An Indiana University historian has discovered and restored what might be the oldest gramophone recording in the world, using a technique he developed himself.
The recording might not sound perfect, but it represents an important milestone in the history of recorded sound.
The poem IU sound media historian Patrick Feaster restored and played back sounds distorted and it’s difficult to understand. But the basic fact there’s audio is something worth noting.
Emile Berliner invented the gramophone in the late 1800s. He recorded the German poem “Der Handschuh” in 1889, before the device was even available to consumers.
The recording no longer exists in disc form, but Feaster found pictures of the record printed in a magazine. He explains how it’s done:
How did I play this back? I made a high-resolution scan of the image in the magazine. Opened it up in photoshop, changed it from a spiral—it’s a disc recording in a spiral shape—into a set of straight lines. Clipped out each of the lines individually, strung them end to end, and then did some graphic processing on those so I could feed them into a program.
The program he used was created for playing optical film soundtracks, but he modified it to suit his needs. At each step of the process, from the printed picture, to Photoshop, to the special software, the audio quality gets a little more distorted.
But he knew the recording was the poem “Der Handschuh” from the caption in the magazine. “It’s a very well-known poem in Germany,” he says. It’s as recognizable as German work as Shakespeare is in English.
To hear the poem, it is muddled, and it’s clear that unless the listener knew the work, it would be hard to understand. The audio quality isn’t great—until you consider that it started out as an image in a magazine.