Read my Scientific American article about the discoveries made when scientists turn data into sound. If you don’t have a Scientific American subscription, you can read the pdf version of the piece.
You haven’t heard it all until you’ve heard Bismarck and others from the 1800s. In my recent New York Times article, recently discovered Edison records and the work that went into identifying who is featured on those records is covered:
Restored Edison Records Revive Giants of 19th-Century Germany
Tucked away for decades in a cabinet in Thomas Edison’s laboratory, just behind the cot in which the great inventor napped, a trove of wax cylinder phonograph records has been brought back to life after more than a century of silence.
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.) Other records found in the collection hold musical treasures — lieder and rhapsodies performed by German and Hungarian singers and pianists at the apex of the Romantic era, including what is thought to be the first recording of a work by Chopin.
Read the full story.
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.