Using a Microscope, Scientists Resurrect a 123-year-old Recording

By Veronique Greenwood | July 7, 2011 12:58 pm

spacing is important
The recording’s grooves, seen through the microscope.

What’s the News: More than a century ago, Thomas Edison recorded a woman speaking the first verse of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” on a metal cylinder for use in a talking doll. Now, scientists using microscopes to create 3D scans of the badly damaged cylinder have made it possible to hear her voice again, through the patina of years.

How the Heck:

  • The recording is encoded in a series of grooves carved by a stylus into a short cylinder or ring of metal, which was found in Thomas Edison’s West Orange, NJ, laboratory, now a museum. But the cylinder had grown so warped that it could not be played on any phonograph or similar device.
  • Using a confocal microscope, usually used by biologists for making detailed 3D images of cells and cellular structures, scientists at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory scanned the cylinder to recording the meanderings of the grooves, whose slight variations in depth correspond to modulations in the voice of the speaker.
  • When they hooked their topographical map of the cylinder up to audio software, they heard, through the skips and scratches, the words of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.”
  • Listen to the recording for yourself

    The metal cylinder with the recording on it.

  • To date the recording, an audio historian dug through newspaper archives and found a series of references in 1888 to dolls sold by Thomas Edison that recited those very words. The New York Evening Sun includes a description of demonstration of the hand-cranked doll, which you can see a picture of here:

    “Then Mr. Edison wound up a brunette doll with jet black curls and sparkling brown eyes. This doll started off at a brisk rate with the following: ‘Twinkle, twinkle, little star, How I wonder what you are, Up above the world so high, Like a diamond in the sky.’ … and she recited it with feeling and expression.”

What’s the Context:

  • The historian, Patrick Feaster of Indiana University, Bloomington, thinks that this might have been the first recording to have been sold commercially, an attempt by Edison to find a market for his phonograph technology and an early precursor to that new Beyonce album. There was no way to duplicate sound recordings yet, though, so he hired women to record each cylinder individually, in a kind of audio sweatshop. The Evening Sun describes the set-up:

    “There were two young ladies in the room…who were continually talking to the tiny speaking machines, which a skilled workman was turning out in great numbers.” (via the National Park Service)

  • Though trumpeted breathlessly by the newspapers, the dolls didn’t sell—they were too fragile, in part because Edison had switched to using wax cylinders by the time the dolls were manufactured, and they had a tendency to break.
  • Edison, remembered by schoolchildren today primarily as the inventor of the first practical light bulb, was also the inventor of the phonograph. In fact, with more than 1,000 patents to his name, Edison influenced many of the devices we use today, from the video camera to the electric chair. For more details about the doll’s development, check out the National Park Service’s scans of Edison’s papers.

The Future Holds: The researchers are using the technique on other damaged recordings made by Edison, including the first recording intended to sync dialogue up with a motion picture.

(via Science Now and the National Park Service)

Image credit: National Park Service

MORE ABOUT: audio, Edison, microscopes

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