The sound is scratchy, as though someone had added an “old-timey” effect to a modern recording, using the latest version of GarageBand. But this particular clip isn’t a simulacrum of the past – it’s one of the earliest sound recordings ever made. A female voice recites Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, and you can hear how long ago she said the words, an eerie moment from November 1888 that might have been lost forever, but instead was captured on a ring-shaped cylinder phonograph record made of solid metal, by Thomas Edison, for his ill-fated Talking Doll.
credit: National Park Service
The haunting voice, belonging to a woman who apparently didn’t even try to sound appealing to small children, hasn’t been heard for 123 years. But on May 11, scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, California, were able to recover the short recording, a wisp from the past, and yet another entry on the list of Thomas Edison’s many diverse achievements.
Unlike other surviving records for the Talking Doll, this early one was bent out of shape and so unable to be played. The Berkeley scientists, Senior Scientist Carl Haber and Computer Systems Engineer Earl Cornell, were able to use a 3D optical scanning technology they developed to create a digital model of the recording’s surface. They then used modern image analysis methods to recreate the audio from the record, saving it as a WAV-format digital audio file.
Since the women who recited nursery rhymes and songs for the Talking Doll were specifically hired for that reason, they can be considered the first recording artists in human history. Now one of their earliest contributions is safely preserved for posterity, though it won’t be lulling any children peacefully to sleep!