One of the world’s earliest recordings unveiled: Help us listen – Can it be the first recording of Thomas Edison?

 

A tinfoil recording from the early 1880s, made on an Edison phonograph, is being unveiled in Norway. The recording has been digitally restored by leading American experts. The anticipation is considerable. What is being said and who is talking? Could it be Thomas Edison himself?

The Norwegian Museum of Science and Technology and the National Library of Norway are searching for answers. Until now, the content of the recording has been unknown. Early tinfoil recordings are fragile, and could easily be damaged if they are played. However, methods developed at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California and modern technology at the Northeast Document Conservation Center (NEDCC) in Andover, MA, have made it possible to convert the recording into digital sound.

Protocol says: “Phonograph tinfoil recorded by Edison”

The engineer Einar Rasmussen gave the sheet of tinfoil to the Norwegian Museum of Science and Technology in 1940. According to the old museum protocol, it is a “Phonograph tinfoil recorded by Edison”. Could that really be the case? In the early 1880s, Rasmussen lived in New York and worked in the same building as Mr. Edison, so it is not unlikely.

Senior curator Dr. Frode Weium explains:

– We do not know exactly how Rasmussen got this sheet of tinfoil. He is supposed to have worked close to Mr. Edison, but he is not listed among Edison’s employees. However, there are several indications that they knew each other: In a letter Rasmussen wrote home to Norway in 1883, he says that “I see Edison quite often”, and a drawing from the same year which Rasmussen gave to the museum was made by Edison “at my drawing desk”. The tinfoil is presumably from about the same time.

A challenging puzzle

This autumn the staff from the museum brought the tinfoil to NEDCC, where they also met Dr. Carl Haber from the Berkeley Lab. Using optical scanning to create high-resolution 3D-images, sound was recovered without damaging the tinfoil. The work was more of a puzzle than anticipated. The tinfoil actually consisted of several detached pieces glued together on a sheet of paper. As it turned out, the pieces were not in the right order, and some of them were even up-side down. At the same time, the length of the recording was a pleasant surprise. There is more than 2 minutes of sound!

What, and who, do we hear?
Something that sounds like a male voice can be heard throughout the recording. At some point there also seems to be a piano. However, there is a lot of noise, and the recording is still a mystery.

– We still do not know whether it was actually recorded by Edison or not, but we have not given up on finding answers. Hopefully, further research can reveal what is being said and who is talking, Dr. Weium says.

Oslo tin foil, short version:

Oslo tin foil, full version:

Facts:

• Thomas Alva Edison invented the phonograph in 1877. The phonograph made it possible to record and reproduce sound for the first time in history. Edison used sheets of tinfoil, but these could only be played a few times. Ten years later tinfoil was replaced by wax cylinders as recording medium.
• Only a few tinfoil recordings from the 19th Century have survived, approximately 10 to 15 in total. Edison is not heard on any of these (other) recordings.
• Einar Rasmussen was a Norwegian engineer. In 1881 he moved to the United States, where he worked for several firms.
• Rasmussen gave his tinfoil recording to the Norwegian Museum of Science and Technology in 1940. The museum is cooperating with the National Library of Norway on this project.
• The tinfoil was digitally restored at the Northeast Document Conservation Center (NEDCC) in Andover, MA, using a method called IRENE (Image, Reconstruct, Erase Noise, Etc.). The method has been developed by Dr. Carl Haber and his colleagues at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, University of California.

For more information, contact:

Dr. Frode Weium
Senior Curator
The Norwegian Museum of Science and Technology
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Tel: +47 934 54 489

Camilla Marie Klevstrand
Communications Advisor
The Norwegian Museum of Science and Technology
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Mob: 975 08 738

Nina Bræin
Head of Press
The National Library of Norway
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Mob: 951 50 912

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