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Scientists Play World's Oldest Commercial Record

6 July 2011 2:20 pm
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Collection of René Rondeau; (inset) National Park Service

Early recording. Edison's talking doll, briefly produced in 1890, used a hand-cranked wax cylinder to speak rather than the ring-shaped metal cylinder from 1888 (inset) that was just identified as the first record intended for home entertainment and the earliest known American recording of a woman's voice.

This scratchy, 12-second audio clip of a woman reciting the first verse of "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" doesn't sound like much. But the faint, 123-year-old recording—etched into a warped metal cylinder and brought back to life after decades of silence by a three-dimensional (3D) optical scanning technique—appears to belong to the first record intended for sale to the public. Made for a talking doll briefly sold by phonograph inventor Thomas Edison, the early record is the oldest known American recording of a woman's voice and may be the oldest known record produced at Edison's laboratory in West Orange, New Jersey.

"The talking doll cylinders are evidence of both efforts to further refine recorded sound techniques that were still primitive and in the experimental state, and to develop commercial uses for sound recordings," says Samuel Brylawski, a sound archivist affiliated with the University of California, Santa Barbara, who was not part of the study.

The ancient record, discovered in 1967 at the West Orange site (now a museum), where Edison and his laboratory workers perfected and produced records as well as the first motion picture, was a ring-shaped piece of metal whose exterior had been incised with grooves by a recording stylus. It had become so out of round—like a flattened bicycle tire—that it could no longer be played by a phonograph stylus or any other method requiring direct contact. Instead, Jerry Fabris, museum curator of the Thomas Edison National Historical Park took the misshapen cylinder to scientists Earl Cornell and Carl Haber at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California.

In collaboration with the Library of Congress, the researchers had recently developed an imaging technique to play back Edison's records without touching them. A confocal microscope charts in exquisite detail variations in the depths of the grooves as small as a tenth of a micrometer, or about 1/250 the thickness of a human hair. Creating such a topographic map was essential because Edison's recording styluses cut grooves a few micrometers deeper or shallower depending on the timbre of the voice and the words spoken.

By piecing together millions of the microscopic measurements, the researchers assembled a 3D map of the entire cylinder. Software then translated the topographic map into audio signals, and Fabris recently found himself listening to a young woman reciting the well-known nursery rhyme.

Sound historian Patrick Feaster of Indiana University, Bloomington, dated the cylinder to 1888 by finding several archival documents, including newspaper articles from 1888 that referred to the toy doll records. A clipping from the 22 November 1888 edition of the New York Evening Sun described Edison showing off a prototype of his hand-cranked talking doll: "Then Mr. Edison wound up a brunette doll with jet black curls and sparkling brown eyes. This doll started off at a brisk rate with the following: 'Twinkle, twinkle, little star, How I wonder what you are, Up above the world so high, Like a diamond in the sky.' ... and she recited it with feeling and expression."

Fabris announced the finding today on the museum's Web site.The newspaper accounts suggest "these would have been the first phonograph recordings made with the intention of being sold to the public," Feaster says—although Edison abandoned metal cylinders for wax ones for his brief, unsuccessful foray into selling the fragile talking dolls in 1890.

Edison had begun marketing the phonograph to businessmen, who would dictate letters on the cylinder records that stenographers could then play back at a slower speed and transcribe on the recently invented typewriter. But entertainment records were already in demand for penny arcades and touring phonograph exhibition concerts, and Edison wanted to take full advantage of those opportunities, Feaster says. Home phonographs and records came later.

Edison's first phonograph, which he invented in 1877, recorded sound on strips of tinfoil, wrapped around a cylindrical drum, that could be played back only a few times before the grooves wore out. By 1888, more durable records, including wax-coated cardboard tubes and solid tin rings, had been developed.

"Each tin ring had to be recorded individually, a monotonous job for which the women were presumably being paid," Feaster adds. "If so, they would seem to have been the first professional phonograph performers."

Haber and Cornell have recovered the audio on several other cylinders using the same topographic method. One of the cylinders they're now hoping to examine, which long ago broke into two pieces, was the first attempt to synchronize speech with a silent film clip.