Another Triumph in Audio Archeology
T-r-r—T-r-r—There are more things in heaven and earth Horatio, than are dreamed of in our philosophy—T-r-r—I am a Graphophone and my mother was a Phonograph.
After "Mary Had a Little Lamb," this is perhaps the most widely quoted test recording in the early history of recorded sound, but for many years nobody had been able to listen to it.
It was made at the Volta Laboratory in Washington DC on or shortly before September 25, 1881—cut into the groove of an Edison demonstration model tinfoil phonograph that had been filled with wax, and originally intended for playback with a jet of compressed air. It was deposited with the Smithsonian Institution a month later in a sealed box that was finally opened to great fanfare in 1937. There is some skepticism today about newspaper reports that claim the recording was played back at that time, but René Rondeau wrote in Tinfoil Phonographs (2001) that "the sound impressions in the wax-filled grooves are still very clear and there is no doubt this recording could be played again with modern equipment."
Now the same collaborative endeavor that gave us our first chance to listen to the work of the Volta Laboratory back in December 2011 has succeeded in extracting sound from this famous recording as well. Most media coverage has focused on the playback of another important recording—a test recitation spoken by Alexander Graham Bell in 1885—but we consider the recovery of the 1881 prototype graphophone recording to be just as noteworthy: it finally lets us hear a well-known landmark in the history of recorded sound which we've known until now only through a written transcript. First Sounds congratulates its friends at the National Museum of American History, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and the Library of Congress on another triumph of archeophony.
Listen to the recording:
Read about the recording:
- Smithsonian Magazine: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history-archaeology/We-Had-No-Idea-What-Alexander-Graham-Bell-Sounded-Like-Until-Now-204137471.html
- New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/30/science/alexander-graham-bells-voice-animals-in-space-and-more.html?_r=1&
- Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory: http://irene.lbl.gov/
PHONAUTOGRAM - Extended Edit
Early this year Studio 360 broadcast an entertaining piece on Scott de Martinville's phonautograms and their induction onto the Library of Congress' National Recording Registry. Producer Ben Manilla has provided First Sounds with an extended cut of this piece which we greatly prefer. Our thanks to Ben and his staff at Ben Manilla Productions.
Download mp3: Studio 360 interview
Proof of Concept: Volta Lab Recordings Played Back
The most significant cache of sound recordings from the 1880s – and certainly one of the most intriguing audio collections from any period – has resided for nearly a century inside the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Hundreds of recordings made by the principals of the Volta Laboratory of Washington DC – Alexander Graham Bell, Chichester Bell, and Charles Sumner Tainter – document the invention of essential technologies upon which the American Graphophone Company, Columbia Records, and the recorded entertainment industry were founded. They contain the only known recordings of Alexander Graham Bell's voice. And they are the only surviving recordings intended for playback which we can date confidently to the years 1881 through 1886. Yet they have remained essentially unknown to most modern historians.
Upon hearing First Sound's playback of Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville's phonautograms in 2008, NMAH Curator Carlene Stephens began examining the Volta Lab artifacts in earnest to explore the possibility of getting sounds out of the recordings in her care. In 2009, she began working with Library of Congress Digital Conversion Specialist Peter Alyea and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory scientists Carl Haber and Earl Cornell, the latter having been key collaborators on our initial playback of "Au Clair de la Lune." During 2011, this endeavor culminated in Haber and Cornell's scanning and playback of six recordings using noninvasive systems they had developed in collaboration with the Library of Congress. Meanwhile, First Sounds cofounder Patrick Feaster made an initial visit to NMAH in December 2010 and then returned for a lengthier stay from October through December 2011 with the support of a Lemelson Center Fellowship. While in residence, he systematically cataloged each recording's physical characteristics and, wherever possible, located the contemporaneous lab notes that document the artifact.
Drs. Feaster and Haber recently presented their findings at the Smithsonian. Dr. Haber played six recordings that allow us to eavesdrop on inventors conducting experiments, tinkering with their apparatus, reciting test phrases and doggerel intended to be heard only by their laboratory colleagues. Dr. Feaster contextualized each recording to reveal the inventors’ ideas, approaches, aspirations, and frustrations as they tested their technologies one laborious experiment at a time. We summarize these results here.
First Sounds congratulates all parties on their promising proofs of concept. And we look forward to continued collaborations as the Smithsonian and its colleagues seek additional funding to preserve and interpret all of these extraordinary artifacts.
- First Sounds explains the six recordings
- Smithsonian Institution News Room Fact Sheet on the Sound Recovery Project
Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville's Phonautograms added to the National Recording Registry
The Phonautograms of Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville, discovered and played back for the first time in 2008 by First Sounds founders David Giovannoni, Patrick Feaster, Richard Martin and Meagan Hennessey, with the help of Carl Haber and Earl Cornell at Lawrence Berkeley Labs, have been added to the Library of Congress' National Recording Registry. Read the official press release.
In his lifetime Scott de Martinville saw public recognition of his recording experiments eclipsed by Edison's phonograph. In his will he asked his children and grandchildren to ensure that his name and accomplishments would not be forgotten. We at First Sounds are honored to have helped answer his request, and we are gratified that the National Recording Preservation Board and the Librarian of Congress have acknowledged his sound recordings with this well-deserved recognition.
Learn More about First Sounds
Gearwire asked David Giovannoni about First Sounds between sessions at the fall Audio Engineering Society convention in New York.
About First Sounds
First Sounds is an informal collaborative of audio historians, recording engineers, sound archivists, scientists, other individuals, and organizations who aim to make mankind's earliest sound recordings available to all people for all time. Read more »
Learn more about what First Sounds has achieved:
- First Sounds' research featured on page 1 of the March 27 New York Times
- Listen to the World's Oldest sound
- First Sounds featured on March 27 edition of NPR's All Things Considered
- Read press release about international debut of Scott phonautograms