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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