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Sound Bites



Last time, I discussed Thomas Edison and Emile Berliner, the two main protagonists in early attempts to reproduce sound. Edison invented a machine that could both record and play back sound — his earliest recording of "Mary Had a Little Lamb" on a tinfoil-wrapped cylinder dates to 1877. Edison's phonograph had limited application, mostly as a novelty, and within a few years Berliner far outstripped the "Wizard of Menlo Park." His gramophone (whence "Grammys") set the stage for what became a booming recording industry. While researching this story, I happened upon several "sound bites" that are too good not to share.

Earliest Sound Recording: Curiously, Edison's machine wasn't the first to record sound, just the first to play it back. Twenty years earlier, French printer Edouard-Léon Scott de Martinville used a horn with a vibrating diaphragm attached to a thin brush to make the sound of a human voice visible. His wavy images were recorded on soot-coated paper that he wrapped around a hand-cranked cylinder. He thought that the waves might be readable by humans — think of the scene in The Matrix where Cypher is reading the green digital rain — not that they could be played back aloud. Incredibly, researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley were recently able to convert the squiggles into audio, playing back a snippet of someone singing the song "Au Clair de la Lune," recorded April 9, 1860. (Listen here.)

Talking Books: Think talking books are a modern idea? French writer and playwright Cyrano de Bergerac toyed with the notion in a satirical tale published posthumously in 1657. Cyrano rockets to the moon, where one of the four-legged locals shows him a talking book "that had no pages or printed letters. It was a book to be read not with eyes but with ears."

78s: Virtually all disc records made between 1898 and 1960 played at a speed of 78.26 revolutions per minute, called "78s" by collectors. That seemingly odd speed, standardized in 1925, derives from the 3,600 rpm motors then used in electric record players with a 46-tooth gear wheel (3600/46 = 78.26).

Shellac: Until the introduction of PVC (vinyl) high fidelity LPs by Columbia Records in 1948, most 78s were shellac, a resin secreted by female lac bugs on trees in India and Thailand. Records were typically made of one-third shellac and two-thirds pulverized limestone filler, with cotton fibers added for strength. Compared to later vinyl discs, shellac records were brittle, used comparatively wide grooves (hence short playing times) and were abrasive, needing frequent needle changes.

A Voice from Someone Born Three Centuries Ago: Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, born Oct. 26, 1800 (technically still the 18th century, since there's no year zero), made two recordings in 1889 on an Edison cylinder phonograph, including a couple of lines from Hamlet. Von Moltke, chief of staff of the Prussian army and later of the German army, was instrumental in unifying Germany. His is the only voice from the 18th century for which we have a recording.

Nipper: The title of Francis Barraud's painting of his dog Nipper, "His Master's Voice," became the logo of Emile Berliner's Gramophone Company, and subsequently of the Victor and HMV record labels and of RCA, the Radio Corporation of America. Barraud had been taken with the sight of Nipper (probably a Jack Russell) looking puzzled on hearing the artist's voice coming out of an Edison cylinder phonograph. When he tried to sell the painting to an Edison rep in London he was told, "Dogs don't listen to phonographs." So he repainted the scene, substituting a Berliner gramophone for Edison's machine, leading to one of the most reproduced logos in history.

Barry Evans (he/him, [email protected]) can attest to the fragility of shellac 78s.

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