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Researchers Play Tune Recorded Before Edison See also Phonoautograph
March 27, 2008 7:49 AM   Subscribe

Researchers Play Tune Recorded Before Edison
The Phonoautograph
The history of the Phonoautograph. A technology in which you can still buy stock.
posted by y2karl (34 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite

 
Thanks for the d'ohnoautograph.

I like this:
The recordings were not intended for listening; the idea of audio playback had not been conceived. Rather, Scott sought to create a paper record of human speech that could later be deciphered.
posted by pracowity at 7:56 AM on March 27, 2008 [1 favorite]


Sure, but looking at sound is like smelling ballet. Ever smell ballet?
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 8:01 AM on March 27, 2008 [2 favorites]


Wow, that's amazing.
posted by delmoi at 8:16 AM on March 27, 2008


Here's another version of the Times piece with the actual recording, as well as a more recent recording of the song for comparison. There's something really, really eerie about listening to a voice from 150 years ago.
posted by Bromius at 8:21 AM on March 27, 2008


really eerie about listening to a voice from 150 years ago.

I thought about that this morning, too. It's such a trip to hear these old tapes, like when I once found a family Christmas video from when I was a toddler. But this goes a step further. IT makes me wonder, if this was done in 1860, what could have been possible if the inventors and commercial agents had gone out and just gotten as many voices as possible, with the idea that the technology would come later to decipher it. What voices would we have? Abraham Lincoln, Marcel Proust, the possibilities are endless. I hope there are more recordings somewhere.
posted by parmanparman at 8:27 AM on March 27, 2008 [1 favorite]


Here's another version of the Times piece with the actual recording, as well as a more recent recording of the song for comparison.

Oh, thank you so much for that--I missed it
posted by y2karl at 8:30 AM on March 27, 2008


The recordings were not intended for listening; the idea of audio playback had not been conceived. Rather, Scott sought to create a paper record of human speech that could later be deciphered.

That is so cool.
posted by JBennett at 8:37 AM on March 27, 2008


1. FUCKIN AWESOME. The idea of listening to a voice recorded in 1860 is a mindblowing notion.
2. Will it be on iTunes? I want to own a copy.

(upon review: I see the Times link has a copy. Duh.)
posted by grubi at 8:51 AM on March 27, 2008


I think I just found my new ringtone.
posted by Bromius at 8:53 AM on March 27, 2008 [3 favorites]


They had collaborated on the Archeophone album “Actionable Offenses,” a collection of obscene 19th-century records that received two Grammy nominations.

I have to get this album.
posted by Astro Zombie at 8:56 AM on March 27, 2008


I really do like the idea of doing something now that has no real obvious value, under the assumption that at some point in the future, people will find a way to make use of it:

"What are you doing"

"I'm firing cannon balls at snowmen and taking photographs of the results."

"Why?"

"Not sure. I think it might be important one day though."

"Excellent."


If nothing else, it would be a great excuse for a lot of the strange and pointless things I do to entertain myself.
posted by quin at 9:04 AM on March 27, 2008 [3 favorites]


THis is indeed fascinating. And yes, "Pandemonium," not to put too fine a pt on it, but one can stretch one's senses and "smell" a ballet. If you know how dancers train, how their feet feel (and ache and sweat), and how resin smells on the wood floor, and how their bodies exude odors, and how it all mixes with light and color, well then you are tripping in a nice way.

About the idea per se of deciphering sounds from history, when I was a boy (734 yrs ago), there was a TV show that featured science questions and enigmas, w/ a futuristic or quasi-fictional aspect to it, w/ the tone of Ripley's Believe It or Not. The host was a professorial but avuncular, white-haired suited man. Perhaps we're talking 1954-56-ish. One episode rocked my boat. I was in awe, and of course I remember till today. It suggested that all human speech is captured in ambient mineral deposits surrounding us (or something like that), and that we might find these minerals (the image remains in my memory of some dark, glistening coal-like substance) and extract from them all sorts of vocal imprints of deep dark human history. This blew my mind. Does anyone know of that show? "Sci. Fiction Theater".. .maybe? This bit about Scott's phonoautograph just re-blew my mind. What around us indeed may carry imprints of vocalized sound waves? Does our speech, even on a cosmically very low frequency and of very weak focus and amplitude, go out into space? How far does it travel? Why are focused standing waves so important to what happens in the universe and on earth (which is of course part of the universe)?
posted by yazi at 9:06 AM on March 27, 2008


Trust me, you don't want to smell a ballet.
posted by Astro Zombie at 9:08 AM on March 27, 2008


Stuff like this makes me sad that the day is pretty much past when all you needed to invent world-changing stuff was cleverness - no tech expertise, no VC funding, no market research, etc. But then I remember how people back then wiped their butts with oyster shells, and I think, "I'll take that trade."
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 9:10 AM on March 27, 2008


Oh, sure. Cut y2karl's first comment and suddenly my "d'oh..." follow-up is a mystery snark.
posted by pracowity at 9:14 AM on March 27, 2008


...the day is pretty much past when all you needed to invent world-changing stuff was cleverness - no tech expertise, no VC funding, no market research, etc

Cleverness is still both necessary and sufficient.
posted by DU at 9:17 AM on March 27, 2008


But then I remember how people back then wiped their butts with oyster shells, and I think, "I'll take that trade."

