Listening to the past, recorded on tin foil and glass, for the first time in over a century
February 10, 2012 2:35 PM   Subscribe

Towards the end of the 1800s, there were three primary American groups competing to invent technology to record and play back audio. Alexander Graham Bell worked with with Charles Sumner Tainter and Chichester Bell in at their Volta Laboratory in Georgetown, Washington, D.C., while Thomas A. Edison worked from his Menlo Park facilities, and Emile Berliner worked in his independent laboratory in his home. To secure the rights to their inventions, the three groups sent samples of their work to the Smithsonian. These recordings became part of the permanent collections, now consisting of 400 of the earliest audio recordings ever made. But knowledge of their contents was limited to old, short descriptions, as the rubber, beeswax, glass, tin foil and brass recording media are fragile, and playback devices might damage the recordings, if such working devices are even available. That is, until a collaborative project with the Library of Congress and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory came together to make 2D and 3D optical scanners, capable of visually recording the patterns marked on discs and cylinders, respectively.

Six discs from Bell's Volta Laboratory have been scanned, and made available on Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory's page for the project, as well as posted on YouTube, and high quality images have been posted to Flickr (Flash-based slideshow). The National Museum of American History blog has a two-part post on the audio recovery: Trilled R's and the dawn of recorded sound in America, and Forgotten early sound recordings given a voice.

IRENE (Image, Reconstruct, Erase Noise, Etc.), previously, in 2007 (Archive.org view of irene.lbl.gov), before work on these hundred-plus year old audio recordings were scanned. And Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory previously worked on audio recreation: the 1860 phonautogram, first thought to be a female voice, later determined to be the (male) inventor himself, and Edison's phonograph doll, the actual first recording of a woman's voice.

All this work is different from the Digital Needle software written by Ofer Springer, a university student from Israel (previously, twice), which was more of a proof-of-concept project than an effort to archive broken or fragile media.

One more prior post, this on Phonozoic, dedicated to the history of the phonograph and related media.
posted by filthy light thief (21 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite

 
This post is the product of a comment on a meetup post.
posted by filthy light thief at 2:37 PM on February 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


Wow, neat! I got chills when the disembodied voice read out the date "1885."
posted by postel's law at 3:14 PM on February 10, 2012


So, somewhere in that blizzard of links is a sound file with the original recordings? Can somebody identify the link?
posted by Max Udargo at 3:50 PM on February 10, 2012


Holy Shit - why am I reminded of Monsters of Megaphone (with the race to invent things, plus old-timey sound technology).

Also? Fuck Edison, that bastard.
posted by symbioid at 3:53 PM on February 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


Amazing stuff, thanks for posting.

Can somebody identify the link?

The first sentence of the 'More Inside' section reads: "Six discs from Bell's Volta Laboratory have been scanned, and made available on Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory's page for the project, as well as posted on YouTube ..."
posted by carter at 4:04 PM on February 10, 2012


The SI transcripts leave out this gem from Disc 3 (March 11, 1885):
This record has been inscribed by Mister Sumner Tainter and H. G. Rogers. It’s the eleventh day of March, eighteen hundred and eighty five. [Trilled R] How is this for high! Mary had a little lamb, and its fleece was [...] as [...], and everywhere that Mary went — oh, fuck.
posted by djb at 4:09 PM on February 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm always deeply satisfied somehow when news like this makes me think yet again, in a totally sincere way, "Ain't technology grand!"
posted by Greg_Ace at 4:22 PM on February 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


I collaborate with a guy over in the Lawrence Berkeley engineering division. A couple of years ago, when we started working together he took a bunch of us on a tour of the building. One of the labs we walked through was the lab with all the custom-built devices for imaging wax cylinders and old records. It was definitely one of the coolest things we saw, and he had great stories of people coming in with locked cases full of old wax cylinders.
posted by pombe at 4:47 PM on February 10, 2012


and everywhere that Mary went — oh, fuck.

Like the Difference Engine, 100 years ahead of its time.
posted by localroger at 4:48 PM on February 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


Max Udargo, carter pointed out the section, and these are the links: WAVs on LBL.gov, or a YouTube playlist of the 6 Volta recordings.

As a bonus, djb found the Volta discs, with notes and transcriptions on Firstsounds.org, linked therein as WAV files.
posted by filthy light thief at 4:48 PM on February 10, 2012


Wow, it seems really weird that it would take this long. It's not like the marks on the media were densely packed. It seems like a grad student could have done this visually years ago.

Even not, laser scanning technology was common by the 1980s. I wonder what the hold up was?
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 5:30 PM on February 10, 2012


M nnn n nnnnn mmm mm nnnnnmmnn!
posted by charlie don't surf at 6:00 PM on February 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


I can't find a reference, but I remember reading in some biography of Edison that during the early years of the phonograph much of the income came from "pornographic audio". They sold cylinders or disks with subjects like "A Gentleman's Dalliance with a Lady", where you would hear the two of them talking and flirting and then sounds of bedsprings bouncing.

I shit you not. If anybody knows where to find those recordings I would be very grateful.
posted by twoleftfeet at 6:05 PM on February 10, 2012


It's only vaguely related, but I guess this is as good as place as any to point out the laser vinyl player, which I guess is a pretty amazing way to listen to records, and will only set you back the price of a small car.

Maybe I need to find a way to get crowdsourced funding started so I can get one.
posted by hippybear at 6:58 PM on February 10, 2012


A record player that sets you back the price of a small car?
posted by eye of newt at 9:07 PM on February 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


Ha! That's the complete opposite end of the spectrum of record player from the laser vinyl player. But a hilarious connection, and I applaud you for it.
posted by hippybear at 9:43 PM on February 10, 2012


A record player that sets you back the price of a small car?

The only person I know that still owns a turntable claims his is worth about 4x the price of my car. His record cleaning machine cost about half of the price of my car.
posted by charlie don't surf at 9:54 PM on February 10, 2012


Obviously Related (one of the great understatements in the history of TV: "well, that can't be good")
posted by evilmidnightbomberwhatbombsatmidnight at 12:36 AM on February 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Thanks for this - Berliner was a fascinating guy.

His house in Columbia Heights was razed decades ago, but there are still traces of Berliner's long history of tinkering and entrepreneurship in DC today.
posted by ryanshepard at 6:24 AM on February 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Alexander Graham Bell was British (born, educated, and worked there), then moved to Ontario, Canada (lived and worked there, so Canadians call him Canadian), then moved to Boston and other American places (so Americans call him American), then moved back and forth between Canada and the US. Bell is today best known for his telephone invention (done mostly in Canada), but has an astonishingly wide range of other inventions. No wonder he is claimed to be a son of all three countries. He is among the top 100 Greatest Britons, the Top 10 Greatest Canadians, and the 100 Greatest Americans.
posted by rgb at 6:51 PM on February 12, 2012


Not entirely a derail, but follow the link and you will find William Gillette mimicking his good friend Twain.
posted by IndigoJones at 4:32 PM on February 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


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