1889

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1889 is by no stretch of the imagination a golden year for recorded music. A blip on the otherwise upwards trajectory in terms of both sound quality and things being recorded, it is, frankly, the worst possible starting point for anyone dipping in. With little in the way of technical improvements, it’s notable only for the presence of a handful of famous names (probably more than for any year until the 1910s) and the inclusion of a Berliner disc recording.

Tracks

1. Effie Stewart & Theo Wangemann – The Pattison Waltz
2. Benjamin Harrison – Speech Excerpt
3. Issler’s Orchestra – The Fifth Regiment March
4. Otto von Bismarck – Spoken Words, October 7, 1889
5. Ludwig Karl Koch – Birdsong of Indian Sharma
6. Johannes Brahms – Hungarian Dance No. 1 (Excerpt)
7. Robert Browning –  Passage from How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix
8. Peter Schram – Leporello Aria Excerpts
9. Emile Berliner – Zahen, a, b, c

After a fluffed introduction, the mix begins with Effie Stewart, a soprano soloist at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, accompanied by Edison technician Theo Wangemann on the piano. This is followed by the first recording of a US president, the often forgotten Benjamin Harrison. Then a return from Edison house band Issler’s Orchestra, this time playing something with a name, and a speech from another world leader, Otto von Bismarck, who would remain as the German chancellor (a role and a country that he created) until the following year. Another German is responsible for the following clip, the first recording of birdsong, recorded by 8-year-old Ludwig Karl Koch, already a pioneer in nature recording. Then a few words from Johannes Brahms and a frankly unbearable (but mercifully short) excerpt of his piano playing. Then another world-renowned artist, the apparently drunk 77-year-old Robert Browning, who is unable to remember the words to one of his most famous poems. He died later in the year, and the playing of this cylinder represented the first speech from beyond the grave. Then we have 70-year-old basso cantante Peter Shram running through some of his greatest hits, and finally a reconstruction of Emile Berliner reading the alphabet.

None of this is hugely exciting, and not much of it is listenable, but at this stage there’s little choice.

1887-1888

1887-1888

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The gramophone and phonograph had been experimental toys for a decade, their inventors deciding to tinker with them from time to time in between other, more immediately lucrative projects. In 1887, aside from Edison’s occasional developments, Alexander Graham Bell’s Volta Labs had developed significant improvements in both cylinder and disc recording, and Emile Berliner filed his first patent for what he called a “gramophone” – though the invention he launched a few years later would bear little relation to the patent. Most importantly, on March 28th, a group of businessmen from Philadelphia created the American Graphophone Company, in order to produce and sell phonograph machines – this eventually evolved into Columbia Records.

It would be nice at this stage to cite these developments as the birth of the recording industry, but that’s still a couple of steps away. These inventions, whether using cylinders or discs, were merely private prototypes of dictation machines, intended for listening on a stethoscope-like device – interesting in a vague way, but needing a showman to get people excited. This came in the form of civil war veteran (and medal of honor recipient) Colonel George Gouraud, who was employed as Edison’s agent in Europe.

On 14 August 1888, Gouraud called a press conference to introduce the phonograph to London, including playing a piano and cornet recording of Arthur Sullivan’s “The Lost Chord“. Sullivan (of ‘Gilbert & Sullivan’ fame) was one of the luminaries invited to Gouraud’s residence in South London for dinner parties where the phonograph was introduced to the great and good of English society as a parlour trick par excellence. The guests would listen to phonograph recordings, then record their greetings to Edison, to be shipped back to the USA. And that dinner, for the most part, is our audio record of 1888.

Our mix, then, begins with a recording of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, made by the Edison company for a frankly terrifying talking doll in 1887. Then we move on to arguably the oldest extant musical recording, the duo performing “The Lost Chord”, and Gouraud introducing the after dinner speakers. After an interlude from a white wax cylinder marked as “Piano Solo by Miss Eyre” we have the guests taking their turns to speak; Postmaster General Cecil Raikes, Edmund Yates, Sir Arthur Sullivan and A.M. Broadley – followed by a somewhat inebriated final toast from Colonel Gouraud.

