Indiana university historian Patrick Feaster recently discovered a record featuring the voice of Emile Berliner — inventor of the phonograph. Created in 1889, the record is likely the oldest in the world. What’s interesting, however, is how Feaster managed to obtain it: through a photograph. That’s right, Feaster discovered an image of the disc preserved in an old 1890 German magazine from the same year and then was able to recreate it by scanning and analyzing the photo.
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.’ So I flipped through and, lo and behold, there’s a paper print of the actual recording.
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. But we’ve done here what nobody else has done: played it back.
Feaster’s process of resurrecting sound from photos involves scanning the images at high resolution, unwinding the images, turning them into a linear file, and then sending the file through special software to turn it back into sound.
Here’s a short video in which Feaster talks about his work:
Image credit: Photograph courtesy of Indiana University