October 25, 2012

Researchers recover 1878 Edison audio

Experts say it's the oldest playable recording of an American voice and the first-ever capturing of a musical performance.

Chris Carola / The Associated Press

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Josh Hauk, an archival assistant at the Museum of Innovation and Science, demonstrates the use of an 1879 tinfoil phonograph on Wednesday in Schenectady, N.Y.

AP

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A 1888 photo of Thomas Edison listening to a wax cylinder phonograph.

AP / Museum of Innovation and Science

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Listen to entire 78-second tinfoil recording

A Connecticut woman donated the tinfoil to the Schenectady museum in 1978 for an exhibit on the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Edison company that later merged with another to form GE. The woman's father had been an antiques dealer in the Midwest and counted the item among his favorites, Hunter said.

In July, Hunter brought the Edison tinfoil recording to California's Berkeley Lab, where researchers such as Carl Haber have had success in recent years restoring some of the earliest audio recordings.

Haber's projects include recovering a snippet of a folk song recorded a capella in 1860 on paper by Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville, a French printer credited with inventing the earliest known sound recording device.

Haber and his team used optical scanning technology to replicate the action of the phonograph's stylus, reading the grooves in the foil and creating a 3D image, which was then analyzed by a computer program that recovered the original recorded sound.

The achievement restores a vital link in the evolution of recorded sound, Haber said. The artifact represents Edison's first step in his efforts to record sound and have the capability to play it back, even if it was just once or twice, he said.

"It really completes a technology story," Haber said. "He was on the right track from the get-go to record and play it back."

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