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Voices from the past

by Bruno Van de Casteele

February 10, 2013

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Donate Recently, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory has resurrected a very old recording from 1878. Not the oldest recording ever (dating from1860), but it seems the oldest in the States. PBS has a nice, although long-winded, segment on it, after the jump.


This is not your average vinyl or tape recorder. The material is a tinfoil that had to be wrapped around a cylinder. That cylinder then needed to be turned, and a small needle would record audio, or play back what was recorded. All this from the genius called Thomas Edison.

However, this recording was in a very bad shape. It had been folded and put away in an envelope for about 140 years. Even if you could find a working model to play it back, the tinfoil was in such a bad shape that it would be simply destroyed when playing back. The researchers at the laboratory came up with an amazing alternative: they scanned the entire foil with a depth-sensitive microscope, and then wrote software to simulate reading out the grooves from the image.


The result, a window into the past, can be listened to on their website. It's a combination of brass instruments playing, a nursery rhyme and someone laughing. It's most probably not Thomas Edison himself on the track, but an "early adopter" from St Louis.

In closing however, I would like to point out that the recordings we create now, won't be so lucky. I think it will be very hard to read a magnetic hard drive 140 years from now, let alone find the correct decoder to play back any files you would be lucky to reconstruct. Please make sure you have sufficient backups, stored securely and recopied every five years for those items which you want to preserve. Think about researchers in the future, give them a chance to decode your lolcat and Psy videos...

by Bruno Van de Casteele

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