Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Old Sounds

I find this fascinating. The Smithsonian and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) have used modern technology to decode audio originally recorded in the 1880s. As explained at, the 1880s was a fertile decade of experimentation in sound recording. Once the basic principle of capturing air vibrations in a permanent physical medium was understood, scientists and engineers "recorded sound magnetically. They recorded sound optically, with light. They tried to reproduce sound with mechanical tools, also with jets of air and liquid. It was an explosion of ideas...." Many of their experiments were lost to history because the one-of-a-kind devices that recorded and played them were long gone. Until now.

Mark Twain's recently released autobiography mentions Mr. Clemens trying out one of the earliest wax cylinder recording devices, procured from Thomas Edison himself, in 1891. Clemens was a beta tester/early adopter, if you will. He said he recorded four dozen cylinders but found the device too unwieldy for literary work, and quickly went back to dictating to a secretary. None of those recordings are known to have survived; consequently, no one today knows exactly what Clemens sounded like. Can you imagine if even one of those cylinders were found and restored? What a treasure it would be to hear Mark Twain narrating his own writing!
Film of Twain shot by Edison in 1909. Unfortunately,
Mr. Clemens didn't live long enough to make a Talkie.

Karen and I have an old hand-cranked phonograph that came to us through her family, a Pathe Actuelle made about 1924. It spent decades in a garage and, except for its beautifully glossy lid, most of its finish is dry, cracked and nearly black. I verrry painstakingly removed some spattered paint from the doors but we've otherwise left it alone, afraid to refinish it. I actually prefer it the way it is. Good honest wear.

I love this thing. I've learned that this model had an unusual design and there aren't many of them around. Instead of the familiar horn, a carefully suspended paper cone at the end of the tone arm amplifies and produces sound. I try to play it every few weeks just to keep the spring limber. Here's a little video of the phonograph in action that I just shot this morning for this post:

By the way, at about 1:05 into the recording you can hear a squeaky meow from Amber the Simple Cat, rubbing through my legs and wondering what's going on. Also by the way, yeah, that's Scotch tape holding the paper cone together. It was torn when we got it. I'm ashamed, but it was necessary until we come up with something better. An additional by the way: we installed our modern stereo equipment in the bottom of the phonograph cabinet, where records were stored way back when. I enjoy the irony.

Can you imagine what it would have been like to bring one of these machines into an early 20th Century home? Powered by nothing but a coiled spring (no electricity required), it would have opened a universe of songs, symphonies, lectures, stories. The World in a wooden box. People who'd never heard music more sophisticated than a small-town brass band suddenly knew Beethoven and Wagner. What a miracle! I imagine radio and television had a similar impact; the Internet may prove to. But I can't think of any other invention in the last hundred years that even comes close.

Every time I play our phonograph, I picture family and friends gathered around it 90 years ago, marvelling at the noise. I'm sure they danced to it; Karen and I find it impossible not to.


Lynn Ceteras Huerta said...

Very awesome!!

ronnie said...

This is amazing - one of the best posts you've done for sheer "wow" value. I love your thoughts about how bringing one of these into the home opened up the world - never thought of phonographs that way. Take care of that baby and continue to not "fix" it - any devoted viewer of Antiques Road Show knows that more antiques are ruined by good-intentioned efforts to protect/fix them than to the ravages of time.

Brian Fies said...

Thanks for the comments! Never fear, the phonograph is one of our great family treasures, we'll treat it right.

Jim O'Kane said...

Your post spawned a lively discussion between Nancy and me about the impact of the phonograph on domestic life. Nancy agrees with you that the phonograph filled people's lives with things they'd never (quite literally) heard of before.

I take the contrarian position: the music of the phonograph had been a part of American homes for decades, in the form of the parlor piano. Sheet music sales were at their all-time high in the first decade of the 20th Century, and folks were already well-acquainted with Beethoven and Wagner because many had played their compositions on their own instruments. To me, the phonograph hastened the era of the spectator and diminished the role of ordinary folks being the creators of entertainment. Double-edged sword and all that.

Brian Fies said...

Just what I'd expect from a down-home fiddle player....

Agreed that participating in making music is a wonderful thing, but audiences--spectators--have been part of musical performance since the beginning. The first guy who pounded a log with a stick was surrounded by a dozen others who couldn't keep a beat, and Mozart never invited his audience on-stage. The phonograph brought the concert hall into your living room.

I just imagine someone growing up far from a big city. Maybe once in a while they get to a hoedown, maybe a trumpeter plays on the Fourth of July. And then one day Pa brings home a box that plays Beethoven's Ninth by a full symphony orchestra. The thought gives me goosebumps. Even from a musician's POV, imagine a fiddle player who learned everything he or she can from their little community of local fiddle players, then one day hears the best violinist in the world. A church singer who one day hears the best choir in the world. Wouldn't that be an eye-opener?

Remember too that early records weren't just music. An old 78 might've been someone's first opportunity to hear a great speech, another language, or their president's voice. I admit there's a narrow window of time before radio accomplished the same thing, but I bet that time was amazing.