"He doesn't know how to use the three seashells! HAHAHA!"
posted by grubi at 9:18 AM on March 27, 2008


Here's another version of the Times piece with the actual recording

Such warmth and roundness! I can't see why anyone would want to listen to those crappy cylinders.
posted by Dave Faris at 9:19 AM on March 27, 2008 [4 favorites]


Oh and don't forget that, in 1860, you DID need tech expertise (and possible the equivalent of VC funding) to make a gramophone.

I'm wondering how you can record soundwaves on paper and NOT conceive of playback?
posted by DU at 9:24 AM on March 27, 2008


Alexander Graham Bell's variation on the Phonautograph is decidedly creepy:

One of the most interesting variations on the phonautograph was the one invented by Alexander Graham Bell. In the summer of 1874, one of Bell’s associates supplied him with the ear and part of the skull of a dead man. Bell attempted to attach a recording stylus to the ear and use it to inscribe a line on a smoked-glass plate. But the tympanum and the muscles that attached to the tiny bones of the inner ear were too dry, so Bell rubbed them with glycerin. It worked, and when Bell shouted into the dead man’s ear, the stylus recorded his speech on the glass. Nothing became of the ear phonautograph, but it may be the only case of a body part being used in making a sound recording.

YIKES
posted by retronic at 9:27 AM on March 27, 2008 [2 favorites]


What yazi says. If only we could retrieve voices from clay pots, or dinosaur mating calls from lava flows.

One of the genuine tragedies of early voice recording is that nobody sat Mark Twain down in front of an Edison machine and preserved his drawl for posterity. In fact he tried dictating one novel, The American Claimant, on an Edison machine, but gave it up and if the cylinders survived they have long since been lost.
posted by Creosote at 9:49 AM on March 27, 2008


Thanks for the post, y2karl.
yazi: The possibility of accidentally captured sound is indeed fascinating. Some day scientists may be able to decipher sonic imprints in a lava flow and listen to the bellowing of dinosaurs.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 9:57 AM on March 27, 2008


About the idea per se of deciphering sounds from history, when I was a boy (734 yrs ago), there was a TV show that featured science questions and enigmas, w/ a futuristic or quasi-fictional aspect to it, w/ the tone of Ripley's Believe It or Not.

That was Science Fiction Theater--
July 30, 1955
THE FROZEN SOUND Voices from 2000 years ago and wire taps without wires confront research scientists. and/or Enemy espionage obtains a record of a physicist's top-secret conversation with the Secretary of Defense in a completely sealed room. The secret of the leak lies in a bottle of ant poison containing a mysterious crystal -- a crystal with the power to record entire conversations! Marshall Thompson, Marilyn Erskin, Ray Collins, Michael Fox.
--and I saw the same program and it came to mind for me, too, when I read this article.
posted by y2karl at 10:05 AM on March 27, 2008


Astro Zombie... what's the problem with enjoying healthy sexy body smell? I love it.
Creosote: dang it!!! That Dinosaur link you gave us hit part of the jackpot. It rang a bell about that old TV show. I think the show was hinged on the exact same conceit -- the lava-flow thing and the retrieval of the sounds of primordial suffering. Claypot link was also interesting, but when I clickd on the link to "CSI" TV show, I got CBS website and could not figure out which CSI was meant. Really interesting stuff.
posted by yazi at 10:11 AM on March 27, 2008


y2karl, this is amazing. If I had been confident of the title of the show, I could have googled it, as you must have done. Yikes. THAT IS THE ONE. I feel fulfilled. Oh, the web.
posted by yazi at 10:17 AM on March 27, 2008


I love how the newspaper article makes it sound like the creation of the phonoauthograph somehow diminishes Edison's invention of the phonograph a mere 17 years later. If fact, this device in 1860 proves how brilliant Edison was. It is clear from the existence of this in 1860 that people know how to record sound, but Edison figured out how to play it back.

In fact, if one understands that sound is vibration, the recording of vibrations extends back to the Han Dynasty in China (130), with the invention of the first seismograph. Seismographs were understood and in used in th 1860's and 1880's when edison and others were working on recording sound. what Edison acheived was the ability of people to record sound and then hear it back immeidately, not to wait for some future generation to decipher it like a time capsule. (Although the notion of doing that is very cool).

