Thomas Edison is often credited with creating the oldest voice recording.
But IU sound media historian Patrick Feaster may have stumbled on something that dates a little earlier. When flipping through a copy of “Über Land und Meer,” a German military magazine, at Wells Library, a paper print of Frederich Schiller’s “Der Handschuh” fell from the book.
Feaster was able to extract sound from this image. He created a muffled track of Emile Berliner, father of the gramophone, speaking the lyrics to this song.
“I was looking for a picture of the oldest known recording studio, to illustrate a discussion I was giving on my work with Thomas Edison’s recordings. I pulled it off the shelf and, while I had it open, I looked at the index and saw there was an article on the gramophone. I thought, ‘Oh, that’s a bonus,’” Feaster said in a press release. “So, I flipped through and, lo and behold, there’s a paper print of the actual recording.”
Feaster was able to extract the sound from print by scanning the record-shaped image. He then unwound — or “de-spiraled” — image sections and linked the pieces.
This created a linear file that looks like a modern audio clip. He then ran it through specialized software to create a sound file.
Feaster had already played back three paper prints of using this method.
This experience helped him and colleague Stephan Puille of the University of Applied Sciences in Berlin date the recording.
One of the three prints Feaster previously brought to life was a German-language recording Berliner made in 1889 at Hanover College. Preserved by the Library of Congress, the print included Berliner demonstrating his recording process for a visitor named Louis Rosenthal.
“In that recording, Berliner tells us he’s making a record for Rosenthal to experiment with,” Feaster said. “He shares that they’re in this particular building in Hanover, and then he recites some poetry, sings a song and counts to 20 in several languages.”
Feaster found a magazine article on the main floor of the library, and the technical features of the print led him to believe his latest discovery was another recording Berliner had given Rosenthal.
He believes Rosenthal received it around 1889.
“After weighing the evidence, my colleague and I conclude Berliner must have demonstrated the recording process for Rosenthal and then sent him home with the record they’d made together, plus a few others Berliner had prepared previously,” Feaster said. “If we’re right, the ‘Der Handschuh’ recording must be the older of the two recordings, making it the oldest gramophone recording available anywhere for listening today — the earliest audible progenitor of the world’s vintage vinyl.”
According to a press release, Feaster’s find also represents the oldest known recording of a complete literary work in the German language.
“There are maybe 25 libraries in the world that have this issue. So it’s not a common item, but it isn’t exactly extremely rare either,” Feaster said. “But we’ve done here what nobody else has done: played it back.”
— Nona Tepper
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