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
  • Andrew

    Very creepy recording.

  • helizond

    This forensic application is very interesting. It seems strange that the recording we are listening to has been shifted down 5 semitones (from F to C, for example), which means that the original voice was much higher , shriller, and even creepier…
    This post reminded me of a Tech Tv program where an old guy had a one-of-a-kind cylinder with a recording which was going to show, but as he was handling it, it just broke in his hands; you could feel the despair in his voice… you can watch it here
    I wonder if we could somehow collect all the pieces, put it together, and scan it just like this doll’s cylinder…

  • Carlos

    Creepy is right… and she’s dead… you’ve all been haunted now.

  • John Lerch

    Isn’t it a topoGRAPHICal “map of the cylinder” rather than a “topological map…”?

  • Veronique Greenwood

    @John, hah! Fixed. Had been thinking about the topology of knitting, and somehow it crept in….

  • Corinne

    My grandmother was one of the first voices recorded by Thomas Edison, opera singer Odette LeFontenay. I have access to all of the original recordings, sheet music and photo’s. I wonder if any museums or collectors are interested in these?

  • Kevie

    @Corinne — Ya think? 😉 Better yet, just send them all to me. I’ll give you $1 for everything you’ve got 😉

  • harry

    Another one of TAE’s failed inventions, this guy was the ultimate showman of his era, stole ideas then claimed for himself the inventions. THEBILLGATESFOHISERA

  • Iain

    Thom may have over 1000 patents to his name, but that was part of the deal for working for him, his name went on every patent application. He wasn’t really a great man, he was a hoser!

  • andrew w

    ask tesla, he will tell you.

  • Wesley

    Some people will do anything for a bit of fame. I heard the same thing about Isaac Newton…
    And yeah, the recording is pretty creepy…

  • Jumblepudding

    I had thought she would be singing, not reciting it angrily. No wonder Edison’s talking dolls were a wash.

  • Josephus Hap

    Edison bought the patent for the incandescent lamp for $5000 from an English Medical Student Woodward in Toronto. Then he went to the Patent Office, withdrew the patent and resubmitted it immediately with one little change. The name of the inventor Woodward was now Thomas A Edison.
    He did that with all the patents that were invented by his engineers too.
    The USA Congress, declared him the greatest inventor of the century.
    He was a real Businessman The greatest inventor was Tesla.

  • sordatos

    @Josephus Hap: Not even a really good one, by the end the value of his business plometed down, due to (among other things like updates and rivals companies with more advance tech) bad administration.

    By nowdays everybody talks shit about companies that apply for patents that are modifications of existing products, or the fruit of engineers because they´re stealing and monopolizing. Edison not just bought invention, explode other REAL engnieers and scientists he downright stole inventions and everybody (US) calls him “greatest inventor” in the world.

    Go figure

  • acuvue oasys rebate

    I was basically browsing around and found your web site, You have got some good stuff to read, many thanks


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