Furthermore, the fact that Edison continued to work on the phonograph into the 1880's demonstrates his ability to see innovation as revising and iterating the implementation of an idea, not the flash of inspiration that creates the idea in the first place.
posted by Pastabagel at 10:36 AM on March 27, 2008


Wonderful post, Y2K!

They had collaborated on the Archeophone album “Actionable Offenses,” a collection of obscene 19th-century records that received two Grammy nominations.

I have to get this album.


Here you go. Scroll down for brief track samples. I am also intrigued by Archeophone's The Phonographic Yearbook series.
posted by LarryC at 11:17 AM on March 27, 2008


Hey, Pastabagel. Your mention of CHina is acute. The inventor was Zhang Heng (old system = Chang Heng). I think the "130" you give would be his general dates. They are not dates for the Han dynasty years, which ended in 220. His system had nothing to with "waves" of course. He used a system of "statics" whereby a flat board, which I think was made level by means of water level, would be able to show when it was made off-level, and a marker, or water itself, would roll down. Something like that (Needham's monumental work would say more about it). It may be safe to say that investigation into actual wave-form properties was not something that any nat. philosopher in the world was on to at this point. The first person to talk of wave-forms that I personally know about was al-Farabi (9th c. AD), who in an arabic disquistion on music gave an excellent account (if not entirely accurate in light of modern acoustics and physics) of pressure impedance encountered in flute sound structure. He drew on perhaps Aristoxenus (4th c. BC), but I'm not sure it that's true, nor what part of A's treatise on music that would have been. That's all from me now. Great stuff, this thread.
posted by yazi at 11:31 AM on March 27, 2008 [2 favorites]


If only we could retrieve voices from clay pots, or dinosaur mating calls from lava flows.

A bit OT, but the vocalizations of at least one dinosaur have been reconstructed (the wav samples are on the left sidebar).
posted by longdaysjourney at 11:51 AM on March 27, 2008


I read about this earlier today in the NYT, and I'm glad that someone made a FPP about this (and a good one at that!) I find this kind of thing fascinating, and I'm glad I'm not alone.
posted by ob at 12:11 PM on March 27, 2008


The time for them to leave was drawing near.

The star was getting close to its metamorphosis into a red giant, burning brighter almost hourly. The team was in a pandemonium of activity, with moods shifting from the pained urgency of collecting as much of this lost civilization as possible to the black depression that all their efforts would be useless. There was just too much to do, and way to little time left to do it.

#5 found a cylinder in a ruined hovel. He considered it of little importance until he spied micropatterns on the surface of it with is upper eye segment. In the box it goes. He grabbed some other pottery and eating utensils that littered the area and made haste toward the landing platform. When he arrived #34b informed him that he was to assist in spacelifting the artifacts to 7prime. #5 wished he had time to say goodbye to this planet and its lost inhabitants, but such wasn't in the cards.

When they broke orbit and headed toward the base ship, #9 looked out the port window toward the sun.

"The Hydrogen is almost gone in the core. You can see the surface start to shudder under the shift in fusion. You're lucky to leave when you did" #9 remarked in a solemn tone.

When they reached 7prime, the head researcher hunted out #5. He saw the cylinder and matching description in #5's transmitted manifest of goods. #5 reluctantly handed him the cylinder, in which the head researcher removed a disk off the end. He beckoned #5 to follow him back to his lab. The head researcher was smiling in a mischievous manner, yet #5 was too lost in his own little world of regret to notice.

A notice over the intercom informed the crew that the last ship had left the planet, and to prepare for a long burn. The head researcher put the disk on the scanning bed and performed a sub micron virtualization. He then loaded a custom program and fed the virtualization into it. He stepped back with a flourish as the routines poured over the information. 7prime shuddered as the engines began to push the massive ship out of the planetary system.

Music began to play, music from a long dead civilization. The head researcher’s program decoded the visualization of the disk into song. #5 stared, first at the speakers, then at the head researcher. The song continued.

"Ba na na na, na na, na na... You can't touch this!..."

The ship's video feed was fed into the wall behind #5 and the head researcher. It displayed the star, first a blinding light, then an ever expanding sphere swallowing the inner planets. #5 watched as the planet he was just on was enveloped. He thought to himself as the song played, no we can't touch that, ever again...
posted by The Power Nap at 12:54 PM on March 27, 2008 [5 favorites]


Who was it that wrote a brief SF story back in the 50s or so where the only surviving artifact of human civilization for the aliens to find is a Mickey Mouse cartoon, which they play over and over to try to get some clue to human nature?
posted by Creosote at 2:17 PM on March 27, 2008


History Lesson by Arthur C. Clarke
posted by y2karl at 4:49 PM on March 27, 2008


There's another great sci-fi short story where scientists extract audio from a medieval potter's creation. Was it a Connie Willis one?
posted by BrotherCaine at 7:12 PM on April 9, 2008


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