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Optical Imaging Study of the 1878 St. Louis Edison Tinfoil Recording
One of the oldest audio recordings of a musical performance — and possibly the oldest ever of an American voice — has been restored and is being heard for the first time publicly since it was recorded 134 years ago.
The audio, recorded on tin foil by Thomas Edison using one of his early phonographs, was made during a 1878 museum demonstration in St. Louis. The audio includes a man and a woman reciting nursery rhymes, bursts of laughter, and a cornet solo (listen to the talking tin foil audio clips below).
Dense with diagrams and scientific method, the project summary also provides insight into the mind-melting marvel of hearing a machine talk back for the first time. In his writings, Edison detailed a personal account of the invention:
I designed a little machine using a cylinder provided with grooves around the surface. Over this was to be placed tinfoil, which easily received and recorded the movements of the diaphragm ... Kruesi (the machinist), when he had nearly finished it, asked what it was for.
I told him I was going to record talking, and then have the machine talk back. He thought it absurd. However, it was finished, the foil was put on; I then shouted 'Mary had a little lamb,' etc. I adjusted the reproducer, and the machine reproduced it perfectly.
I was never so taken aback in my life. Everybody was astonished. I was always afraid of things that worked the first time.
Despite Edison's above account of shouting a nursery rhyme on a recording, it's somewhat unclear if it's his voice on this recording. Experts believe the voice is actually that of political writer Thomas Mason.
Restoration for the optical imaging study required specialized tools developed at the University of California Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in collaboration with the Library of Congress (watch videos below to see the restoration in action).
Hear Thomas Edison's talking tin foil for the first time since 1878.
KPCC's Shirley Jahad speaks with restoration experts about how the sound was brought back to life.
Watch the machines in action.