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Scientists Recover Oldest Playable American Recording (theatlantic.com)
108 points by atlantic 1789 days ago | hide | past | web | 25 comments | favorite

For anyone wondering, the current oldest playable audio recordings were produced by the phonautograph (1857)[1], which was made for studying acoustics. They were write-only until 2008, when they became playable via computers. There's a sample on Youtube. [2]

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phonautograph

[2] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s0fhEpxrFvo

Some of the same people who worked on the Edison audio (Carl Haber) were also responsible for recovering the phonautograph audio.

The phonautograph was essentially a mechanical audio oscillograph. It graphed the sound waves on paper by conducting the acoustic vibrations to a stiff bristle up against lamp-black blackened paper wrapped around a slowly moving hand-cranked drum. The white traces left behind allowed properties such as frequency and amplitude to be estimated.

I wonder if its inventor, Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville, ever contemplated the problem of reproducing the graphed sound.

The time between about 1860 and 1910 seems totally magical to me.

For all of history, people lived, loved, and died. Aside from perhaps a few of them writing their thoughts down, they totally disappeared.

With the invention of still photography, and much more audio and moving-picture recording technology, suddenly you could see and hear people who were long gone.

These folks are not just dead. Their kids are dead, their grandkids are dead, their great-grandkids are probably also gone. Yet we are able to hear them play music, tell stories, and laugh. They might even tell a joke and we can laugh along with it.

It's as if mankind suddenly came out of a very dark tunnel. We are finally able to really coalesce into a multi-generational conversation about what our humanity means. (A little too poetic. Apologies. I just find it amazing)

I wonder if the late 1990s to roughly now will be seen as a audio, video, still picture dark ages of sorts.

The average consumer was astounded by low quality mp3 audio over a record, cassette tape or later on compact disc. Sort of like fast food, convenience over quality.

It's also the same for photography I remember the first digital cameras and they had horrible resolution and colour depth but it was amazing to have a film-less camera. Video being a close cousin to pictures got worse in quality too but more affordable and convenient no more giant saddle bag and shoulder-crushing camera.

Looking back years from now family pictures and audio will be great up to roughly the mid 1990s then from then on until the early 2000s the bottom fell out.

While I know the 1950's had high quality radio all I have heard is recordings which tend to have all sorts of problems so that's not how I picture it. So, even though mp3 might seem like poor quality they don't degrade and in 100 years it may seem like we finally got rid of all that hissing and popping. As to video, home movies have gotten steadily better. A 1990 handycam is in many ways worse than what you can get from an iPad 3.

PS: Not to mention people tend to compress history as it get's older, out side of historians who can really separate the 1180's from the 1190's in Ireland?

I think dark ages is a bit strong. Especially since a lot of the pictures from the earlier part of that period using the then inferior technology are mostly surplus photos. IE photos that would have been taken using film were still mostly being taken using film. Digital photos were/are surplus photos.

I take a lot of pictures now on my phone. I took very few pictures before one year ago (when I got my first camera phone).

No, it's not too poetic--it strikes just the right chord and really resonated with me.

Wealthy patrician Romans used to keep busts of their ancestors in a hallway in the entrance to their home to keep them (and their guests) reminded about whence they came. We might be able to do something similar for our ancestors, except with "living" imagery and audio. Imagine being able to watch a clip of your great-great-great grandfather and hearing him speak! That's what future generations have to look forward to.

I'm with you --- it was an amazing transformation in our link to the past. But don't underestimate the power of written language to carry on that multi-generational conversation. We can read the thoughts of people who died thousands of years ago, and we still have a lot to learn from them.

>Their kids are dead, their grandkids are dead, their great-grandkids are probably also gone.

Well, my grandma was born in 1919. Close enough?

You just discovered transitoriness of being.

It must have been "magical" to be able to hear your own voice played back during those times. I wonder if in 100 years from now people will wonder if we though smartphones were magical.

Does anyone know if the noise in the recording is because the foil is so old and that's the best they can recover, or if that's how it was played back originally?

I think the whole thing is magic now. That here in my bedroom, this box can link me 135 years into the past just strikes me as incredible.

In some sense I agree with you. Not specifically the 135 years ago, but the idea of real time global communication in general is magical. But we had that with radio/tv (mostly) 30 years ago, just without as many channels as today. The magic to me today is that a) it's something I can contribute to, on equal footing as anyone else, b) it's done with technology that I can actually understand and contribute to.

At the same time, much of the 'magic' feeling I used to get has turned in to 'eh', just because it's such an ingrained part of life now. I remember my grandfather telling a story of taking a polaroid photo of ... his parents? (or in-laws, I can't remember), then taking the photo to the other room to let it dry/develop for the 2 mins or so it took, then taking it back to show them, and seeing how amazed they looked at it. IIRC I think that was the 60s when that happened. But my memory of the story is now hazy, and I think his was a bit when he told me it to me :)

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic" -- Arthur C. Clarke.

I think many people without much insight into electronics or computers would consider smartphones quite magical already.

doh, a 100-year misunderstanding of today's people created by Apple's marketing material.

I don't understand a word, but it must have been funny: I can hear laughter at 0:58

I had a chance to work with Carl Haber while at Berkeley. He is brilliant and recovering these recordings is not as trivial as one might think. Kudos to him and team for this achievement.

Did that image remind anyone else of Joy Division?


Isn't there a theory somewhere that there have been accidental recordings in the past when objects vibrate against another and make grooves?

That would be amazing to discover an accidental recording from 1000 years ago that can be recovered using laser scanning to decode.

Wikipedia calls it archaeoacoustics [1], and I've seen it called paleoacoustics elsewhere. There was a hoax in 2006 involving sound from Pompeii. [2]

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Archaeoacoustics

[2] http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/002875.h...

edit: fixed an autocorrect typo

It would seem the insurmountable stumbling block there would be the need to move whatever was acting as the stylus against whatever was the recording medium at a fairly constant, or at least discoverable, rate for the duration of the recording.

One day, we'll recover sound from vibrations recorded in paint and mortar.

Where's the evidence we'll be able to do that?

just amazing. i can only wonder what levels of reconstruction from data the future holds...

When I read

> For years the audio was trapped on the piece of foil you see above. There was no device that could play it and even if there had been, doing so would have likely ruined it. This summer, at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, California, physicist Carl Haber and his team were able to create a 3D picture of the foil whose topography could then be translated into sound using techniques of mathematical analysis and physical modeling to calculate how a needle would have played the recording. They were able to do so "without physically having to touch them," he explained to me. "And that's kind of the key issue, because these things are so old and fragile and torn-up, broken, and delicate that in many cases it just would not be possible to play them back in any of the more standard ways."

All I could think was "it's like audio cryonics!"

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