Sometime in 1890, Emile Berliner recorded the first album in the history of the world. Then, that record by the father of the gramophone was destroyed. Today, Patrick Feaster, a sound historian at Indiana University, recreated the album using just a printed photograph of the album. His technique defies belief.
Feaster found the photo of the album by chance, in a German magazine from 1890 stored at Bloomington’s Herman B Wells Library:
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.
Let me emphasize that last point: there was no relief on that photo. As the video above shows, it was printed on paper. The image was completely flat, absolutely bi-dimensional. It had none of the three-dimensional valleys and mountains that make the sound in a vinyl album.
But Fester is an expert on resuscitating records from photographs. He scanned that image at a very high resolution. Then, using image processing software, he enhanced the resulting image. After obtaining the sound profile hidden in the shadows of the print, he used software to recreate the actual sound.
What he heard left him speechless: it was the voice of the father of the gramophone, Emile Berliner, reciting Friedrich Schiller’s ballad Der Handschuh:
Vor seinem Löwengarten
Das Kampfspiel zu erwarten
Saß König Franz
Und um ihn die Großen der Krone
Und rings auf hohem Balkone
Die Damen in schönem Kranz
Feaster has used this technique three times before. One of them was a test recording by Berliner, made in Hanover in 1889. And in that recording, Berliner talks with someone called Louis Rosenthal. According to Feaster, Rosenthal was helping Berliner, experimenting with photographic duplication:
In that recording, Berliner tells us he’s making a record for Rosenthal to experiment with. He shares that they’re in this particular building in Hanover, and then he recites some poetry, sings a song and counts to 20 in several languages.
And that record would be the one that Feaster recreated just now:
After weighing the evidence, my colleague and I conclude Berliner must have demonstrated the recording process for Rosenthal and then sent him home with the record they’d made together, plus a few others Berliner had prepared previously. If we’re right, the Der Handschuh recording must be the older of the two recordings, making it the oldest gramophone recording available anywhere for listening today — the earliest audible progenitor of the world’s vintage vinyl.
I love that there are people like Feaster and his colleagues in the world. [Indiana University]