It’s the stuff of a flea market find, or a hidden treasure in the attic. A pile of dusty film canisters in the basement of the Schenectady Museum & Suits-Bueche Planetarium has yielded some of the world’s oldest surviving radio broadcasts. The 20 shows were first heard on Schenectady radio station WGY between 1929 and 1931. One features a talk by GE founder Thomas Edison in a broadcast celebrating the 50th anniversary of the incandescent light bulb. Another is a portion of a high school basketball game that’s believed to be the second oldest surviving sports broadcast. They were recorded on a long forgotten machine that GE developed in 1922 called a pallophotophone — after the Greek words for “shaking light sound” — in one of the earliest attempts to record sound on film. But there was only one catch with the great find: There weren’t any known pallophotophones in existence to play back the lost pieces of history. Enter the museum’s curator, Chris Hunter, and GE’s engineers, who together cracked the pallophotophone code.
|Talk radio: GE founder Thomas Edison is seen here examining the quality of his motion picture film in 1912 in the library of his West Orange, NJ facility. Photo courtesy of Schenectady Museum.|
When Chris came across the film canisters, he wasn’t quite sure what he had discovered. “There were just a lot of scribbles on the cans saying these were radio programs from the twenties,” Chris said.
He had been recruiting former GE engineer John Schneiter for the museum’s board and told him about the discovery. John then turned to Russ DeMuth, a GE Global Research Engineer, who jumped on the challenge and set out to build his own version of the pallophotophone by studing sketches of the original one designed by GE employee Charles Hoxie more than 80 years ago.
Russ gathered parts for his creation from eBay and elsewhere, all the time trying to figure out if it would actually work. “We didn’t know how these things were created,” Russ said. “We didn’t know whether this thing was going to work at all. We didn’t expect to hear anything.”
|Déjà vu! : The recordings had stumped film preservation experts because they were made on 35mm sprocketless film, with each film containing a series of 8-10 parallel soundtracks. Russ’ machine, pictured above, uses modern motors and computer controls to recover the sound from the original film recordings.|
But work it did, with the 80-year old recordings coming to life. On one broadcast is what is believed to be the oldest surviving recording of the NBC chimes. On another, the voices of Edison, Herbert Hoover and Henry Ford can be heard in the “Edison Light’s Golden Jubilee” broadcast of October 21, 1929. A portion featuring Edison is available below. At the time, GE commercialized the technology as the RCA Photophone, which was one of four competing technologies that ushered in the end of the silent movie era. The taping of the Edison broadcast in 1929 was part of ongoing tests with the technology.
At present, the museum is considering a number of options for the collection, including inventing a machine to play them for optimum quality. And there is a possibility the collection may become an exhibition at the museum, which owns 37 percent of the radio recordings made in the world before 1931.
|Safe and sound: A piece of the pallophotophone film.|
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