One of my hobbies is collecting and researching recording technology from the late 19th century and early 20th century, which represents some of the earliest recordings known. This hobby turned to a front-page New York Times article (Restored Edison Records Revive Giants of 19th Century) with the discovery and identification of late 19th-century cylinder recordings of Bismarck and other German notables:
The cylinders, from 1889 and 1890, include the only known recording of the voice of the powerful chancellor Otto von Bismarck. Two preserve the voice of Helmuth von Moltke, a venerable German military strategist, reciting lines from Shakespeare and from Goethe’s “Faust” into a phonograph horn. (Moltke was 89 when he made the recordings — the only ones known to survive from someone born as early as 1800.)
In June 1889, Edison sent Wangemann to Europe, initially to ensure that the phonograph at the Paris World’s Fair remained in working order. After Paris, Wangemann toured his native Germany, recording musical artists and often visiting the homes of prominent members of society who were fascinated with the talking machine.
Read the rest of the article to learn more about the technology behind the historical recordings, as well as other recent breakthroughs in our understanding of early audio technology.
Many people love an old recording, but few take their love as far as Patrick Feaster. In my Science article Archaeologist of Sound, Feaster’s work as a sound historian understanding and restoring the earliest known recordings is explored. From the article:
And now Feaster, a friendly but intense 40-year-old with a slender build and a photographic memory for anything phonographic, had first crack at helping bring back to life the lost sounds of 130 years ago. His 2-month stint in the “nation’s attic” had turned up undreamed-of finds, including long-lost cylinders recorded at the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris and what may be the first-ever sound recording on a disk. Archives and artifacts, however, are only part of Feaster’s chosen work. Just as important, he says, is his mission of using modern technology to resurrect long-vanished voices and sounds—some of them never intended to be revived.
By then, Feaster and colleagues David Giovannoni, Richard Martin, and Meagan Hennessey had formed FirstSounds.org, a group devoted to finding and disseminating the earliest sound recordings. The team had been nominated for a Grammy for its CD Actionable Offenses, a compilation of bawdy wax-cylinder recordings from the 1890s. Another CD, Debate ’08, reissued 22 recordings by presidential candidates William Howard Taft and William Jennings Bryan during the 1908 campaign—the first time sound bites were used in a presidential election, Feaster says.
“Today, we can listen—with a little work—to virtually any waveform we can see [Feaster] says. Two years ago, in some of his most far-ranging efforts to date, he applied his software to the musical notation found in a 10th-century manuscript of the Enchiriadis treatise, a medieval work on music theory. The result was a 7-minute sound file that Feaster calls “the closest thing you’re likely to hear to a 1000-year-old phonautogram.” Feaster has also applied software to “play” other historic musical notations—“as though a sound synthesizer were being programmed directly by medieval monks,” he says.
If you don’t have a Science account, you can read this pdf version of the full article about Feaster, the technology he uses, and some of his incredible finds.
Update: This article won the Acoustical Society of America’s Science Writing Award for 2011-2013.