soviet Russia during the cold war was not the free-est of places. Nearly all media was censored, including radio, TV, and books. While that meant that little public and legal media made it into the hands of Soviet citizens, it also meant that the time was perfect for an underground media black market.
Focusing in on the music black market at the time, music was only really available on vinyl records. Vinyl blanks and the required special tooling were expensive at the time which meant that Soviet citizens needed an alternative to listen to music. Soviet teens took to their inherent engineering skills to design a custom record lathe for etching in the music and fancied record blanks out of something that was in abundance at the time: old X-rays.
While vinyl records were expensive and nearly impossible to get, citizens could find old X-rays in the dumpsters behind hospitals all across the USSR. They would take these X-rays and cut them into circles, then utilize custom lathes to engrave the music lines into the thicker-than-paper sheets. Fans at the times would call these discs “bone music” or “jazz bones”.
The discs were too thin to carry music on both sides and the resultant music from the one sided engraving sounded terrible – but it was still music. On the black market, this bone music only cost about 1 ruble at the time or roughly 1 USD. While the music sounded terrible and low quality, it was enough to keep up the spirits of those who got ahold of the disks.
Recording tools that the Soviet citizens used were sort of like a record player but in reverse. It would have a needle that would vibrate based on sounds it heard through a cone and engrave it onto the disc as it spun.
Sometimes, the “technician” recording the bone record got it right though, with early copies sounding near identical to the original record.
Even with some bone records playing well, due to the material, they usually only lasted around a dozen plays before they were completely unrecognizable.
By the late 1950s, Soviet officials caught wind of the underground music operation and sent one of the largest ring’s leaders to prison. Music Patrols were established to keep a special eye on this underground activity.
Once cassette tape became popularized in the 1960s, bone records fell out of popularity as cassette tape was much cheaper and easier to reproduce on the black market. All in all, bone records serve as a testament to humanities desire for creativity and expression, as well as an image the engineering skills that everyone has inside of them.x