Through The Static, The Voice Of History Scientists have recovered the oldest known commercial recording — an anonymous young woman reciting a nursery rhyme. The 1888 cylinder record was a prototype for a talking doll designed by Thomas Edison.
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Through The Static, The Voice Of History

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Through The Static, The Voice Of History

Through The Static, The Voice Of History

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(SOUNDBITE OF RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Twinkle, twinkle little star. How I wonder what you are.

RAZ: Don't touch that dial. That is not static. That's a voice you're hearing. It's barely audible through more than a century of neglect, but it is the voice of history. And the person you hear is reciting "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star."

(SOUNDBITE OF RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Up above the world so high, like a diamond in the sky.

RAZ: This recording was made by Thomas Edison. It's an anonymous young woman reciting that nursery rhyme in 1888. And Edison thought it might make a good voice for a line of talking dolls he was developing at the time.

Anyway, the dolls were actually a flop, but this little tin cylinder is the oldest known commercial recording. It was forgotten in a drawer in Edison's secretary's desk for almost 70 years. It was battered and bent and impossible to play. But now, scientists for the first time in more than a century have brought it back to life.

Gerry Fabris is the museum curator at the Thomas Edison National Park. He helped revive that lost voice, and he joins me now from member station WBGO in Newark. Gerry Fabris, welcome to the program.

GERRY FABRIS: Hi. Thanks for inviting me.

RAZ: So what's actually amazing, you could not play this recording up until just a few weeks ago. How did you make it happen?

FABRIS: Well, yeah, the recording is damaged. It's originally would have been a perfectly round cylinder. It's a ring-shaped artifact. But at some point in its history, maybe early on, it got squashed. At the historic site, we do have a really high quality modern playback machine for playing cylinders. But if I were to put this squashed record on it and I put the tone rim down, it would just bounce right off because of...

RAZ: It wouldn't work.

FABRIS: Yeah. It wasn't a smooth enough surface.

RAZ: So before you explain how you actually made this happen, just describe, you - the cylinder was inside the doll, right? It was basically, like, you know, you get these talking dolls now and you pull the string and they, or I guess you press the battery, you press the button and there's batteries. But this cylinder was inside the doll and you would pull a string and then it would say "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star"?

FABRIS: It was designed to go inside of a doll. The doll is about 22 inches high, and it had a hollow body. So they installed a tiny little phonograph inside the body of the doll.

RAZ: Wow.

FABRIS: And the record went on this phonograph. And then the back of the doll, there was a crank. So you wound the crank, and that's what turned the record.

RAZ: So now, you knew about the existence of this doll and the cylinder inside. So what did you do?

FABRIS: Fortunately, just very recently in 2009, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory had developed a new way of playing records. They have a very high-powered three-dimensional scanner, which takes, like, topographical measurements of the recording surface. And then they make a digital 3D model of the record from the scan. And then using their software, they interpret the shape into an audio wav file.

RAZ: So you watch them make a scan of this thing. And then, were you there when they were able to first play it back?

FABRIS: Yeah. We didn't know the proper playback speed, so I believe the first time we heard it, it was pitched too low. So the voice sounded like a low voice, but the speech was obviously too slow. So then we pitched it up to be closer to a natural pattern of speech, and so then we could tell it was a woman's voice. And it took a few plays since it's so noisy to realize what she was saying.

(SOUNDBITE OF RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Twinkle, twinkle little star. How I wonder what you are.

RAZ: When you realized it was actually somebody reciting "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star," you must have been just, you know, blown away by it. I mean, this is 120-year-old recording.

FABRIS: Yeah. It's always exciting. It's one of the oldest recordings that survived that we can hear. So it's always exciting hearing anything that old.

RAZ: Do you know why the dolls were a flop?

FABRIS: He did put them on the market briefly in April of 1890, but they were just too fragile. They broke too easily.

RAZ: And then he just sort of gave up on the idea and went back to other kinds of recordings.

FABRIS: Yeah. Well, it's a really interesting time period because it's when the phonograph was brand new, the possibilities were just kind of wide open. So he was trying different things. It's also the same point in time when he gets interested in motion picture technology, hoping to match that up with recorded sound. So it was an attempt, one of many attempts formulating at that time.

RAZ: That's Gerry Fabris. He's a museum curator at the Thomas Edison National Park in West Orange, New Jersey. Gerry Fabris, thanks so much.

FABRIS: You're welcome.

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