1890 image may be world’s oldest recording

INDIANA U. (US) — Modern technology may have resurrected the oldest recording in the world from an image.

Preserved as an image in a German magazine from 1890, the recording is the slightly muffled voice of the father of the gramophone, Emile Berliner, as he recites Friedrich Schiller’s ballad “Der Handschuh.”

Patrick Feaster, sound media historian at Indiana University stumbled on the image of Berliner’s recording earlier this year, when he was searching for another article in the more than century old copy of Über Land und Meer in the fourth-floor stacks at Indiana University 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,'” Feaster says. “So I flipped through and, lo and behold, there’s a paper print of the actual recording.”

Print to sound

Feaster had created sound from such images before, a seemingly impossible task accomplished by scanning the record-shaped image, unwinding—or “de-spiraling”—it and linking the resulting sections to create a linear file that looks much like a modern-day audio clip, then running it through specialized software to create a sound file.

Using that method, Feaster had already played back three paper prints of gramophone recordings before his February 2012 find in the Wells stacks. In fact, it was his scholarly knowledge of one of them that helped him and colleague Stephan Puille of the University of Applied Sciences in Berlin recreate a likely history for this latest paper print.

One of the three prints Feaster had previously brought back to life was a German-language test recording Berliner had made in Hanover in 1889. Preserved by the Library of Congress, that print included Berliner demonstrating his recording process for a visitor named Louis Rosenthal, who was conducting photographic duplication experiments at the time.

“In that recording, Berliner tells us he’s making a record for Rosenthal to experiment with,” Feaster says. “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.”

In the magazine Feaster discovered, the accompanying text and the technical features of the print itself led him to believe his latest find was another recording Berliner had given Rosenthal at the same time.

“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,” Feaster says. “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.”

Even if their timeline is off, Feaster’s find nonetheless represents an extremely early gramophone recording and the oldest known recording of a complete literary work in the German language.

Perhaps, one might consider, the magazine was fated to wind up in Feaster’s hands.

“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,” Feaster says. “But we’ve done here what nobody else has done: played it back.”

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chat6 Comments


  1. Steve

    I’m embarrassed to display my ignorance here, but how was the magazine image created? In 1890 the only way to get illustrations or photographs printed was engraving, wasn’t it? Half-toning didn’t arise until much later and it would have made the image unusable for this purpose anyway. Can anyone enlighten me?

  2. Steve Chaplin

    Half-tone printing began in 1880 and the image in the magazine was actually reduced from the original to fit, apparently by 25 percent. I’ll try briefly to explain Dr. Feaster’s process here, and he and IU’s Media Preservation Initiative have a wonderful blog here:

    Here’s the process:

    1. Takes a high-resolution scan of the print, converts it from a spiral into a set of parallel lines through a polar-to-rectangular-coordinates transform.
    2. He “cuts” the individual lines and “pastes” them end-to-end to create several long, narrow strips.

    3. After repairing any breaks in the line, he uses a “paintbucket” tool to create two separate bands of varying width—one with the area below the line filled in white, the other with the area above the line filled in white.

    4. The images are run through ImageToSound, a program that converts them into WAV files as though they were variable-area optical film sound tracks.

    5. He combines the paired WAV into stereo files, stitching the successive pieces together.

  3. Steve

    Thanks for your thoughtful and detailed comment, Steve. I did not realize that half-toning had started so early nor that it wouldn’t compromise the image beyond retrieval for this purpose.

  4. Joe

    I think this may have been beaten by 30 years (9 April 1860).

    “The 10-second recording of a singer crooning the folk song “Au Clair de la Lune” was discovered earlier this month in an archive in Paris by a group of American audio historians. It was made, the researchers say, on April 9, 1860, on a phonautograph, a machine designed to record sounds visually, not to play them back. But the phonautograph recording, or phonautogram, was made playable — converted from squiggles on paper to sound — by scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif.”

  5. Jim

    Great find, Joe. In the NYT article, Patrick Feaster is credited as part of the team that searched for and reconstructed the “Au Clair de la Lune” sound visualization recording.

  6. Mark Rejhon

    There’s also attempts by Patrick on older phonautograph recordings, around year 1857 and even earlier ones (from 1853) were made to ‘sqawk’ (unintelligibly), but the 1860 one is supposedly the oldest intelligible recording of a human voice. It is amazing that recordings never meant to be played back, are being successfully played back.

    For this article, 1890 for the oldest /gramophone/ recording is likely correct, just need to be clear regarding kind of recording. Oldest recorded sound? Oldest intelligible recording of human voice? Oldest wax cylinder? Oldest gramophone recording?

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