Latest technology helps restore sound to oldest recording

The 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 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 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, N.J.

“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 at Santa Barbara, who was not part of the study.

The record was discovered in 1967 at the West Orange site, now a museum, where Edison and his assistants perfected and produced records and the first motion picture. Originally a ring-shaped piece of metal whose exterior had been incised with grooves by a stylus, the record had become so distorted that it could no longer be played by a phonograph stylus or any other method requiring direct contact.

Jerry Fabris, museum curator of the Thomas Edison National Historical Park, took the cylinder to the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, which had recently helped develop an imaging technique to play Edison’s records without touching them. By piecing together millions of microscopic measurements, the researchers assembled a 3-D map of the entire cylinder. Software then translated this topographic map into audio signals.

Sound historian Patrick Feaster of Indiana University in Bloomington dated the cylinder to 1888 by finding several archival documents, including newspaper articles from that year that referred to the toy doll records.

These accounts suggest that “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 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.

Ron Cowen

This articlewas produced by ScienceNOW, the daily online news service of the journal Science.