Long-ago voices heard again (video, gallery)

Technology recreates foil recording

Friday, October 26, 2012
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Chris Hunter, lower left, Director of Archives at miSci, showing people the 1878 Edison tinfoil recording being played for the first time to the public at Proctor's GE Theatre on Thursday, October 25, 2012.
Photographer: Patrick Dodson
Chris Hunter, lower left, Director of Archives at miSci, showing people the 1878 Edison tinfoil recording being played for the first time to the public at Proctor's GE Theatre on Thursday, October 25, 2012.

— When one person laughs, others often soon follow.

Thursday night at GE Theatre at Proctors, laughter did follow, but the gap between them was a long one: more than 134 years.

Representatives of the Museum of Innovation and Science, miSci, did what likely hadn’t been done since June 22, 1878 — they played a digitally recreated recording of what is believed to be the oldest playable American voice and the first-ever recording of a musical performance, along with portions of two nursery rhymes.

Listen here

To listen to the 1878 Edison tinfoil recording, click HERE.

Also played: Two sections of laughter.

“This is almost a magical event,” John Schneiter, a museum trustee, said before Thursday night’s demonstration. Later he added, “It’s a phenomenal thing to be a part of and to reintroduce this to the world.”

The recording hadn’t been played before because the medium, tinfoil, was a fragile one. It was also the first method of playing back recorded sound, one invented by Thomas Edison in December 1877, while he worked in New Jersey. He first came to Schenectady in 1886 and later helped found the General Electric Co.

What finally played, in the span of 1 minute and 18 seconds of popping and scratchy audio, was 78 full seconds of the 19th century.

There were the sounds of music, maybe a cornet. At 34 seconds, a nursery rhyme still familiar today, “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” is recited.

After “that lamb was sure to go” comes the first section of laughter. Then another nursery rhyme, “Old Mother Hubbard.” When it’s revealed that the cupboard was bare and the poor dog had none, comes the second bout of laughter.

Maybe it was because one line of the second rhyme wasn’t right.

“Look at me, I don’t know the song,” the voice says, according to the museum’s transcript of the sometimes difficult-to-discern recording.

While what is included in the recording might be mundane by today’s standards, Carl Haber, of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, which helped make the recovery possible, said it provides an important history lesson in innovation and invention.

“It’s important that we grasp that really important part of our heritage and it inspires us, young people, schoolchildren, to think about inventing and innovating, because that’s what we really need in this country,” he said.

After Edison invented the phonograph, it could record sound and play it back to wide-eyed audiences. But, playing it back too many times and the stylus destroyed the foil. Most were destroyed that way, or simply torn up and given away as souvenirs. This time the foil was laid out on a table in the theater, as the guest of honor.

No souvenirs were given away Thursday evening. People like Katherine Wolfram, of Schenectady, were just content to listen.

“I think that’s so exciting,” she said before the event, noting that such an early recording is now located in Schenectady. “I can’t imagine that the whole town is not here, actually.”

The recording garnered attention from around the world, with museum officials Thursday fielding calls from news outlets as far away as London. They also fielded calls from each of the nightly news broadcasts. The museum’s website even had trouble keeping up with the traffic, officials said.

Unlike many similar recordings, the one played back Thursday night wasn’t torn up and, if it was played, was played infrequently prior to being stored. It is also one of just three complete sheets known to exist in world, and one of only two where the sound could be reconstructed.

The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory specializes in reconstructing old sound recordings using a variety of methods. In the miSci foil, the lab used a type of optical scanner that not only viewed the surface of the foil, but also the depths, eventually recreating the recording digitally.

The foil came to the museum on July 25, 1978, one month past the 100th anniversary of its recording, as a donation from a woman in Milford, Conn. Her father had been a well-known antiques dealer in the Midwest. The recording originated in St. Louis. An envelope accompanying the foil contained the date, June 22, 1878. It also indicated that the Edison phonograph had been on exhibition at 309 N. Fourth St. in St. Louis.

Through research conducted by miSci archivist Chris Hunter, the man in the recording was determined through newspaper records to be a writer from a St. Louis newspaper named Thomas Mason, pen name I.X. Peck, who had purchased one of Edison’s phonographs and gave demonstrations of it throughout June 1878.

Lost in the event of the playing of the recording was the announcement of miSci’s new full-time executive director, William “Mac” Sudduth, who was introduced at the conclusion.

Sudduth, who was credited with transforming museums from Kentucky to North Carolina to Oklahoma, is set to take over Nov. 5.

In his closing remarks, Sudduth said the recording illustrates that, although technology changes rapidly, people do not.

That voice on the recording was put down in foil in a public demonstration, for people wondering at the advancement of technology, Sudduth said.

“People were interested then in science and innovation, just as they are now,” Sudduth said. “MiSci, I think, is a direct descendant of these kinds of efforts.”

 

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