Listening to Records That No Longer Exist

Historical Treasures, Oddities, And Delights
April 4 2013 1:55 PM

Listening to Records That No Longer Exist

The Vault is Slate's new history blog. Like us on Facebook; follow us on Twitter @slatevault; find us on Tumblr. Find out more about what this space is all about here.

If the original disc holding a gramophone recording has been lost, you might infer that the sound the recording once made is lost as well. But Patrick Feaster, an ethnomusicologist at Indiana University, has created an audible sound file using only an image of a record. 

This recording captured the voice of German-American inventor Emile Berliner reciting Friedrich Schiller’s 1797 ballad “Der Handschuh” (“The Glove”). Since it dates to 1890, the audio file that Feaster created from an image of the “Der Handschuh” record may be the oldest listenable gramophone record.

Researchers, including Feaster, have listened to older recordings than this one, but those were made in vanished formats, like the phonautogram. Gramophone records were the ancestors of the familiar vinyl grooved discs we think of when we think of “records.”

The image of this record ran in a German magazine, Über Land und Meer, in February 1890. The magazine printed the illustration for the benefit of curious readers who were wondering what gramophone records, not yet on sale to the public, would look like.

To “hear” the vanished record, Feaster scanned the page into a computer, unwound the lines from their spiral, cleaned up any breaks, and ran the resulting image through software that converted the lines into audio files. (Feaster details the process in more technical terms, with accompanying screenshots, in this blog post.)

Since the Library of Congress holds many images of early motion picture and sound recordings, submitted in order to claim copyright, the process that brought us Berliner’s scratchy voice could theoretically be applied to resurrect other types of recordings that have survived only in paper form.