Through The Static, The Voice Of History

Jul 17, 2011

The voice on the little antique cylinder record is tinny, scratchy, barely audible through storms of static. But if you listen closely, you can just hear a young woman reciting a nursery rhyme: "Twinkle, twinkle, little star."

This is the oldest known commercial recording. Made by Thomas Edison late in 1888, it's a prototype for a line of talking dolls Edison hoped to bring to market. But no one had been able to play the little cylinder in decades.

Gerry Fabris, museum curator at the Thomas Edison National Historical Park, tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz that somewhere along the way, the cylinder was damaged too badly to play, even on the high-tech record player at his museum.

"If I were to put this squashed record on it, and I put the tone arm down, it would just bounce right off ... because it wasn't a smooth enough surface," Fabris says.

No one even knew what the cylinder might have been. It had a tag attached, but the tag was damaged as well. Luckily, Fabris says, scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, in Berkeley, Calif., figured out a way to play the little record.

"They have a very high powered three-dimensional scanner, which takes topographical measurements of the recording surface," Fabris says. Those measurements are then turned into a digital 3-D model that can be played like an actual record.

When Fabris and his colleagues finally heard the voice on the record, they realized what they had — a prototype of Edison's talking doll.

The dolls, by the way, were not a success. "They were just too fragile," Fabris says. "They broke too easily." Edison took them off the market after just a few weeks — but he had plenty of other ideas about how to use his new invention, from music recording to motion picture sound.

"It's a really interesting time period because the phonograph was brand new, the possibilities were just kind of wide open," Fabris says. "It was an attempt, one of many attempts formulating at that time."

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