Scientists reproduce sound from 123-year-old phonograph

A 12-second recording from what is believed to be the first surviving talking doll could be the first-ever commercial recording, according to historians.

The audio, posted online on July 6 by the National Parks Service, was captured on a 123-year-old cylinder phonograph. The recording featured an unidentified woman reciting one verse of the nursery rhyme “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.”

Jerry Fabris, museum curator of the Thomas Edison National Historical Park, brought the doll to the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory after he saw Carl Haber, a senior scientist in the lab’s physics division, give a presentation on scanning technology for old records.

Haber and Earl Cornell, a lab computer systems engineer,  used 3-D optical scanning technology to create a digital model of the surface of the record, allowing them to use modern image analysis methods to reproduce the audio and save it as a digital audio file.

Haber said that in order to reproduce the audio, the surface of the recording was profiled in three dimensions to make a high resolution topographic map. By monitoring the movement of the needle, they were able to classify the audio as a vertical recording, meaning that the phonograph’s needle moves up and down. It was easy to identify the recording as vertical because “Edison recordings are typically up and down.”

“We were already starting from a well-developed system,” Haber said. “We probably spent half a day making measurements, but it took years to get to a point where we could do such a thing.”

Haber said that the discovery was much bigger than just the project itself. Since 2003, scientists have “been at the laboratory developing a bunch of techniques to use optical measurement to restore early sound recordings,” he said.

The recording, which has been unheard since Edison’s lifetime, represents a significant discovery in the the history of recorded sound technology.

“You can look at (the recording) as the birth of the recording industry,” Haber said. “I’m very pleased that we could work with what historians believe to be an important milestone to the history of technology.”

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