After the party we have a few other surviving recordings from 1888 – first an unnamed performance from Issler’s Parlor Orchestra, a quartet led by Edward Issler who acted as Edison’s in-house band for their first few years of operation. Then we have a brief section of whistling from a Mrs Shaw, and a first sample of Edison himself speaking. Here he is testing out his device by describing a trip he would like to take around the world, obviously ad-libbed as it would make little or no sense to anyone with a map of Europe to hand.

Next we have a fantastic piece of history, if not a great example of sound recording; Gouraud took his phonograph along to record a performance of a choir or thousands singing Handel’s ‘Israel in Egypt‘. Three of these cylinders survive, but this is the only part where the voices manage to come through the wall of white noise.The real thing must have been stunning, but hearing it now takes a bit of imagination.

Finally we have Gouraud’s recording of British Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone – a scratchy mess which unfortunately yields little in the way of comprehensible content. A recording of Queen Victoria, made around the same time, is apparently in existence, but is little more than a noise, and whether it is or is not actually Victoria speaking is still debated. This is not in the mix, but can be heard here.

Track list

1. Unknown – Twinkle Twinkle Little Star
2. Unknown Performer & Miss Eyre – The Lost Chord
3. Colonel Gouraud – Introduction & Toast
4. Miss Eyre – Piano Solo
5. Colonel Gouraud – Introducing Messages To Edison
6. Postmaster General Cecil Raikes – Message To Edison
7. Edmund Yates – Message To Edison
8. Sir Arthur Sullivan – Message To Edison
9. A.M. Broadley – Message To Edison
10. Colonel Gouraud – Toast
11. Issler’s Parlor Orchestra – [Title Unknown]
12. Mrs Shaw – Whistling by Mrs Shaw
13. Thomas Edison – Around the World On The Phonograph
14. 4000 Voice Choir Conducted by August Manns – “Moses and the Children of Israel”  from Handel’s “Israel In Egypt”
15. Willam Ewart Gladstone – The Phonograph Salutation

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1878-1885

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Nearly two decades have passed, and Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville’s experiments with recording sound have so far not resulted in anything replayable. On the other side of the Atlantic, however, development are taking place which will eventually turn these ideas into commercial recordings. On on November 21st, 1877, Thomas Edison announced that he had invented a device which would be able to play back recorded telegraph messages. The next few years saw frantic experimentation with various media – single-use tinfoil sheets wrapped around cylinders (nearly all of which have unfortunately not survived) and discs of different materials, some of which have proved to be readable (if not particularly listenable) by the people at firstsounds.org.

The first sound you will be able to hear is the vibrations from the Metropolitan Elevated Railroad in Manhatten, the result of an experiment by Charles Batchelor to adapt a phonograph to trace waves on lamp-blacked paper so they could be examined visually. If you can make anything out of this aside from a spooky wind then you’ve done better than I have. Next we have the only substantial bit of tinfoil to be recovered, a brief musical performance of some sort, a recitation of “Mary Had A Little Lamb” (probably not by Edison), some laughter and indistinct speech sounds. Then there’s an oddity, an ambitious attempt to create a talking clock by French-American inventor Frank Lambert, the oldest sound recording replayable on its own device. You should be able to make out “twelve o’ clock, five o’clock” and a few other hours.

After these early experiments Edison moved his energies to developing the electric light, and the project was put on the backburner. The second half of this mix has some of the experimental Volta labs disc recordings of the early 1880s, all recorded by Charles Summer Tainter and Chichester Bell, two engineers employed by Alexander Graham Bell. The first of these is little more than a noise, the second a recitation of Hamlet’s soliloquy, the third a man repeatedly saying ‘barometer’. The glass plate recording after is slightly more interesting as it contains the following monologue;

It’s the eleventh day of March, eighteen hundred and eighty five.  [Trilled R] How is this for high!  Mary had a little lamb, and its fleece was […] as […], and everywhere that Mary went — oh, fuck.

