Soundtrack to history: 1878 Edison audio unveiled

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SCHENECTADY, N.Y. (AP) — It’s scratchy and lasts only 78 seconds.

The modern masses can now listen to what experts say is the oldest playable recording of an American voice and the first-ever capturing of a musical performance, thanks to digital advances that allowed the sound to be transferred from tinfoil to computer.

The recording was originally made on a Thomas Edison-invented phonograph in St. Louis in 1878.

At a time when music lovers can carry thousands of digital songs on a tiny player, Edison’s tinfoil playback seems prehistoric. But that dinosaur opens a key window into the development of recorded sound.

“In the history of recorded sound that’s still playable, this is about as far back as we can go,” said John Schneiter, a trustee at the Museum of Innovation and Science, where it will be played tonight in the city where Edison helped found the General Electric Co.

The recording opens with a 23-second cornet solo of an unidentified song, followed by a man’s voice reciting “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and “Old Mother Hubbard.”

When the recording is played using modern technology during a presentation today at a nearby theater, it likely will be the first time it has been played at a public event since it was created during an Edison phonograph demonstration held June 22, 1878, in St. Louis.

The recording was made on a sheet of tinfoil, 5 inches wide by 15 inches long, placed on the cylinder of the phonograph Edison invented in 1877 and began selling the following year.

A hand crank turned the cylinder under a stylus that would move up and down over the foil, recording the sound waves created by the operator’s voice. The stylus would eventually tear the foil after just a few playbacks, and the person demonstrating the technology would typically tear up the tinfoil and hand the pieces out as souvenirs, according to museum curator Chris Hunter.

Popping noises heard on this recording are likely from scars left from where the foil was folded up for more than a century.

Only a handful of the tinfoil recording sheets are known to survive, and of those, only two are playable: the Schenectady museum’s and an 1880 recording owned by The Henry Ford museum in Michigan.

A Connecticut woman donated the tinfoil to the Schenectady museum in 1978 for an exhibit on the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Edison company that later merged with another to form GE.

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