28 October 2012

Listening to the first ever audio recordings

The Atlantic has  fascinating article about the recovery of sounds from the earliest audio recordings. A few days ago at the GE Theatre in Schenectady, New York, an audience of about 200 people sat and heard the sounds of a someone playing the cornet, a man laughing, and a recitation of "Mary Had a Little Lamb" and "Old Mother Hubbard." It is believed that this event was the first time that any public audience had heard those sounds since they were captured by a Thomas Edison-invented phonograph in St. Louis in 1878.

For years the audio was trapped on a piece of foil you but there was no device that could play it and even if there had been, doing so would have likely ruined it.  Physicist Carl Haber was able to create a 3D picture of the foil whose topography could then be translated into sound using techniques of mathematical analysis and physical modeling to calculate how a needle would have played the recording. They were able to do so "without physically having to touch them," he explained to me. "And that's kind of the key issue, because these things are so old and fragile and torn-up, broken, and delicate that in many cases it just would not be possible to play them back in any of the more standard ways."

Edison invented his tinfoil phonograph in 1877 and began selling it in 1878. "This is the oldest recording in the United States and anywhere in the world that was made as a reproducible recording  Earlier phonautograms from France are playable today  but they were not intended to ever be played back.

The recording was made by a phonograph, whose stylus would move up and down, recording the sound waves as a hand crank rotated the cylinder. After a few playbacks, the stylus would rip through the foil, and demonstrators had a practice of tearing up the recording and handing out the scraps as souvenirs. Pops and scratches heard in the recording were likely created by the way the foil was folded while it was in storage for more than a century. A woman whose father had been an antiques dealer in the midwest donated the foil to the museum in 1978.

These early recordings are the earliest instances of a technology that has shaped just about every aspect of life. Recorded sound gave rise to the music industry, of course, but that's just the half of it; ethnographic research, field recording, journalistic interviews, historical research -- all of these capabilities trace back to Edison, his foils, and, later, his wax cylinders. With his invention in 1877, Haber said, "Edison really transformed the world."

Go to the article and you can hear the recording itself. I am glad that this was done.It is good to be able to recreate what was the earliest recording medium.How things have moved on!

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