The machine breaks, and the first recorded obscenity of history is etched into a glass disc. The final two Volta Labs recordings apparently contain dull descriptions of business, the target market for this invention being rich businessmen who wanted to save time in dictating notes.

I won’t spend a moment pretending that this mix is even halfway listenable, but it’s only four minutes long (too short for mixcloud) and it sets us up nicely for next time, when we’ll start to shift focus to things being recorded and not just artifacts of the process.

Links:

Most of the sounds here were recovered by the brilliant people here at firstsounds.org
A video of Edison operating his original tinfoil cylinder machine
In-depth research into Frank Lambert’s talking clock
An article on the birth of sound recording

Tracklist

1. Charles Batchelor – Metropolitan Elevated Railroad from 40 feet away
2. Thomas Edison – Schenectady Museum – 22 June 1878 in St Louis, Missouri
3. Frank Lambert – Recording for an experimental talking clock
4. Charls Sumner Tainter – Lateral Electroplated Disc
5. Unknown artist – Green wax disc – Hamlet’s Soliloquy
6. Volta lab – November 17 1884 “Barometer”
7. Tainter / Rogers – Photographic glass plate recording
8. Chichester Bell – Disc on Japan wax, April 1885
9. Chichester Bell – Wax disc, summer 1885

1859-1860

The story you may have heard about the birth of sound recording goes something like this; Thomas Edison, alone in the lab after a hard day’s work, manages to record a recital of “Mary Had A Little Lamb” onto a wax cylinder. You may have even think you have heard the recording, but you haven’t. The recording in circulation comes from a 1927 recreation for the Golden Jubilee of the Phonograph ceremony, the original being lost on a sheet of re-usable tinfoil fifty years earlier.

But it really doesn’t matter. The real start date for us is seventeen years earlier than that, on the 6th of April 1860, when French printer and bookseller Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville decided to add a tuning fork to his experiments with recording the acoustic properties of the human voice. This is what he used – his own invention, the phonoautograph

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The phonoautograph was essentially an artificial ear. The barrel worked as an ear canal, a parchment membrane stretched over the end was the eardrum, then a pig bristle or piece of feather functioned as the ossicles, drawing a line of lampblack on a roll of parchment. The result looked like this:
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It wasn’t intended to be played back, and it wasn’t – not for another 149 years at least. The story of how the sounds were extracted from these scraps of paper is best told by the people at firstsounds.org who made all of this possible. In 2012 PRI radio show Studio 360 ran a feature on the recovery of the audio, the extended version of which is the best possible sub-10-minute primer on the subject.

…and finally, of course, the actual mix! Consider yourself warned that this is very far indeed from easy listening. Instead of scratches we essentially have slightly tuned white noise, through which you can hear something; not enough to really make out much, but unmistakably a human voice.

mp3 download link

…and both MP3s in a single package on Mixcloud, who apparently don’t agree with 2-minute mixes

Tracklist

1. Diapason at 435 Hz–at sequential stages of restoration (1859 Phonautogram)
2. Au Clair de la Lune – By the Light of the Moon (April 9, 1860)
3. Excerpt from Ducis’s Othello (April 17, 1860)
4. Au Clair de la Lune – By the Light of the Moon (April 20, 1860)
5. Opening lines from Tasso’s Aminta (undated, probably April-May 1860)
6. Gamme de la Voix – Vocal Scale (May 17, 1860)
7. Jeune Jouvencelle (August 17, 1857)
8. Vole, Petite Abeille – Fly, Little Bee (September 15, 1860)
9. Vole, Petite Abeille – Fly, Little Bee (undated, probably September 1860)