Berkeley lab researchers restore earliest sound from Edison’s tinfoil phonograph

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In an era when a portable music player the size of a thumbnail can carry thousands of songs, few would expect a piece of tinfoil to carry the first recorded and playable sound in history.

But Carl Haber, a physicist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and his team have restored sounds first recorded in 1878 through a Thomas Edison-invented phonograph.

The roughly 78-second sound clip, called the St. Louis Edison tinfoil recording, begins with the sound of brass instruments that are followed by recitations of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and “Old Mother Hubbard,” which were interrupted intermittently with laughter.

To record the sounds, Edison transferred sound waves from the air into a diaphragm on a phonograph. A stylus mechanism on the device was used to emboss a sheet of moving tinfoil with a physical representation of the sound variations, according to Haber. He added that the sound could be replayed by effectively reversing the process.

But the foil can tear after only a couple replays on the phonograph, so Haber and his team digitally recovered the sound using a high-resolution microscope to create a surface map of the foil’s topography. The map was then processed into digital sound files using mathematical analysis and physical modeling to track the movement of the needle that first embossed the foil 134 years ago. Haber first publicly played the digital reproduction of the sound to an audience of about 200 in New York on Oct. 25.

“The tinfoil had been rolled up like a roll of toilet paper,”Haber said. “It was torn all over the place, which made it even more difficult.”

Mark Guadagni, a campus junior and one of four main researchers credited with the sound resurrection, built the apparatus used to hold the foil, which was wrapped in seven layers, so the microscope could capture the entire recording without interruption.

“When the camera has to take pictures in the scale of microns, precision was everything,” Guadagni said. “(The foil) was so delicate, I didn’t even touch it.”

Haber’s team first resurrected sound recorded by French printer Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville in the 1860s using a similar method in 2008. Scott de Martinville had recorded the sound on paper using a device that created visual images of sound waves. The phonograph, invented by Edison in 1877, was the first device that both recorded and played back sound.

Carlene Stephens, a curator at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History and a partner of the restoration project, says the recovered recordings are “an invaluable heritage.”

“Recorded sounds give tremendous insights into the culture of not only America but also the entire world at the time,” Stephens said. “The rapid development of communication methods was prevalent all around the world.”

Contact Dan Kwak at [email protected]